In 1919, the Eiffel Tower was the world’s tallest structure, movies were silent and the income of an average American family was a mere $1,500. One century ago, a signed armistice signaled the end of World War I, the Prohibition era was about to begin and women were still not afforded the right to vote.
While so many facets of life have ended or at least evolved, Hudson Funeral Home has abided. Remarkably, just three generations of the Hudson family have owned and operated the firm continuously for 100 years.
Hudson Funeral Home began in a small storefront on Salem Street in Apex, North Carolina.
“My grandparents, Sanders Vance Hudson Sr. and Ora Thompson Hudson, started the funeral home in the early spring of 1919. This was during the horse and buggy days. Caskets were placed on chairs for visitations held in the family home and were lowered into the grave by plow line,” said O. Thomas “Tommy” Hudson Jr., who represents the third generation.
Serving as Apex’s first postmaster, Sanders Hudson was known by everyone he quickly earned a reputation for helping people in need like so many others of his generation, Hudson gradually progressed to undertaking, which would eventually become his sole vocation.
In 1925, he opened an additional funeral home in East Durham in a building near Crabtree’s Pharmacy at the corner of Driver and Angier avenues. At the time, Durham was larger than Raleigh, mostly because of the city’s cigarette factories and cotton mills. Initially, the new firm operated as a branch of the Apex location. However, in 1929 Hudson made the move to Durham permanent with the purchase of a house at 1800 Angier Ave. The building would be utilized as both business and residence, serving as the one and only location of Hudson Funeral Home for nearly six decades. It was during this period that the firm introduced the first motorized hearse to the community.
Sanders Hudson died in 1938, leaving his wife, Ora, and son, Edwin H. Hudson Sr., to operate the business.
“My grandmother, who was one of the first licensed female funeral directors in the state of North Carolina, ran the funeral home with my Uncle Ed. She was involved in the day-to-day operations until the early ’60s, even in later years calling in from her hospital bed from home. During this time my dad, Ollie Thomas Hudson Sr., attended Gupton-Jones mortuary school in Nashville Tennessee, class of 1940 and then served in the U.S. Army as a medic during World War II. Dad was stationed at Stark General Hospital in Charleston, S.C. and would come home about every other month,” by train my father explaining that then he was deployed overseas in 1944 to complete the remainder of his Army service at a field hospital in France.
When Ollie Hudson returned in 1945, the brothers jointly managed the funeral home until the early 1950s, when Ed left to open a cabinet business.
“After we opened our current facility, Uncle Ed came back to work visitations. It was enjoyable to see him interact with people he had known for many years. He was well-respected in our community,” he commented.
To provide additional services, the Hudson family brought the very first fully-equipped ambulance to the area, offering ambulance service until 1964. Wheelchairs and hospital beds were loaned to patients free of charge.
In 1964, all the local funeral homes went out of the ambulance business on the same day, my dad was ready after one day a family called and asked us to take down a hospital bed after someone died, and we didn’t get the call, Tommy Hudson remembered.
Hudson Funeral Home built Durham’s first funeral chapel. During the 1950s, the building was completely renovated and enlarged. Additional rooms were added along a brick veneer, with large white columns adorning the front. A decade later, a new funeral chapel was built beside the Angier Avenue establishment.
Born in 1952, Tommy Hudson remembered living at the funeral home until he was 6 years old. Then moving back in the upstairs apartment at age 16, taking night calls and working in the afternoons after school. When Mary and I were married in 1980 we lived there for several years.
“The firm was a family business in every sense. My mother, Hilda, was also a funeral director, and she kept the books and did the ladies hair for many years,” described Hudson, who credits his devotion to funeral service as being engrained since infancy from the example set by his parents and grandparents.
Groomed from an early age, Hudson was intrinsically destined to become a funeral director, graduating from the Indiana College of Mortuary Science in 1971. Then attended the National Foundation of Funeral Service.
