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Williams lives life as funeral home man

When Willie Williams was a youngster, some people considered him a bit strange.

“Some of them thought I was really weird,” Williams said with his broad, trademark smile. “And I guess I was. Most children played with toys but I was fascinated with dead animals. Whenever I found anything dead, it didn’t matter if it was a bird, bug or a squirrel, I would have a funeral and bury it. I’d make a cross out of sticks and make a headstone out of rocks. That’s what I loved to do. Bury things.”

There was no doubt in young Willie’s mind as to what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“Every time the teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we got big I said I wanted to be a funeral home man,” Williams said. “I didn’t know the right words – mortician or funeral director. I just knew I wanted to be a funeral home man.”

For a while, it seemed as though the Charles Henderson High School graduate would not be what his heart desired.

“I searched for schools with programs for funeral directors and found three,” Williams said. “The one I decided would be best for me was Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham. But before you could be accepted you had to be employed at a funeral home.”

Williams made the rounds at local and area funeral homes but his phone didn’t ring. So he enrolled at Troy University in 2004 and began his general studies.

“I’d just about given up hope,” he said. “In fact, I had talked to a friend and told him I was just giving up. A little later, I was walking across campus and my phone rang and a voice said, ‘Do you have a black suit?’ I hesitated because I thought it was a prank. But it wasn’t. It was Rev. Ernest Green, who is a director at Harrison Funeral Home. I didn’t know then but Scherryl Harrison, the owner, was standing there with him. He said if I had a black suit and I wanted to work at Harrison’s to come on over. That was just about the happiest day of my life.”

Williams enrolled at Jefferson State Community College and studied and absorbed everything about the funeral home business that he could.

“It was a two-year program and you had to take some really tough classes like anatomy, chemistry, reconstruction and directing and business,” Williams said. “It was hard, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”

To earn certification in funeral service and mortuary science the students had to work 40 cases in the two-year period.

“I thought it wouldn’t take long to get those cases in Birmingham, but I was wrong,” Williams said. “The next of kin had to give their permission for a student to work on their loved one and a lot of them wouldn’t do that. But I went to the lab three days a week, and I was the first one to get the required cases and my certification.”

Certification didn’t come easy and without the unleashing of deep emotions.

“I had my moments, especially when the case was a teenager or a young child,” Williams said. “That’s when reality sets it. The hardest case is when parents lose a child. That’s just so hard.”

Williams said being a funeral director means being involved in a family’s darkest hours and in times cloaked in deep sadness.

“I think you have to have a special calling to be a funeral director,” he said. “I think I might have been chosen from birth. My prayer life helps me through and, at home, I have a lot of plants and water. Green symbolizes life and running water is so peaceful. I have one of those table top fountains, and sometimes I just sit and meditate and listen to the water.”

Williams said he couldn’t fully explain his passion for his life’s work. He just knows that he wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.

“This is my life,” he said, with a smile. “It’s my dream. I’m so appreciative to Mrs. Harrison for taking me in and believing in me. She has done so much for me. She is such a blessing because she has given me the chance to be what I’ve always wanted to be – a funeral home man.”