Living with the dead

Some people embrace death, and others run from it until it catches up with them. For some the idea is frightening — but others make a living off it.      

Wayne Bright, manager of Wilson Funeral Home in Tampa, had mortuary aspirations from the age of 12. However, his exposure to the business started at age 7, when his father and older brother purchased a funeral home.

Morticians don’t lead a punch-the-clock existence, Bright said.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 position,” he said. “Death is unpredictable, and you are always on call and you have to be prepared to respond.”

The initiative to start Wilson Funeral Home came from brothers Clarence and Ray Wilson — both licensed morticians. The idea came to Ray, who broached the idea to Clarence while he was serving in the Korean conflict. They both approached Clarence’s wife, Curtiss Wilson, who was not enthusiastic about the idea at first.

“My first response was, ‘Are they kidding?'” she said.

But through a little coaxing, personal savings and an agreement from Ray’s wife, the Wilsons opened their doors in 1952 and began serving Tampa’s segregated black community.

As the years passed, the funeral home became almost entirely a family affair. Both wives quit their jobs as teachers in the early ’70s to help with clerical work, and Clarence and Curtiss Wilson’s son, Clarence Wilson Jr., eventually became a licensed funeral director.

In 1998, because of the elder Clarence’s declining health, the family decided to sell the business to Liberty Family Services Inc. However, Curtiss Wilson and Clarence Wilson Jr. remain involved in the day-to-day aspects of the business.

Clarence Wilson Jr. was born into the industry — he said he began working with his father at age 8 — but it is the science of embalming bodies that keeps him in the family business.

When Bright and Clarence Wilson Jr. are not working with actual cadavers, they are dealing with families affected by death.

Curtiss Wilson, Clarence Wilson Jr. and Bright described the industry as extremely people-oriented.

“You are dealing with people who are going through an array of emotions. You have to conduct business without losing your cool,” Clarence Wilson Jr. said.

Bright said dealing with people who have lost loved ones is one of the most difficult aspects of the job.

“Every service is different, every family is different, and it’s always a challenge,” he said.

Morticians also have to be able to work quickly. Bright said they typically have three to five days to contact newspapers, cemeteries, churches, printers, florists, limo services, musicians and ministers.

Bright named the “challenges of nature” as the most difficult part of the job. He said that though they try to bring the deceased as close as possible to how he or she looked in life, restoration may or may not work, depending on the circumstances of the death.

Curtiss Wilson said a common misconception about morticians is that they don’t grieve.