ST. PETERSBURG — For more than 50 years, the Creal Funeral Home has ushered thousands of local residents to their final resting places. Last week, the home lost one its longtime staffers.
The Rev. James Creal, who moonlighted since the early 1950s at the funeral home owned by his brother Robert, died Aug. 15. He was 86.
The interior at Creal was cool and dark on Friday, a respite from 90-degree temperatures and glaring sunlight. Robert Creal, the home's director and owner, is 83 years old and trim. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt and ivory tie, and clasped his fingers as he collected his thoughts.
Rev. Creal is not the first family member his brother has had to bury. He has handled the burials of his parents, three brothers, and aunts and uncles.
The Rev. Creal was outgoing, friendly. "He met people easily," his brother said.
He grew up in Tampa, one of eight children. As a teenager he took a job at a funeral home, then left to join the Army. He fought in the Philippines during World War II. His brother Robert took over his post at the funeral home.
Rev. Creal got married and had children. He drove a Mayflower truck cross country.
Robert Creal stayed in the funeral business, signing on with Williams Funeral Home in St. Petersburg in 1950. He bought the company in 1954, ran it as Creal-Williams for a decade, and ever since as Creal Funeral Home on Seventh Avenue S.
Whenever the Rev. Creal wasn't hauling a load, he worked for his brother.
In those days, funeral homes did everything from ambulance service to digging graves.
"If I had a dollar for every grave I've dug in Pinellas and Hillsborough, I could probably retire," Creal said. Virtually sleepless weekends were common.
Then came regulations about training for ambulance drivers. Cemeteries began digging their own graves.
The Rev. Creal continued to help out at the home. He switched from trucking to driving a bus for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority for 15 years.
He was an active member of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, and became an ordained minister. His unpretentious manner and sense of humor put people at ease.
"He saw life as it is," Creal said. The ministerial work helped him relate to grieving families.
He enjoyed cooking ("soul food," his brother said) and traveling to visit friends in other states. Though he had divorced and remarried, he remained on good terms with his first wife's family. Sometimes he called his brother to say he was in Georgia or Maryland, or at a Baptist convention somewhere.
Wanderlust, his brother called it.
Last year, a doctor diagnosed the Rev. Creal with lung cancer. He took it in stride.
"The doctor told him he was dying," Creal said. "James said, 'I've been dying for 85 years.' "
The area district of the Florida Morticians Association is handling most of the arrangements for James Creal. It's a tradition among funeral directors, Creal said. When a family member of one dies, others come out of the woodwork. Calls and cards from the community have also poured in this week.
Other traditions seem to be fading, Creal said. More customers want cremation. Fewer want elaborate services. Even in death we cut corners, looking for whatever is cheapest and fastest.
Robert Creal marked his brother's death with a visitation and wake at Creal, a service in Tampa, and burial at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Knowing that James Creal accepted his own death helps his brother do the same.
"When you come into this world, you are on your way out," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.