Funeral home matron has given away thousands of dinners

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At 100, she passed the duty of serving the community to a grandson.

Mildred Graves
Mildred Graves, (front, second from left) is shown in the Graves Funeral Home’s Christmas photo for 2019.

BY SCOTT DAUGHERTY
THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT/TNS

NORFOLK, Va. – Mildred Graves likes helping people. And as the 100-year-old matron of a family-owned funeral home, she’s used to doing it. 

For the past 11 Christmases, Graves and her family have worked with area churches to hand out thousands of turkey dinners to needy families. 

She took pride in personally calling each church, determining how many turkeys they needed and watching as her children and grandchildren packed bags full of stuffing, yams and green beans. 

“We’ve been blessed by the best,” she recently quipped from the chapel of Graves Funeral Home in Norfolk. 

Grandson steps in 

But Graves isn’t getting around quite as well as she once did. So when it came time to make the calls this December, she passed the reins to one of her adult grandsons, Jason. 

It was time for the 33-year-old to take over, she said, even if she didn’t really want to step aside. 

“I think there were one or two people who thought they were going to hear from Mrs. Graves,” she said, before correcting herself. “Well, there are actually a few Mrs. Graves now. I think there were a few who thought they’d hear from Mrs. Mildred O. Graves.”

 On Dec. 23, Graves smiled as she watched her grandson hand out 350 bags of food to representatives of 27 churches in Norfolk and Chesapeake. 

“This is one time people aren’t scared to come to a funeral home,” Michael Washington, a longtime funeral home employee, said with a laugh as he helped load cars and vans with turkeys. 

Mildred’s husband, the late Thomas E. Graves Jr., started Graves Funeral Home in 1953 to serve the area’s African American community. In 2008, the family started handing out turkeys. 

Started by husband 

According to Mildred Graves, her husband had a habit back then of buying gifts for some members of the community. Their daughter, Lorraine, thought they should try for something bigger and more organized.

The annual Christmas dinner giveaway was born. 

“I saw what he was doing and sort of took over,” said Lorraine Graves, 62, a former ballerina in New York who oversaw the stuffing of the bags until this year. 

They handed out about 50 turkeys the first year, “and it sort of grew and grew from there,” she said. 

Continued tradition 

Following the death of the funeral home’s founder almost three years ago at the age of 92, Mildred and the rest of the family decided to continue the tradition. 

Things are still difficult in the community, Mildred Graves said, and “there are still many people out there who are in need.” 

From her pew in the chapel, Graves said she missed making the calls to the churches this year, but knew it was for the best. She liked watching her grandson hand out the turkeys, and knows her husband would have enjoyed it too. 

“He would have been very proud,” she said.

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