Williams brought life to funerals

Aug. 08, 2014 @ 06:43 AM

In the final two years of his life, Norman Williams could be seen zooming down sidewalks and main highways on his way to work at Mackie Funeral Home on Duke Street in Granite Falls in his motorized wheelchair, decked out in stickers, reflectors and flags.

Funeral director Cordell Austin said, “We all thought he would be killed in the wheelchair (by it) turning over and find him in the road somewhere.” He shook his head, laughing.

Williams worked for Mackie Funeral Home from 1974 until he died at home in May. He did every task from calling the newspapers, assisting family members, participating in the funeral procession, obtaining headstones and everything in between. Funeral director Ed Whisnant said Williams touched every life that came through the company’s doors, and even now people still ask about him.

“I don’t think there’s anybody I’ve ever been around that was as compassionate with people as Norman was,” Whisnant said.

Any time someone died, Williams would be the first to know who the mother and father were, if they had passed, what funeral arrangements were provided for them and who the children were. Austin said Williams could remember every detail about everyone.

“He thrived to get up in the morning and catch us by telling us who was coming in, who they were kin to, their mother or grandmother’s files were across the hall, you could find out what we did for them,” Whisnant said.

Whisnant and Austin can tell story after story about Williams, whom Austin called an “icon.”

“They always made a statement, ‘Norman learned to whisper in a sawmill,’” Austin said. “He had a very loud voice. Not meaning any disrespect at all, but that was Norm. From one end of the building to the other.”

Whisnant recounted the time when the director of a funeral home in Burke County lost his wife. Williams offered to send Whisnant or Austin to help out while the director took time to grieve.

“You just don’t find that. Two sock manufactures aren’t going to help each other sell socks,” Whisnant said. “Walmart ain’t going to help Kmart sell their products. But this is an industry, it is a brotherhood that looks after one another.”

In June 2012, Williams had back surgery because of an infection around his spine. Whisnant said that Williams “never walked another step” after the surgery and became wheelchair-bound. However, Williams refused to stop working. He drove his wheelchair to the funeral home nearly every morning.

“We cut a doorway in an old wall out here so he could get his wheelchair in," Whisnant said. “We had a desk made for him that’s higher than the standard desk so he could get his wheelchair in under it so he could meet and greet people.”

On May 19, 2014, Williams’ nurse helped him take his morning bath and get dressed for another day at work. But then Williams fell back into his chair and died from a heart attack. His funeral was attended by more than 400 people, Austin said.

“I really expected Norman to die here, not anywhere else, because this was his world. He lived, ate, slept, breathed the funeral industry,” Whisnant said.

Williams’ office has not been touched and sits as a reminder of the compassionate man who made a relative or friend’s passing just a bit easier for local residents.

“There are still enough of the folks around that he touched that probably by the time Cordell and I are gone, they’ll still remember Norman,” Whisnant said.