Alex Lee has known that he wanted to be a funeral home director since he was 13 years old.
His preferred profession was a topic of humor throughout his years at Garner High School and for the 49 years since he started to work. He even sees the humor in the surprise party planned for him to celebrate his 50 years in the business.
Friends came from other states for the occasion. “But it has only been 49 years,” he said with a chuckle.
Lee has run Bryan-Lee Funeral home since Jan. 29, 1977. People in the community reached out to Lee, who was working at Mitchell Funeral Home in Raleigh, and Garner native Steve Bryan, who was working at Brown-Wynn Funeral Home in Raleigh, to open a funeral home in Garner. The community hadn’t had a funeral home since the 1930s.
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“They felt there was a need for a funeral home here,” Lee said.
The business helped its first family in less than 24 hours after being licensed. The funeral home’s telephone hadn’t been installed, but the daughter of the deceased called Lee’s mother at her house. Lee was hanging curtains when his mother arrived and asked if could Bryan-Lee could handle the funeral.
“What I remember is that we had to get some more friends in to help with the cleaning,” said Bryan, who now operates homes in Columbia, Plymouth and Swan Quarter. “Everybody had to pitch in.”
Back in those days, Lee, now 66, thought he had to do all of the work. He dug the graves. He erected tents. He drove the hearse. He counseled with families and prepared bodies. He sees himself more as an overseer now, although working with the families still is a priority.
“It is a stressful time for families,” he said. “We want to be a calming effect.”
That comforting role is what attracted Lee to the funeral business.
His grandfather ran a horse and mule dealership in Angier when Lee was growing up. Earl Johnson’s Overby Funeral Home was nearby and the gentle owner was one of the best-liked people in town.
“Earl Johnson was always so kind to me,” Lee said. “He’d always speak to me and be kind. Everybody liked him. I never heard a bad word said about Earl Johnson. I decided that I wanted to be just like him.”
The reaction was predictable. A speaker at a funeral home director convention once described telling his parents about his decision. The speaker said his parents essentially said, “Our dreams have come true. We have prayed for this day. Our son is going to run a funeral parlor. Praise the Lord.”
And Lee’s decision made for unusual conversations at the high school. He started working nights at Johnson’s funeral home while in high school. He pulled the 5 p.m., to 10 p.m., shift and worked on the weekends.
The jokes started then. Lee has heard them for 50, no 49, years.
He has heard all of the standards. “The business is going in the hole. He’s a grave man. He’s the last man to let you down. He is in charge of a great undertaking. None of his customers has ever complained. People are dying to come see him. His is one business where a sale price isn’t attractive. He treats all men the same … as a potential customer.”
He smiles easily at the jabs, his true smiles are reserved for the satisfaction that comes from helping people.
Bryan said it takes a special person to want to be run a funeral home.
“You have to get a sense of satisfaction from being with and helping people at that time of crisis,” Bryan said. “Alex is that way. There is something very special about being there for people. It is all about service. I think that’s why Alex is still doing this.”
Lee recalls the many times that people have come to the home and requested a closed casket funeral because an illness has been so devastating or an injury so disfiguring. The family didn’t want to see their loved one for the last time looking so different.
“I tell them to not make that decision yet,” Lee said. “It is amazing some of the things that can be done today to change their appearance. We really want a loved one’s final viewing to be a comfort.”
The funeral business has changed. The first 10 years Bryan-Lee was open, the firm had 11 cremations. The cremations were done at Duke University, which had the only area crematory.
About 25 percent of funerals now involved cremating the ruins. Bryan-Lee has its own crematory.
Lee smiles about the supposed 50th anniversary party, too. He enjoyed it and the get-together was a sort of milestone in itself as it started the year that will culminate in another golden anniversary.
Tim Stevens: 919-812-5711, firstname.lastname@example.org