“On my 21st birthday, Fred Rhodes, then president of the state board, hand-delivered my license. Fred was also our competitor but had a deep sense of appreciation for our family. He started his career working for my grandmother, who sent him to Indiana College for mortuary school,” Hudson recalled.
Another competitor was Howerton and Bryan run by Mr. Winston Montgomery, his embalmer died suddenly, and Winston asked my dad if I could embalm for him until he found someone. Over about a year I handled over 80 cases for them. Fred Rhodes eventually became an owner at Hall-Wynne Funeral Services, until his retirement. We would borrow cars and on occasion have a neighboring funeral home make removals. Although we were competitors, my Dad used to say we are friends and assisting each other when needed was done regularly in those days,” he said.
The professional development gained while embalming for Mr. Montgomery proved invaluable for Hudson. However, he learned the most working for his father, especially in the prep room. The elder Hudson was incredibly scrupulous, technically proficient and well-regarded as a trade embalmer.
“Dad was very particular about the appearance and color and always wanted the body to look as natural as possible. He had this old Royal Bond gravity machine. I was the ‘fluid man’ and would mix a half gallon of water with his mixture, riding along to help him embalm up to several hours away. Instead of heavy makeup, he liked to use a liquid tint that we still use today” Hudson explained.
Determined and eager, Hudson often experienced resistance convincing his father to embrace innovation and the progressive new regulations implemented by funeral service during the early ’80s.
“Mel Thompson of Southern Coffin and Casket in Atlanta brought a computer to help us design our general price list, required by the Federal Trade Commission’s funeral rule,” he said.
Apart from the funeral home, Ollie Hudson found success as a real estate developer, building an office park that had remained family owned until mother’s death. When approached to enter local politics to fill an unexpired City Council seat, father instead recommended son. Tommy Hudson was unanimously appointed to serve out a term of two years, later winning another four-year term and becoming known as one of the youngest members ever to serve on the Durham City Council. Despite this, the elder Hudson maintained firm control over the funeral home.
“After having a massive heart attack and just getting released from intensive care, I had to take him the funeral home checkbook and his favorite fountain pen to sign funeral home checks. I had worked with him for 13 years but still wasn’t able to sign checks. He paid the staff every week in cash and would handwrite the withholdings on these blank envelopes, which would serve as a pay stub,” Hudson reminisced.
In May of 1984, Ollie Thomas Hudson Sr. died, never recovering from a heart attack he suffered just months prior. He was embalmed by Fred Rhodes and laid to rest in a solid bronze casket.
“During his tenure, my dad never wanted to move the funeral home or build elsewhere, saying we were free to do that when he was gone. Having been in the home on Angier Avenue since the late ’20s, I felt it was time to construct a modern building. After finding a couple of acres near a local cemetery, we opened our new 12,500-square-foot facility in 1986. In the past, we handled about 100 calls annually. The business increased by 53 calls the first year,” he said.
Used as a residence by every generation of the Hudson family, the aging edifice was sold to House of Reeves Funeral Home, whose owner was widely known for having a drive-through viewing window at his former location. Brother Reeves was also a preacher and wanted our chapel as much as the funeral home. Today everything has been torn down except the chapel that is still being used as a community church.
“We did keep the chandelier and antique embalming table,” stated Hudson.
As the number of cremations started to rise, Hudson and three competitors founded Durham Cremation Service, over 20 years ago each owning 25% of the business. Along with performing cremations for partner firms, the company served a total of 11 funeral homes at one time.
In keeping with the long-standing commitment to operate as a family business, Hudson’s wife, Mary, a graduate of East Carolina University and attended the National Foundation of Funeral Service, is employed as a funeral director and licensed insurance agent.
“We’ve been married for 39 years and worked together for 35 years in the same office,” he proclaimed.
Briefly, Mary Hudson left to work for a pre-need company, American Funeral Assurance.
“I told her to take the job when they offered a better salary and company car,” explained Hudson
Although Hilda Hudson officially retired in 1999, the family matriarch would work visitations or stop by the office to chat on occasion.
