If you’ve never been to Brewton, Alabama, you may not know this city of 5,100 is on the border of Central Alabama and the panhandle of Florida. You also might not know that Alabama’s Blueberry Festival is held here annually or that Kevin Sumlin, former coach of the Houston Cougars and the Texas A&M Aggies and the current head coach at the University of Arizona, grew up here or that Catherine Crosby, Miss America 2003, was born here. If you’re old enough, you might know that country-western singer Hank Locklin got his start in Brewton.
It’s also the birthplace and home of Jarrod Heath Wilson, vice president, funeral director/embalmer and owner of Craver’s Funeral Home, who was called by God to funeral service from boyhood.
“When I found the lifeless body of Ginger, my dog and best friend, I rummaged around for a box and lined it with a towel,” said Wilson, now 46. “I found some sticks to make a stand for my makeshift casket so it was visible above ground and then placed green pine straw around the grave.”
When his mother saw her son’s caring memorial to his pet, she took him to the local Dollar Store, where they found a pink cross to mark the beloved dog’s grave.
“When I was in school, our bus would pass the cemetery, and, if I saw people at a gravesite, I would rush home, change out of my school clothes and ride my four-wheeler back to the cemetery,” he said. “There, I would usually find Don White, a funeral director, and, while he was sitting, door open, with his feet outside the car, I literally pummeled him with questions and he patiently answered every one.”
The first of two sons born to Buster and Charlene Wilson, Heath grew to be a man of many talents and many layers, sharing his core – his heart – with his faith, family and funeral service. His birth, however, was complicated, and nothing short of a miracle brought both he and his mother through it.
“I believe I was born with a purpose,” Heath said, and it didn’t take long to figure out what that purpose was, thanks to a few collisions with funeral service along the way.
“In sixth grade, before our school was renovated, Craver’s Funeral Home was having a graveside service. You could see everything happening at the cemetery from my classroom window,” he explained. “I had to sit with my leg under me so I would be tall enough to see out – and I had to tilt my body and sort of turn to be able to watch the funeral. After a second warning from my teacher, she pulled down the shade to make me sit up and pay attention to her rather than to what captured my attention outside.”
No stranger to responsibility and hard work, after his community was flooded in 1972, the 13-year-old Hills was recruited by a family friend to oversee his hardware store and lumber company.
As a boy, Heath continued holding his own last rites for any dead animals he found. Gradually, his services became more authentic. He would play the role of the funeral director, placing the body of the small animal into an empty cigar box.
“My mom has video showing me as minister and funeral director,” he said. “When I was in charge, my cousins served as family, and the video captured me stopping to speak with the family and then dismissing the mourners at the end of the services.”
His first memory of being involved in an actual funeral service came in 1985. “I was 11 years old, and, on the recommendation of someone at my church, was asked to sing at the service of a family friend at Craver’s. He was 38 years old and had been in trucking like my dad.”
Heath had been singing in church since he was old enough to read or memorize the words to the hymns. He continues to enjoy singing and is often asked to serve at funerals as both soloist and director.
At the age of 11, Heath was already aware of his calling.
“There was a voice, saying ‘You will spend your life comforting people.’ I knew it was the voice of God,” he said.
Four years later, Heath’s great-grandfather died. By that time, the 16-year-old was confident about his direction and focused on becoming a funeral director.
“After the service, I asked Mr. Lavon Kelly, owner of Craver’s Funeral Home, if I could ride in the hearse with him and my great-grandfather. Mr. Kelly didn’t hesitate, and, as I rode to the cemetery in that big hearse, I couldn’t have been happier if someone had just handed me a million dollars,” he remembered.
Heath graduated from Hillcrest High School in Evergreen Alabama in 1992 and earned a certificate in office administration from Reid State Technical College in 1993. He also attended Jefferson Davis Community College in 1995 and transferred his credits to Bishop State Community College, where he received his degree in mortuary science in 1998.
One week after graduation, he took the International Conference of Funeral Service examination. He received his funeral director and embalmer’s license for Alabama in October of 1998 and Florida in 1999, later becoming a licensed pre-need sales agent for the state of Alabama.
