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By Cari Ann DeLamielleure-Scott | Photography by Jim Luning

Putting others first

Tyler ministers to those who have lost a loved one

Burying the deceased is one of the seven corporal acts of mercy. But to Tyler Pray – a fourth-generation licensed funeral director at Pray Funeral Home in Charlotte and a member of St. Mary Parish – burying the dead is just the beginning; caring for the grieving family is how we care for the deceased. 

“We often are called to place the needs of a grieving family before the needs of our own family,” Tyler says. “Putting others first is, I believe, one of the core components of any form of ministry.”  

Twenty-eight churches stand in Charlotte, and whether the Pray family is serving someone of the Catholic, Baptist, Muslim or Bahá’í faiths, Tyler says – even though his personal beliefs guide the way he serves – he must remain conscious of what the family believes: “I do not see a funeral as a time to apply my personal experiences, but a time to minister to the convictions of the bereaved, to help manifest their beliefs into a tangible form of healing.” 

The Pray “undertaking” business was established in 1921 by Ernest and Myron Pray. Up until 1930, the family business was located on the main street of Charlotte’s downtown business district, where they owned a furniture store. The business was then moved to West Seminary Street. 

“They actually ran all the funerals out of my grandpa’s house – which is right next door – and did all the embalming and everything else in the back of the furniture store,” Tyler says. 

During a funeral service, furniture was moved out of his grandfather’s home, and the deceased were laid in the living room, according to Tyler. In 1949, the current funeral home building was constructed. 

Not only has the business been in the family for five generations, the family has lived either in or near the business for just as long. While Tyler lives behind the building, his grandfather has continued to live in the house next door, and his father lives across the street.

“I have the longest commute – 120 steps. That’s twice as long as my dad’s, which is a little more dangerous, I suppose, because he has to cross the street,” Tyler says, laughing. 

Being a licensed funeral director wasn’t always Tyler’s plan, and he said he sometimes wonders what will be his next calling. 

About 10 years ago, Tyler was pursuing a career in journalism in New York, but he returned to Charlotte to be closer to his family. He attended Wayne State University for mortuary school, where he got his license “just in case,” he says. At that time, being a licensed funeral director felt like a “fall back,” but now he feels his calling is serving others.

In a busy year, Pray Funeral Home holds about 200 funerals, and Tyler explains that part of the ministry is being truly present with each family. 

“If you can find a way to make sure they’re not shoving it aside and really … diving into it, then you know you’re doing them a service,” he says.

No day is the same. When Tyler receives a call that someone has died, he drops everything he’s doing, travels to be with the deceased and sits with the family. 

That first contact, Tyler says, is probably one of the “most intense moments in what we do.” Being present with the family in that moment and reading exactly what’s going on in the room is a necessity. 

“It’s super intimidating. I always get nervous for that moment. I’ve done it … nearly a thousand times, but just that moment is kind of nerve-wracking because we could totally screw it up,” Tyler says, adding that he can often understand a person’s concerns by reading their body language.

The deceased are brought back to the funeral home and, depending on the family’s beliefs, Tyler and his father often begin the embalming process. After the initial contact, Tyler then meets with the family to make the funeral arrangements. He stresses, “You have to listen to figure out what’s important to them and somehow get that communicated in the service, so they walk away feeling like they just had a meaningful experience.”

The Pray family serves as a liaison between a family and clergy; often, though, how a person experiences loss and applies it to their faith may not coincide with the clergy’s approach. 

“Occasionally there is a complete religious void in the funeral experience where faith would be for a Christian family. It is a great responsibility of ours to either help them find meaning and healing in a dark time, or to help make a connection with a faith leader. Those who have been away from the Church may suddenly be in a position to reconsider their feelings,” Tyler says. 

Regardless of what type of funeral, Tyler explains that the details are important to think about ahead of time. And for Catholics, family involvement during a funeral Mass depends on the priest and how much the priest is willing to allow: “Our goal is to do anything and everything we can for the family, whether that means finding a way for them to participate in the ceremony in whichever way is most healing to them.”

Participation is built into a Catholic Mass, including the readings and bringing up the offertory gifts. And a Catholic funeral is one of the few times where pallbearers are actually used, Tyler said. Pallbearers and casket bearers are two separate jobs. A funeral pall is the white cloth that is draped over the casket during a Catholic, and sometimes Lutheran, funeral. 

“In that case, you have people who can place the pall over the casket,” and people who carry the casket, Tyler says. 

Occasionally, Tyler encounters people who have “an intense distaste” for the Catholic Church, and often times a funeral is one time when the Church can really shine, he says. 

“You have to remember that when you have a Catholic Mass, probably a majority of the people in attendance are not Catholic. It’s part of our job to educate them as to what they’re witnessing and what they’re experiencing, and to try to have them understand why it’s important,” Tyler says. 

The Pray family plays a large role in teaching those attending a Catholic funeral about the meaning behind the Church’s beliefs and how it relates to their feelings, and this is sometimes a moment when a family will find their way back to the Church. 

“It often starts with us,” Tyler says. “Many times, flexibility and understanding on the part of the clergy can be the ‘finisher’ in helping to complete the process we have worked hard to begin with a family, the process of bringing them back into the community of faith.”