Plans in the works for a state-of-the-art funeral home after fire
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Friday, April 13, started out as a lucky day for Brent Lyerly.
On his way to work, the Lyerly Funeral Home owner went to his favorite coffee shop, Koko Java, where to his surprise, his cup of joe was on the house.
Lyerly continued his morning routine by stopping at the Salisbury Post to buy a newspaper. The previous customer had left the paper box slightly ajar and, like most people would, Lyerly helped himself to a copy.
“When I got to work, I said, ‘Today’s going pretty good,’ ” Lyerly said.
Hours later, a voracious four-alarm fire would consume the funeral home building that had stood at 515 S. Main St. since 1964.
The next day, Lyerly said he thought back to the newspaper he took for free.
“After the fire, I assumed the ghost of Jimmy Hurley got me,” Lyerly said.
Lyerly can talk about the fire that changed his life, and joke about revenge by the late Salisbury Post publisher for stealing a paper, because no one was hurt in the blaze, a fact he repeats four times during a 45-minute conversation.
Lyerly can’t say often enough how grateful he is that no one was killed or injured — none of his 12 employees, none of the 200 bystanders, none of the 50-plus firefighters.
“We didn’t even have anybody that needed a Band-Aid,” Lyerly said.
It’s his daily prayer of thanksgiving.
Four months after the fire that started at 12:15 p.m. when Lyerly switched on the furnace, the funeral home director and his employees have settled into temporary quarters next door at the Lyerly Building, where Cremation Concepts has operated for three years and wife Patti Lyerly leads a growing staff of counselors.
Patti Lyerly gave up her large office, now shared by funeral home administrators Wayne Hendrix and R.S. Snider. Brent Lyerly uses the space as well, but has no desk.
Instead, he works from a card table pushed up against one wall.
A white board propped on the table shows in pink marker a rough sketch of Lyerly’s vision for the new Lyerly Funeral Home.
The state-of-the-art building will stand on the same lot but face the Lyerly Building next door, rather than Main Street. Ease and efficiency are key to the design, which will feature a separate entrance for florists and a covered drop-off area for visitors.
The nearly $1 million construction project remains in the planning stages. Lyerly and staff have done extensive research on funeral home design, and Lyerly said he’s ready to move forward with formal drawings, blueprints and elevations to start the permitting process.
He said he believes construction will take up to one year, and he hopes to open the doors in late 2013.
“At 56 years old, I never dreamed I’d be doing something like this,” he said.
Lyerly said he’s planning the building for the 25th century and wants the space to remain flexible, so the business can respond as traditions in the funeral home industry change.
Visitations, once a standard two-hour event the night before a funeral, are increasingly held an hour before the service these days, Lyerly said.
“We have to be prepared for trends to swing,” he said.
The one-story building will feature a large chapel and two multipurpose areas for visitation or other needs.
“It’s not going to be a Taj Mahal, but it will reflect who we are and it will fit into Salisbury,” Lyerly said. “It will be something the community will be very proud of.”
Building a new facility will allow Lyerly to reconfigure a building that had been added onto three times, in 1970, 1987 and 1997.
Insurance should cover the entire cost of construction. Lyerly insists that as much as possible, Rowan County craftsmen and laborers will rebuild the funeral home.
“I want to put Rowan County people to work,” Lyerly said.
Jeff Moore, on staff with the funeral home as building coordinator and crematory operator, will serve as general contractor. Wife Leigh Ann Moore also works for Lyerly’s as marketing director.
The first phase of the rebuild will go up sooner than the funeral home and wrap up in roughly 60 days. Construction could begin this month on a permanent garage and temporary embalming facility behind the Lyerly Building and crematory.
Although Lyerly reiterates they are “just cars,” the surviving fleet of hearses, vans and support vehicles play an important role at Lyerly Funeral Home.
The expensive vehicles usually receive special care.
“They’ve been babied and coddled since we’ve had them,” Lyerly said. “And they’ve been taking a beating since the fire.”
They sit in a parking lot, exposed to the elements. Lyerly is ready to get them under cover.
Because Fridays are wash and detailing day, all but one of the funeral home’s vehicles were parked outside and were easily moved away from the flames.
The 1959 Ford panel truck that belonged to Lyerly’s father, James C. Lyerly, who organized the business after buying Peeler Funeral Home in 1957, was believed to be destroyed by flames.
But it was salvaged from the debris the following day.
A stack of condolence cards reached three feet high after the fire. Lyerly keeps some on hand to remind himself of the community support for the funeral home, which continues to this day.
“As devastating as it was for us, this community took it just as hard,” he said.
While the funeral home wasn’t a shrine, it was a “very sacred place” for families, many of which had used Lyerly’s services over and over, he said.
Lyerly said he takes comfort in his belief that the fire was God’s will.
“He had a purpose for all this,” he said. “I’ve never questioned him in anything, and I’m not going to start.”
After the fire, every church in the city — white and black — offered their facilities, Lyerly said. People he didn’t know stopped him on the street and in the grocery store to offer their sympathy.
“It’s unbelieveable how many lives this story has touched,” he said. “I have been so humbled by the outpouring of support.”
Because of their proximity to the Lyerly Building, Stallings Baptist Church and Haven Lutheran Church serve as alternate locations for visitation and funerals if a family doesn’t have a home church in Rowan County.
Despite the fire, business has picked up at Lyerly Funeral Home. While the business has certainly lost some new customers, the “Lyerly loyalists” aren’t going anywhere, Lyerly said.
Cremation Concepts has seen “tremendous growth,” Lyerly said. In three years, the crematory has handled the remains of 562 people and 400 individual pets.
Lyerly’s offers the only pet crematory in Rowan County.
Cremation is growing in popularity as the population becomes more transient, Lyerly surmised. If someone from New York moves to Florida and finally settles in Salisbury, he or she may choose cremation so ashes can be scattered in each location.
Families moving from state to state to state may not want to bury a loved one in a cemetery they could never visit again.
Cremations are also more economical. A typical cremation with memorial service costs $2,000, compared to a traditional funeral at between $8,000 and $9,000.
Experiencing the loss of his family business has made Lyerly a more empathetic funeral home director.
“Even though I thought I already knew it, it’s made me more aware that things can be gone in the twinkling of an eye,” he said. “I have always felt for people who have lost, but now I think I feel it more acutely.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.