Longtime funeral director serves as president of state organization
Wayne McWilliams of Alpena knows a thing or two about helping people through one of the most difficult times in their lives – the death of a loved one. He’s spent 63 years in and around funeral service, including as the owner of McWilliams Funeral Home on Washington Avenue.
“I’m usually seeing people at their worst,” he said. “People come to us because they don’t have any idea what to do or what they are supposed to do. The big thing is to try and give them options on what’s available and what they can do.”
This past year, McWilliams has relied upon his many years of experience to lead the state’s top funeral service organization, the Michigan Funeral Directors Association. He has spent the last 10 months as president of MFDA, with two more months to go.
“It’s an honor to be selected by your colleagues,” McWilliams said of his presidency. He also previously spent seven years serving on the MFDA board as a district director.
Founded in 1880, MFDA seeks to enhance the value of funeral service and the profession through government advocacy, public information, and professional and member communication programs.
For McWilliams, his year as president has meant a great deal of extra travel as he has attempted to visit each of the 10 districts throughout the state as well as attend various meetings and holiday functions.
He also was able to show off the city of Alpena by hosting the annual MFDA board retreat here. Forty members and their spouses enjoyed a variety of activities and sightseeing while staying in Alpena for the retreat.
“Many said it was the best retreat they had had in some time,” McWilliams.
McWilliams grew up as the son of funeral director parents who owned McWilliams Funeral Home in Rogers City. His father died when he was 17, so he worked with his mother from 1970 to 1985.
“It was her dedication and inspiration that provided the love of funeral service that has become my passion, not only to help families in time of need, but to ‘pay it forward’ by giving back to the profession by dedicating time and talents to MFDA,” McWilliams said.
He earned a business degree in 1976 from Michigan State University and did his mortuary training in 1976-77 at California College of Mortuary Science. He then spent eight years working at the family funeral home in Rogers City before deciding to make a temporary career change and attend culinary school. That path took him to Washington, D.C., where he worked simultaneously in the food service and funeral service industries for about a year and a half. Eventually, he ended up taking a job at a funeral home in Roanoke, Va., before returning home to Northeast Michigan.
“I came back and bought Bud’s Donuts,” McWilliams said. “Even at that time I was working for almost every funeral home in Northeast Michigan filling in.”
Ultimately, he realized that funeral service was his true calling and cooking/baking became more of a hobby, though he credits his foray into food service for getting him back to Alpena.
In 1998, McWilliams started working fulltime as the manager of what was then Wachterhauser Funeral Home. He purchased the business in 2004 and renamed it McWilliams Funeral Home, which continues the tradition of being a family operated business. His wife, Karen, also works there fulltime as well as his son-in-law, Jeff Faircloth, who is licensed in mortuary science.
Throughout the years, McWilliams has seen numerous changes in the industry.
“Cremation rates have increased considerably, but there’s also more personalization that goes into services,” he said. “As it’s going in the country, there also is less religious affiliation so less religious services.”
Despite nearly a lifelong involvement in funeral service, he has no immediate plans for retirement.
“As long as I remain healthy, I plan to keep on doing this,” McWilliams said.