He had worked in funeral homes since age 19, including a firm in Mobile, while he was completing his apprenticeship. “That’s when I realized I would be happiest working in a small town – my hometown of Brewton – so I turned down a job offer and went home,” Heath recalled.
In the interim, he worked for various firms, and several owners vowed that “one day, I’m going to sell to you.” However, these promises eventually proved to be empty, and the young director grew frustrated as he waited for his opportunity: “I fasted and prayed for God’s direction, but nothing was happening.”
Believers soon realize that God’s timing is unquestioningly perfect, and so it was for Heath Wilson.
“A family friend passed away, and I was asked to sing at the funeral,” he said. “I knew Mr. Kelly’s health was beginning to fail and, after the service, his wife came up to me and asked, ‘When are you going to come talk to Lavon?’”
In a true leap of faith, Heath Wilson decided to visit with Lavon Kelly, and, after much discussion and prayer, Heath and his partner bought Craver’s Funeral Home in 2009. As it turned out, Kelly had been waiting for Wilson to make an offer.
The funeral home, like its previous owner, had gotten older and a little rough around the edges over the years. The business had been allowed to slowly diminish, and the building – inside and out – would need a lot of TLC and elbow grease to bring it back to life. But Wilson and his wife, Jennifer, were up to the challenge, so they started saving their money so they could afford to make the necessary renovations.
“Ironically, when I bought Craver’s Funeral Home, I felt a burden lifted,” he confessed. “I knew I had done what God wanted and knew He would see me through. This past year, Craver’s did 90 calls – that was the most ever.” Heath’s community and family are also a vitally important part of his life. A member of the Brewton Rotary Club, he served as president in 2012-2013. On June 11, 2012, he was honored with the Paul Harris Fellow Award. He also serves as a member of the advisory board for Reid State Technical College.
Jennifer Wilson is a licensed funeral director as well. They have two children: Jared Ashton, born in 1996, and and Kynleigh Grace, who arrived 11 years later.
“I used to sing in a gospel group and we were invited to sing at her Dad’s church in May 1992,” he said. “We saw each other but didn’t meet formally until the next October. She was 18 and I was 20, and we started dating the week after we met. I eventually told her about my calling to funeral service, and she had no problem, so after dating and an engagement, we were married in June 1994.”
By 2014, life for the Wilsons was good. But Jennifer heard a voice say, “Go get checked,” she later told her husband.
“I felt impressed by the Lord,” she explained, “so I had a mammogram and the diagnosis came back as breast cancer.”
Jennifer underwent a full course of radiation treatments and has now been cancer-free for six years. “My doctor said if I had put off treatment for six months, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
Like his grandfather, who was a professional truck driver, Heath Wilson began driving on the dirt roads of their farm when he was 10.
“My extended family lived nearby while I was growing up, and I was really close to my cousins, aunts and uncles . . . and when the cousins were visiting, we would always be outdoors doing something,” he said. “Somehow, we got a Ford Pinto station wagon and took the top off. It ran like a scalded dog, and when we ran into something, it was none the worse for wear. Somebody painted ‘The Waltons’ on the side of the car, and we drove it everywhere. It was all great fun back then – and we’re still close.”
“When he was diagnosed with cancer, I remember he took radiation treatments during the day and ran his 18-wheeler at night,” Heath said. “He recently retired from AAA Cooper Trucking and earned the coveted 3-million-mile safety award during his career.
Heath’s grandfather retired from the same firm.
If you ask Heath Wilson about his hobbies, he’ll tell you he loves gardening, something he picked up from his grandfather.
“My gardening skills were passed down from my grandfather,” the funeral director continued. “My granddaddy planted four gardens, enough for his family and friends. When I was little, we’d sit under the oak trees shelling peas. I also remember my grandmother’s wash pot, when we’d cook shucked corn and she had salt and butter to put on it. This is how I spent my childhood, with family and friends.”
He also puts up vegetables from his garden and fruit from his orchard, which includes 25 heirloom apple trees from the 1600s and 1700s. Like previous generations of the Wilson family, Heath has a herd of cattle, and he and Jennifer have formed the H & J Cattle Company. He said whenever he sees a good mama cow at the cattle auctions he attends, that’s what he goes with.
