lorin-perry_web.jpgCOLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Over the past several years, Lorin Peri Palmer has looked at the beautiful blue funeral chapel built by her uncle and imagined it as a place not only to pay last respects to the dead, but to educate and empower the living.

Now, three years after the death of longtime funeral director and humanitarian E. Perry Palmer Jr., his niece and godchild is working out the particulars of a vision that she hopes will make Palmer Memorial Chapel off Fontaine Road a stop for health care advocates, artists and educators.

“I don’t want to replicate what already exists,” she said. “My uncle’s vision was to create a place of excellence for the black community. I’m ready to take that to a new level.”

Earlier this month, officials with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce joined Palmer, family members and employees for the ribbon-cutting ceremony that recognized Palmer as the new owner/director of the funeral home founded by her uncle. With the new ownership, she carries the distinction of being one of a handful of female funeral directors in the state and the only woman to head a funeral home in Columbia.

Palmer is launching the first of a series of monthly community forums, this one designed to help people understand the Affordable Care Act, which launched Oct. 1. Dr. Stuart Hamilton, founder and director of the Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers Inc., will be on a panel that will include Adrian Grimes, director of communications for Consumers’ Choice Health Plan, the cooperative that will serve South Carolina, and Rozalynn Goodwin, director of policy research and a lobbyist with the S.C. Hospital Association. Lathran Woodard, head of the S.C. Primary Health Care Association, will moderate.

Palmer, 56, plans to host monthly symposiums on topics that include health care, education, economic empowerment and the arts. She expects the chapel to be home to poetry readings and artistic gatherings when it is not being used for funeral services.

Mike Squires, director of the S.C. Funeral Directors Association, said Palmer brings a creative passion and professionalism to the funeral business akin to that of her late uncle, who was well known throughout the state.

“Her reputation is really, really good and I think folks in Columbia are fortunate to have her to follow in Mr. Perry’s footsteps,” said Squires, who has worked with Palmer on a number of association initiatives. “She just had the passion for people and that is what our profession is all about.”

Palmer has deep roots in the South Carolina funeral establishment as well as the civil rights movement. Her grandfather, Edmund Perry Palmer, was the first black funeral director and embalmer in Sumter County. Her father, Robert John Palmer, known as R.J., operated the Palmer Memorial Chapel in Sumter until his death in 1995. Her mother, Theodis “Theo” Palmer-McMahon, continues as president of the Sumter funeral home today.

Her parents, her Uncle Perry, and his wife, the late Grace Brooks Palmer, were active in the civil rights movement, providing bail money and finances to keep court cases alive in the final days of segregation. Lorin Palmer remembers her family opening up their homes to civil rights activists working in the state.

At age 9, Lorin Palmer integrated Sumter public schools, an experience that was painful in its own right, she recalled. She went on to graduate from the all-black Mather Academy in Camden and Duke University.

Palmer said her experiences and the family’s historic role in South Carolina – both of her great-grandfathers served in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Legislature – have prepared her for this new venture, along with a lot of meditation and prayer.

“I know these early things happened for a purpose,” said Palmer, who worked as a community organizer after graduation from Duke. She said she has benefited from a daily telephone prayer line with friends and colleagues who study the Bible and pray for themselves and others.

A few years after college, Lorin Palmer said she decided to learn the family business and graduated from the Gupton Jones College of Funeral Service in Decatur, Ga. Shortly after passing her national boards, Grace Palmer, Perry Palmer’s wife, was struck and killed by a passing vehicle as she crossed a Columbia street.

Grace Palmer’s death in 1984 came just a year after the Palmers had built Palmer Memorial Chapel. Lorin Palmer had planned to work in Atlanta but, instead, came to Columbia to assist her uncle in the funeral business and to learn from him. She moved back and forth between the two family funeral businesses in Sumter and Columbia and always worked toward keeping them family-owned.

“When Perry became ill, I told him I would always have his back,” she said. Perry Palmer died Feb. 3, 2010, and his will gave her first option to buy the Columbia funeral home.

Her only sibling, Vicki Laurence Palmer, has joined her in the business. She retired from teaching in Atlanta and now serves as director of marketing and communications.

“We have come together as a family and we have overcome so many obstacles,” Lorin Palmer said. Palmer said she sees the chapel, named for her late aunt, as a place for the living and the dead.

“We know we are all going to die, but what is the quality of life until then when so many things are preventable?” she said. She said she hopes the chapel will provide some answers to those questions as well as remain a place for full funeral service and care for those in grief.