By Janene Holzberg
5:04 PM EDT, June 8, 2012
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.
"Dad was really, really good about letting me do new things," he said.
Under Jeff Eline's direction, the showroom was remade to display partial cuts of caskets as samples, for instance, where there used to be entire caskets stacked up one on top of another.
"It was very overwhelming and disconcerting" for families, he said, surveying the room where an unusual discovery is also displayed. A premium cast-iron casket, originally built for Selby but never used, was found in an old family barn and brought in as a novelty for customers to see.
Services on the Web
But what has really changed is what people want from a funeral home, he said.
"People have busier schedules than ever and families are scattered around the country, so we've found that they want us to handle more" of the details, he said.
Customers also are looking for innovative technology to make funerals more accessible to those who can't manage a spur-of-the-moment trip, he said, and so Eline's began offering webcasting at the start of 2011.
"This allows us to record and broadcast a funeral service, which can also be archived for later viewing," he said, adding that Eline's has provided the service a couple of times since its inception.
Brian Ditto, executive director of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce, said Jeff Eline "has reinforced and honored the past while moving into the future."
"Jeff has brought a good marketing sense to the funeral home, and he has been open to incorporating people's ideas about how they want their loved ones remembered," he said. "He also has a keen understanding of just how many people his dad knew and cared for."
Ditto praised the family for steadfastly remaining independently owned and operated at a time when other companies "have been gobbled up by conglomerates."
Retired businessman Calvin Reter said Eline Funeral Home has been "a real asset to the community" and the owners have always been involved in "everything that goes on."
All of the funeral home's directors have served as chamber president over the years, he said, and recent generations were also heavily involved in the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company, which is preparing to celebrate 100 years.
"If there's something going on in town and you want Eline's support, all you have to do is ask for it," Reter said. "They're very generous."
FormerBaltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a Reisterstown native who lived within four miles of his birthplace his entire life until moving to Cockeysville two years ago, said his father's law office was located next to the funeral home when it was on Main Street, and so he grew up with Jimmy Eline.
"The Elines were there in the aftermath of the final moments of many of my loved ones — my mother, father, brother," Smith said. "They are like friends welcoming you into their living room at a time of sadness and need."
Family members take pride in the calm atmosphere that envelopes visitors to the funeral home, Eline said. Staff is also well-known for being the guardians since 1920 of Reisterstown's clock tower, which was first installed in 1887 at Goodwin's Livery Stable, next to the funeral home, and operated on and off at that location until 1967.
Affectionately called "Big Ed," it was relocated in 1968 to the roof of the Masonic Temple.
In 1991, Jeff Eline took over the winding of the clock every Friday and performed that task faithfully until his father died two years ago.
"When he passed away we stopped the clock at 3:35, the time of his death, but two days later when we went to restart it we couldn't get it to start," he said.
But the clock's importance to the town made the decision to repair it at any price an easy one, he said, and he's returned to winding the clock weekly.
The funeral industry "is a business, true; but there's a level where it's more than a business at the same time," Eline said. "My family continues to believe that commitment to the community matters."