The path to his profession was clear when James Bryant was just 5 years old.
He’d wear his little black suit and bow tie as he placed fallen birds or insects in a wagon, then lead a procession on his tricycle in his backyard. Even at that young age, pride welled inside of him at the thought of preparing a funeral for the departed.
Decades later, he doesn’t remember exactly what sparked the idea of becoming a mortician. But the passion stayed with him as a teen when he interned with his uncle as an embalmer at a local funeral home. After a tour of duty in Vietnam, he separated from the Army and struck out to become the best embalmer he could be in an industry not often celebrated by society. The work became his calling, to be part of a team to present families with the lasting image of their departed loved ones.
And now, at 66, he has reached the pinnacle of success: He has been named National Embalmer of the Year, presented at the 2016 Epsilon Nu Delta Annual Osiris in San Antonio last month.
“It’s really the greatest award you can get as an embalmer,” Bryant said. “We are the nucleus of the funeral home.”
Bryant has been a member of the San Antonio chapter since 1977 and a member of the national mortuary fraternity since 1983. Epsilon Nu Delta is a non-profit organization that Thomas and Frieda Whibby founded in 1942 for members of the mortuary profession.
Outgoing Epsilon Nu Delta president Rev. James Preston said membership in the national organization is by invitation only and a candidate must be a licensed embalmer. Preston called Bryant a very humble spirit who not only deserves the award but represents the organization very well.
“Each year we look across the nation to recognize someone who has the attributes worthy of the award and Rev. Bryant exceeded all of those qualifications,” Preston said, using an honorary title.
“As unsung as it is, it still an important profession,” Preston said. “We have the responsibility of not only servicing the families that call us, but also embalmers are important in the sense (that) they are health professionals.”
Bryant started at Lewis as an apprentice of the late Robert Washington. He worked for Washington for three years until the director thought he could be on his own.
Bryant’s co-workers enjoy working with him, said Lois Washington, the late director’s widow who is now owner and general manager of Lewis Funeral Home.
“James has been a blessing to the Lewis Funeral Home business,” she said. “He’s a very hard worker. He’s not only an embalmer, a funeral director, whatever questions a family may have, we refer them to him and he answers them with dignity.”
For the past 36 years, Bryant has passed on lessons and shared his pride in his profession to students from the San Antonio College Mortuary Science program. In addition to the art of embalming, the students study chemistry, human anatomy, funeral home administration, pathology and psychology.
Bryant recognizes that there are many people who are afraid of what goes on in funeral homes, but he notes death is a natural part of life. His goal is to console the families he serves. He has always stressed reverence for the deceased.
“I thank God for the longevity and heights He allowed me to gain in this profession,” Bryant said. “We do more than just have funerals. I hope that stigma will be broken one day.”