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Mortician realizing dream with purchase of historic funeral home

Outside the doors of David A. Hall Mortuary off North Maple in the heart of Pittsboro, it’s not uncommon to find Eric Bell out mowing the lawn or chatting with neighbors.

“I’m out front in the rocking chair or power washing and people stop and talk. I just absolutely love that,” says Bell.

A longtime mortician, Indiana native is far from the gloomy figure lurking in the shadows as Hollywood would have it. In fact, he’s quite chatty and jovial.

Bell in front of his 1948 Henney Hearse. Photo by Rick Myers

Bell is the new owner of the historic mortuary, taking over for David A. Hall himself after a career spanning decades. For Bell, owning his own funeral home is about being that neighborhood mortician that people know and trust.

“I’m just really achieving my dream by buying this place,” he said.

It’s a vision that started when he was just a kid. Bell grew up in Frankfort, Indiana. The son of a firefighter and the nephew of a priest, being part of a community was always second nature. And so were funerals.  As a boy, he developed a strong bond with a mentor he describes as a second dad and a pillar of the community. He was also the undertaker.

“The funeral director in my hometown had a classic car collection and after my grandparents died I was hanging around it all the time. He said if I was going to hang around all the time then I had to start working,”

So he did. By the time Bell was 16, he was wearing suits and helping coordinate funerals and playing the trumpet for services.

“The funeral home would pick me up on the way to the cemetery and I would leave school and I would go play Taps and then they would drop me back off,” he remembers.

Bell went on to study business at Marian University and earn another degree in funeral services. He’s worked at several large funeral homes in Indiana, but says the industry has gone too commercial and he’s happier to be more hands-on, providing those extras to grieving families like answering the phone himself and playing the trumpet at Veteran memorial services once again.

“It’s powerful when someone turns over their most precious thing in the entire world to you. That’s a really heavy gift and obligation,” said Bell.

On a regular work day, this Hoosier does what many would never encounter or want to. From embalming bodies (no, he doesn’t have a creepy room in the basement) to delivering flowers at a cemetery or picking up a body. Death calls can come at all hours of the day and night.

“It just becomes part of your life like anything else.”

Bell‘s wife Evelyn, a Hendricks County native, and his 2-year-old daughter Erin won’t be living at the funeral home (an old-school concept) but locally. He does plan to set up a playroom at the mortuary for his daughter when she attends nearby Pittsboro Elementary. The obvious My Girl reference comes to mind.

“That movie is actually the most accurate portrayal of a mortician, he’s a regular guy who happens to be an undertaker,” Bell remarks.

While most modern-day funeral directors shudder at the term “undertaker,” Bell embraces it. He teaches Mortuary Science at Vincennes University and embraces the history of the industry.

“I’m old fashioned. I like old things.” Like the 1948 Packard Henney Hearse that’s available upon request.

Bell also doesn’t shy away from those awkward questions at dinner parties.

“If you don’t want anyone to talk to you then say you sell insurance,” he jokes.

People always have an inquiry about ghoulish encounters and bodies standing up on their own.

“I can assure that has never happened and if it does it will be my last day in the funeral home,” he responds.

He says not all funerals are sad. He enjoys the tales of World War Two veterans and the fascinating stories on a long life.  To him, the actual service is much like a play.

“The star is the deceased and your audience has to take away some kind of emotional feeling from that. Our job is to create a scene of healing for families.”

But he’s never gotten over the ones who require the tiniest of caskets.

“I’ve broken down and had to walk away.”

“But why would you ever want a funeral director who didn’t’ feel that way?”

The job has given him perspective you can’t get anywhere else. He’s seen the best and worst of people as the grieving process magnifies all emotions. His job is to navigate them the best he can.

And like most morticians, he views life’s petty problems for what they are.

“You get this mentality. Okay, you wrecked your car, but you could be dead. You got a divorce but you could be dead, and it’s hard not to see that because I’ve stood next to someone who has lost their two-year-old child.”

He says don’t sweat the small stuff and embrace life and the people you love.

“Life is precious and fleeting and brief and not guaranteed, to overlook that is the greatest of all sins in my opinion.”

By Lindsay Doty