Families burying loved ones lost a longtime, devoted friend Saturday night, when the dean of Decatur morticians died after an eight-year battle with cancer.

His clients and contemporaries remember James Birdsong for combining a professional attitude with his gentle and kind nature to help make Decatur’s oldest funeral home a success for more than four decades.

“He and the funeral home were a good fit,” said Tim Bailey, who worked alongside Birdsong on more than 2,000 funerals for more than 20 years at Rideout’s Brown-Service Funeral Home. “This job can really work on you emotionally, but he was extremely strong minded. He would feel empathy for these people, but he also would be professional and remain strong for them.

“He knew what to do and when to do and how to do. He’s going to be greatly missed,” Bailey said.

Birdsong, 70, got his start as a mortician part time in Little Rock, Ark., to supplement his income from the U.S. Air Force. After leaving the military, he attended John. A Gupton Mortuary School and worked several years in Columbia, Tenn. John McBride hired him in 1969 to work for what was then Brown-Service.

Birdsong’s wife of 37 years, Rita Birdsong, said her husband brought a consistent level of compassion to his job every day for more than 40 years because that was simply his caring nature and his clients knew it was genuine.

“I remember when we were going to get married in 1973, one of the attorneys here in town came up to me and said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you will never find anyone say anything bad about James.’”

Rita recalled the mother of a child who drowned in swimming pool telling her how valuable Birdsong was during their grieving process.

“She took my hand and said you just don’t know how crazy we are about him and how he helped us through this tragedy,” she said. “And a lot of other people said that they could not have went through (their grieving) without James.”

Gene Shelton of Shelton Funeral Home was a friend and professional acquaintance of Birdsong for 38 years. He said he appreciated that Birdsong held his competition with high regard and without jealousy and that they could rely on each other when the situation called for it. He also said he respected Birdsong for doing business by the book and not taking shortcuts.

“If he was doing a job, he always did his best,” Shelton said, adding that attitude carried over to his battle with cancer. ‘‘He stood up to it for a long time, which speaks a lot about him right there.”

Loved to fish

Birdsong’s dedication extended outside of work to his favorite and only hobby: fishing for smallmouth bass. He fished 12 months out of the year and in all types of unforgiving weather, sometimes fishing all night and then going to work in the morning, friends and family said.

Junior Beene was Birdsong’s fishing partner since 1990 and he said Birdsong excelled at fishing with light lines and baits and he loved to fish below Wheeler Dam.

“We caught a lot of big fish and he caught his share,” he said. “This past year we only got to go twice.

I could tell something was really wrong (with is health) when he didn’t have that passion every week to go like he did have.”

Beene said he thinks they probably would have fished this weekend had his best friend not contracted bird flu last winter. The flu greatly weakened his immune system, preventing cancer treatments and giving the disease the upper hand, he said.

The Rev. Terry Greer, pastor at Decatur First United Methodist Church, said Birdsong touched the lives of thousands and the community will notice his absence.

“I will remember him as a Christian gentleman who went about doing good for others,” he said. “He learned this life lesson of Jesus in his boyhood Pulaski Methodist Church and he learned it well. I will miss him terribly.”

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