Looking back upon it now, Jack Strayhorn feels it was practically destiny that he should enter into the funeral industry.
He dates it as far back as 37 years ago when he was 7-years-old, when his father passed away. Growing up in Mount Airy, he found a father figure and mentor, Otis Johnson, who was a neighbor.
Johnson worked at one of the funeral homes and Strayhorn often accompanied him.
“He (Otis) was quite a colorful individual,” Strayhorn said. “He could walk right up to you and size you in a suit.”
While Strayhorn never did anything but watch Johnson at work, it did have a profound influence on him, although it would be many years before he realized its impact.
The same could be said when, as a high school student, Strayhorn took a career aptitude test.
“It indicated I should go into the funeral business,” he said.
But as a teen, going to work in the funeral industry was the last thing he wanted to do with his life. After high school, he studied architecture at Forsyth Technical College, then worked in that field in Mount Airy.
From there, he switched gears and moved to Burlington, where he went to work as a manager for the Emmons Guitar Company, After the family-owned company was sold, he moved on to operate an AMF bowling center in Winston-Salem, where he remained 8 years.
However, a few years ago, something began to “nag” at him, when he began looking for a career path that would make a difference in people’s lives. Two incidents in rapid succession, he said, revealed to him what that path should be.
“In less than a week’s time, a friend of mine lost his mother-in-law and then his sister,” said Strayhorn. “A few days later, another friend’s father suddenly passed away.
“When attending my friend’s father’s funeral, that’s when it hit me,” he said.”It was the ‘sign’ I had been looking for all my life. The light bulb suddenly came on.”
That was approximately 2 - 3 years ago, said Strayhorn.
However, he did not immediately jump into the field. He pondered and reviewed. He also did research. It was there he discovered he was not alone in what he was sensing; that this was not a career, but a “calling.”
“My feelings were confusing at the time, but when I did some research and did some reading, many in the industry call it a calling and associate it with the ministry, so I wasn’t the first one to feel that way,” he said.
He began studying at Fayetteville Tech, the only accredited school in North Carolina teaching funeral science, and is working towards his associate of applied arts degree.
At this time, having just completed an internship with Huff Funeral in East Bend, he is a licensed funeral director. The only thing he cannot do is embalming, but once he earns his degree and is licensed, he will be able to legally do that.
As for his internship as a funeral director, he had to do a minimum of 25 planning processes with families of those who had died. For Strayhorn, it was not an intimidating aspect, and he said he wasn’t nervous, just anxious to to it right...for the families.
“For some people, it’s natural,” said Richard Huff, owner and operator of Huff Funeral. “Jack is one of them.”
Huff is glad to have Strayhorn on board at Huff Funeral, located at 212 E. Main St., East Bend. He spoke of his hope that with time, he will be able to pass on to Strayhorn the reins of operation.
At the same time, Huff acknowledged it will be a methodical transition, in part because of perception, and also people’s comfort levels. The Huff family and Huff Funeral have been an integral part of the community, and many people, even when speaking with Strayhorn, will insist on doing business only with Huff.
It is not at all that unusual, said Huff. It was the same way when his father, Richard Huff Sr. was alive, and it was the same way for his father when his grandfather, Charlie “C.B.” Huff owned the Huff Funeral.
“There will come the time when people will ask and insist on speaking with Jack,” Huff said.
Of course, it will be a “seamless” transition, and that Huff will not be out of the picture.
“When my dad retired, he didn’t walk out the back door, he still worked every day,” said Huff. “I plan on doing the same.”
What he does not plan on doing forever, is running the entire business, which is why he is glad Strayhorn is now a part of Huff Funeral.
“Jack is hired here. He’s a good man. And I’m still here,” Huff said.
The industry has gone through changes, some dramatic, some not so much, both men agree.
A few years ago, a short-lived trend was personalizing one’s funeral to the extent that sometimes entire scenes were recreated. Nowadays, however, personalization is not as grandiose. Many funerals now include DVD presentations. Sometimes, a personal item or two might be brought in.
A major shift has been due in part to the services hospices handle, such as handling much of the advance paperwork.
“Hospice does a great job,” said Huff. “I wish hospice had been set up when I was coming up in the business (in the mid 1970s).”
Huff also sees another shift.
“I look more for cremations to increase,” he said. “At some point, I think they’ll be doing as many cremations as funerals.”
About Huff Funeral
Huff Funeral was begun in 1873 by Jonathan Gates “J.G.” Huff. It was one business, the other was a horse buggy manufacturing plant. According to Richard Huff, it was the largest horse buggy company in the South. Business ceased with the advent of the automobile. In the 1930s, the building that housed the horse buggy company burned down.
With the passing of J.G. Huff, his son (and Huff’s grandfather), Charlie “C.B.” Huff took over, and part of the business was sold to Bob Burchette. Up until the mid-1960s, it was known as Burchette and Huff Funeral. When Richard Huff Sr. took over, he bought out the Burchette family’s share and the name changed to Huff Funeral, which it remains today.
Huff Funeral Home, 212 E. Main St., East Bend, can be reached at 699-3131, or by fax at 699-3123. Its email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. There currently is not a web site.