Musical mortician retires

Published 4:27 pm Friday, June 28, 2024

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AHOSKIE – It started with a song; it ended with a lot of laughs and a few tears.

Wayne Fairless holds a plaque presented to him by his colleagues at Garrett-Sykes Funeral Service in recognition of his 45 years on the job. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Friends, family, and co-workers gathered here Tuesday afternoon to share in a special time for Wayne Fairless who is retiring after 45 years working at Garrett-Sykes Funeral Service.

Fairless, a 67-year-old native of Harrellsville, said he was undecided on his future when he graduated in 1975 from Ahoskie High School. He attended East Carolina University for one year, majoring in Music.

“Once I got there I decided that wasn’t for me,” Fairless said. “I came home and worked in the tobacco field and did some other odd jobs.”

Had it not been for Fairless being asked to sing at the funeral of a relative, his career in the funeral service industry may have never gotten off the ground.

“After that funeral was over, Mr. [Norvin] Garrett [then the owner of Garrett’s Funeral Home] came up to me and ask if they needed someone to sing at funerals, would I be interested,” Fairless recalled. “I said sure.”

That was 1976 and the rest, as they say, is history.

After singing at numerous funerals, Fairless said he was approached again by Garrett who asked if he was interested in a full-time job at the funeral home.

“I said, sure, I’ll give it a try,” Fairless said.

At the outset, Fairless said he did such things as yard maintenance, helping to transport bodies to the funeral home, and working during funeral services.

“Whatever they needed me to do, I did it,” he recalled.

Another of his tasks “back in the day” was to call in obits to the newspapers.

“I would read the obit, word for word and spelling names, while someone at the newspaper was typing what I was saying,” Fairless explained. “Then we got into the era of fax and emails, which made the job of getting an obit to the newspapers much easier.”

He also shared that the programs that are handed out at a funeral service were once designed and printed the old fashioned way….one at the time. Fairless was in charge of that as well.

Later, Fairless demonstrated a flair for cosmetology, which led him to apply makeup on a corpse.

“They found out I could fix hair as well, so I added that to my work duties,” Fairless said.

In order to advance his skills, Fairless enrolled at Fayetteville Technical Community College. That education allowed him to gain his Funeral Director’s License in 2005, from which he became both State and National certified. He followed that up in 2012 with his Funeral Service License, which allowed him to become a certified embalmer.

“I was working full time and taking most of the classes online,” he said.

Like most other businesses, the funeral service industry has seen changes, especially in the fine details when it comes to documentation of bodies that are cremated.

“When I first started, cremations made up about three percent of our business; now it’s right at 50-50,” Fairless said.

Fairless has also noted an increase in the diverse nature of a funeral.

“Some families wish to have their loved one buried in shorts and a t-shirt; others want various styles of music played, to include country and rock-and-roll,” he noted. “There was a time when you didn’t see that, but it’s our job to offer a family what they want at a service. It’s all about how they want it.”

“And now there’s more personalization offered with caskets,” he added.

Fairless said that if someone had told him in high school that he would become a funeral director and embalmer, he wouldn’t have believed them.

“But yet here I am 45 years later,” he said. “I could have not asked for a more rewarding career. It’s been a blessing to be able to help people at a very emotional time in their lives.

“It’s a time to work with them through the process, whether that’s helping them get the celebration of life service exactly how they want it, or just sitting there and listening. Sometimes that’s all they need,” Fairless noted.

Looking back on nearly 50 years in the business, Fairless freely admits he wouldn’t go back and change much other than perhaps entering the profession at an earlier age.

“It’s been a rewarding career,” he stressed. “I’m not rich by no means, but I don’t think about a paycheck when I’m helping people at a vulnerable time of their life.

“Norvin Garrett was the best….I learned so much from him,” Fairless added. “He was fair to all. It didn’t matter if a family had five dollars or five million dollars, he treated everybody the same.”

Fairless encouraged young adults looking for a career to think about the funeral service industry.

“As a matter of fact, I’m working with a young man right now, preparing him for the job,” he said. “We need people who care and take pride in what they do.”

Even though he’s officially retired, Fairless said he would still “help out when needed” at Garrett-Sykes.

“If I do anything, it will be in the prep room. That’s where I do my art and after 45 years I’ve gotten pretty good at it. When you can give a surviving family member a good last look at a loved one who has fell ill, then I’ve done my job,” he closed.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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