PALM HARBOR — Will Cantrell knew how to approach people at their worst moments, thanks to his training as a police officer and his personal experience with tragedy. The soft-spoken Southerner left police work to join the cemetery business.
Mr. Cantrell, who combined a delicate touch with good timing in his mom-and-pop cemetery-related companies, died Aug. 3. He was 81.
Even as a young man, Mr. Cantrell could reach mourners in a way others could not: He had been there. Two brothers had died within five years of each other. Each brother had died at 18 in a car crash.
Mr. Cantrell was a young Louisville, Ky., police officer on the scene of the second accident.
"I always felt that because he lost two brothers and was the only one left, he was sort of living on the edge," said Kevin Cantrell, his son. "He just lived his life out to the fullest in everything he did."
The Louisville native served four years in the Navy, then joined the Jefferson County Police Department in Louisville. Peers called him "Big Gravy" for his broad shoulders and affinity for Southern cooking.
He was working as a detective when he met Doris, his wife for the next 45 years. He left the police force after 13 years to go into the cemetery business.
Helping customers pre-arrange their own burials — a trend just gaining steam in the 1960s — meshed well with his gracious demeanor. "When people came in who had just lost a family member, he was so sympathetic with them," said Doris Cantrell. "That is how he got started."
The couple moved to Tampa in the mid 1970s, where Mr. Cantrell was named vice president and general manager for the Myrtle Hill cemetery company. He found time along the way to win several golf tournaments at what is now the Brooker Creek Golf Club and East Lake Woodlands Country Club.
From 1980 to 1981 he served a term as president of the Southern Cemetery Association. The group is now called the Southern Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. A company he established with his wife, Willdoris and Associates, built and operated a mausoleum in the late 1980s in Tarpon Springs, in the city-owned Cycadia Cemetery. Tarpon Springs bought out the company in 1990.
Mr. Cantrell pressed forward with a company he formed in 1985, Cycadia Mausoleum and Monuments Co., offering such products as bronze nameplates and memorial benches at discounted prices. His work in the 1990s included a $30,000, 25-foot black granite war memorial in Craig Park in Tarpon Springs, which the company built at cost; and another monument honoring Oldsmar residents who have served in the military.
Mr. Cantrell sold Cycadia to his son. His remains are interred in a private mausoleum the company built within Cycadia Cemetery.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]