“I look at the way they’re built and their disposition,” he said. “I don’t want anything crazy. At one auction, I bought a cow that fit all my criteria, but, when I took her back for vaccinations, she went berserk and could have killed the handler. After that display, I took her back to her previous owner, saying he could keep the money I paid, but I no longer wanted that cow.”
The director also remembers going to another cattle sale with his grandfather and his cousins. “We were on the way home, and the cousins were talking about the auctioneer and how fast he talked. That’s when my granddad challenged me to try to sound like the auctioneer, so I took off and my granddaddy was surprised. I sounded pretty good, having never gone to school.”
“But with a little practice, I now serve as an auctioneer for various events, including casket sales and community fundraising auctions in the community. Who knew I had that skill? I even surprised myself,” Wilson said, “but I think it came from being a good listener, being around good people and good, clean country living.”
Because of his love for the outdoors, it may not be surprising to learn that another layer of this funeral director’s life contains the garb of a beekeeper.
“Our bees work the white clover in our hayfield, and, quite frankly, watching bees work has always been fascinating to me. In the springtime, we harvest honey that comes from apple blossoms and white clover and sell it,” Heath said. “I call it, ‘from stinger to finger.”’
As he talks about the 200 bottles of honey he and Jennifer put up last year or the cattle or the gardening he loves, the director sums it up this way: “I enjoy what my ancestors enjoyed. My great grandfather, Joe Reeves, had bees in a tree trunk.”
“We have my great-grandmother’s wood stove in our home, which we cook on in the winter,” he said, “and we pass along all the family stories involving that stove, including how my grandmother cooked on it in the summer.”
And while he may not call himself a bona fide “antiquer,” he does admit to scouring antique shops for anything that’s general store or country store-related.
“Those were simpler times,” he said. Signs of those simpler times can be found in his sunroom, which houses close to 175 signs from yesteryear.
Peeling back the layers making up the life of this multidimensional funeral director fully explains why, as an intern in Mobile, Alabama, he made the decision to leave the fast-paced city life in favor of his hometown.
“In small town, you can go to a ballgame and you know the names of the people seated around you. You also see them at funerals and you know their names and their family,” he said. “And yes, it’s hard to bury someone you’ve known all your life,” he added. “The hardest day in my life came when my 17-year-old nephew was killed. I was getting ready to lead singing at church when Jennifer whispered that Tyler was missing. Later, during the service, Jennifer was on the phone crying. We immediately went down to their home. Law enforcement was there. Tyler’s car had flipped and he was killed instantly.
“Jennifer stayed (in Milton, Florida), and, when she called me, she said they wanted me to handle the arrangements. When the medical examiner called, I went down and brought him back to Brewton. But I can tell you, putting my nephew on the stretcher and bringing him to the funeral home had me in tears.”
What makes Heath Wilson a good funeral director?: “My faith, prayer, scripture and being a good listener to the stories my families share. The day I can no longer shed a tear with my families or cannot be compassionate, I will find another job.”
In 2019, Craver’s Funeral Homes and Flomation Brown-Service Funeral Home combined served 138 families. Of these, 90 were served by Craver’s–the highest since Heath purchased the firm–with 15 choosing cremation.
“When I bought the funeral home, the scripture, Matthew 6:33, was framed and hung behind my desk. I’ve relied heavily on that verse and continue putting God first in my business,” he said.
“I look to take care of the families in my town and surroundings because funeral service is my life and I am so grateful,” he said. “On the door of my embalming room, there’s a sign that says: NO ADMITTANCE: REMEMBER – this preparation room becomes sacred when a family entrusts us with their most precious loved one. Keep the faith with them by conducting yourself as though the family were present. The body is dear to them. Treat it reverently.”
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Southern Calls Issue 27
Articles Relating to Issue 27
It’s all about the B’s for our latest issue… from the small Southern town of Bremen, Georgia, to urban downtown Baltimore, Maryland and out to a cattle pasture in Brewton, Alabama we cover a broad range of People, Places, and Passions – and there’s even real Bees (see Passions article). The photos are compelling, the stories are moving, and they’re all told from a Funeral Director’s Perspective. There’s only one place you can find inspiration like this, Southern Calls – The Journal of the Funeral Profession.
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