In was back in 1863, when E.D. Selby was an undertaker handling funeral arrangements for the citizens of Reisterstown and the surrounding communities, that "the real birth of the funeral industry" occurred, said Jeffrey Eline.
Eline, who represents the fifth generation to run Eline Funeral Home, grew up in a family immersed in the business's twin goals of compassion and service.
As the funeral home prepares to mark its 150th year in 2013 — an incredible accomplishment that makes Eline's one of the oldest continuously operated family funeral businesses in the country — Jeff Eline reminisced about the early beginnings of the family trade, and predicted where the industry is heading.
Due to the nation's split during the Civil War, demand for services sprang from an equally fierce, but two-sided, sense of allegiance, he said.
"People from the South didn't want their fallen soldiers to be buried in the North, and people from the North didn't want their soldiers to end up in the South," said Eline, who is 44 and Selby's great-great-grandson by adoption. "Bodies had to be prepared to be sent back home."
Three professions merged at that time to create what is now known as a funeral home director, Eline said. Cabinet makers, like Selby, were already constructing caskets on occasion. They relied on assistance from livery stable owners, who supplied carriages to transport the caskets to grave sites, and on sextons, who maintained church cemeteries.
Antique journals, dating back to Selby's time — written in pen and ink with abundant flourishes — describe the details of caskets that were purchased, noting such woods as red cedar, chestnut, walnut, mahogany and rosewood. Bills of sale routinely ranged form $70 to $100, compared with the average of $7,000 to $8,000 charged today, Eline said.
Widows could purchase gloves and veils, black crepe to adorn a home's doorway and signal a family in mourning, and calling cards with black borders whose thickness indicated how recently the dearly departed husband had passed away, he said.
Interestingly, little personal information about the deceased was included in the logs, probably because churches dealt directly with the families most of the time, he said.
Eline, who grew up living over the funeral home when it was still located at 10 Main St., didn't initially gravitate toward joining the family business and neither did his older brother Jay, who now lives in California. After graduating in 1989 from Wilkes University, in Pennsylvania ,with a major in communications, Eline worked as a TV news director and made narrative films.
But frustration with the broadcast news industry, where he felt overworked and undercompensated, led him in 1991 to call his father, James B. Eline, with a change of heart.
"Dad had never pushed me to join the business," he said of his late father, who died at age 74 on May 6, 2010. "But I was ready. I called him and we made a deal that I could continue to work in film on the side. He never expected me to make that decision, and he was over the moon about it."
After making those plans, Jeff and his wife, Gayle, a retail music district manager, started their own family in Reisterstown. Son Aaron is 13, and daughter Selby is 9. Eline took time to produce a film titled "Mentor," which was shown at film festivals in Maryland and New York, and he later created "I Do and I Don't" with Jane Lynch, now a TV star on"Glee."
For nearly 20 years, father and son worked together each day in the funeral home's building at Franklin Boulevard and Reisterstown Road, where the business moved in 1976. Together they built onto the rock-solid foundation laid down by three ancestors before them.
J.F. Eline, Selby's son-in-law, carried on when Selby died and the business has never changed hands.
"The industry has changed over the last 20 years, though," observed Eline, who received his associate's degree in mortuary science after assuming his second career. "What had always been so dominated by families has been going corporate."
Eline's, which is not owned by a parent corporation, handles about 200 funerals a year. And it's still the personal touches that make the experience a little easier, he said.
"My dad had a phenomenal memory and he knew when and where everyone in town had been buried," he recalled. "It got to the point where it became a family game. We used to challenge him all the time and he was always right."
Though his father had employed the time-honored funeral service methods handed down to him, he was open to change, Eline said.