Hudson’s brother, Tim, also worked as a funeral director. Following a brief cigarette factory stint, the 1977 Gupton-Jones College graduate returned in 1989, ultimately becoming vice president. Excellent with families and a talented embalmer, Tim Hudson suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in 2012.
“My mom never got over my brother’s death. She had been in a nursing home for seven years and passed away one day before her 85th birthday, about a year after my brother,” he remarked.
Though he wants to maintain future family ownership, involving the fourth generation remains uncertain at the moment. Hudson’s daughter has chosen a decidedly different career path.
“Brooke is a licensed cosmetologist and manages a local salon. She has come in to do hair for us but at this time has no interest in the funeral business. However, I have an excellent staff and continue to enjoy what I do. It’s been 52 years, and I still work or on call every other weekend,” Hudson commented.
Widely known as an exhaustive profession, funeral directors have historically worked irregular hours with limited, sporadic or nonexistent vacation time.
“Our staff has a generous schedule. Our funeral directors have a 3 day weekend off every other, my manager and I work 10 days on and 4 off. My wife and I spend long weekends at our coastal home on Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. I also love cars and have owned four Corvettes since 1974, driving them not near as often as I should,” he said.
Another longtime hobby enjoyed by Hudson is music, particularly beach music and playing the drums.
“I started playing in the marching band at Fork Union Military Academy. Dad bought me my first set in 1966. When I was a teenager, I played in a band, we would take the Wurlitzer organ from the funeral home chapel and transport it in a flower van to shows on the weekends. After sleeping late one Sunday morning, we had forgotten to unload. My dad thought someone had stolen it because we never had asked his permission,” it was also the last time we used it! Hudson recounted.
Constantly creative and an innovator at heart, Hudson is always eager to experiment with new ideas in an effort to keep a fresh perspective. Over 25 years ago, he was invited to join the newly formed North Carolina Funeral Focus Group. Founded by funeral director Gary Taylor, who owned Seymour Funeral Home in Goldsboro, the group was comprised of a dozen independent, non-competing North Carolina funeral directors who had done something cutting edge.
“Originally, we met twice a year. Now we meet annually in Myrtle Beach. We have dinner together Sunday night and host a guest speaker Monday and Tuesday round table Discussions have included topics such as Facebook ads, imported caskets and low-cost providers, among other things that are relatable to our funeral homes. Over the years, some have had to drop out because of our strict attendance policy and others have sold out, which disqualifies them. After the sudden death of Gary Taylor, we voted to be renamed the Taylor Study Group in his memory,” said Hudson.
In anticipation of the heritage firm’s centennial anniversary, a full renovation was commissioned.
“We started in the parking lot and stopped at the back doors. An updated sign was installed. The landscape was overhauled and changed. The parking lot is now equipped with LED lighting. The front columns and roof are new, and both the interior and exterior were repainted. Inside, we remodeled the bathrooms, installed new carpet, upgraded the phone system and fitted the chapel with a digital sound system and high-definition camera. We give the family a video copy of services held in our chapel,” he revealed.
Despite reaching an extraordinary milestone and receiving congratulatory letters from the mayor and governor, Hudson credits a much more recent and humbling personal experience as defining his career. A long time close friend, and former neighbor, came to him with a peculiar request. His eccentric father had carried around a stuffed animal companion in his later years, it started as a joke but he had the last laugh when he achieved a certain degree of notoriety around town. When he died the family handed written instructions to be handled by me. It read that I was to ride “Slick the monkey” in the front passenger seat of the hearse from funeral home to church then to cemetery, Hudson agreed without hesitation. Just several months ago, my friend called on me again, his 40 year old son had died from cancer. Although the family had moved to Virginia, his son had wrote out his funeral instructions specifically requested that Tommy Hudson be present at the service to close his casket. Overwhelmed by the gesture, Hudson and wife Mary traveled to Virginia for the funeral and followed his wishes.
“In over 50 years of serving families, I can’t think of a bigger more powerful moment in my career. This is what we do. For the rest of my life, I will never forget that experience.”
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Southern Calls Issue 26
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