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A homecoming for family business

Past and present were united Thursday afternoon to celebrate the grand opening of the Carl M. Ellington Funeral Services in Dilworth.

The name is new. But the family business and the 22,000-square-foot mansion that houses it are not.

The Ellingtons and McEwens (what the “m” in “Carl M. Ellington” stands for) have run a funeral home business for nearly 90 years.

And Thursday afternoon they celebrated the journey back to their roots with Lexington barbecue, banana pudding and Coca-Colas in glass bottles.

For decades the family business was known as the McEwen Funeral Service. Carl J. McEwen founded it in Mint Hill in 1926 after years of watching his father, a carpenter, build complimentary coffins for neighbors and friends.

He opened another location in the late 1930s in the red-brick home at 727 E. Morehead St., where grieving families sought solace in a funeral home known for its hospitality.

The company founder later renovated the building and expanded it to its current size, adding a 300-seat chapel, visitation rooms and bedrooms for the employees. The grand opening for the expansion was May 2, 1953 – exactly 60 years ago.

Carl M. Ellington Sr., the 76-year-old grandson of the founder and the current president of the company, was 16 years old during the grand-opening celebration, when a number of area Sunday school classes came for tours. He remembers operating the elevator, which still has hardwood floors and an iron gate.

In those days, someone on staff stayed in the home at all times and funeral homes operated the ambulances.

“We charged $4 (for pickup) without the siren on,” Carl M. Ellington Sr., reminisces. “It was $4.50 for the siren to be on.”

In 1986, the McEwen family business merged with Service Corp. International, a publicly traded Houston firm with holdings in funeral homes and cemeteries throughout the country.

Carl M. Ellington Sr. stayed on as president of the funeral home, and his family maintained ownership of the building. Service Corp. International leased it from them.

But five years ago, SCI terminated its lease on East Morehead Street and the business closed. Last year, Carl M. Ellington Sr. decided it was time to resurrect their truly family-owned and run business.

More than 250 family members, former employees and neighborhood residents came to celebrate the grand opening.

Pianists played in the 300-seat chapel. Old black-and-white photos dating as early as 1953 were blown up to poster size and put on display in the refurbished rooms they depicted.

Carl McEwen Ellington Jr., the 54-year-old great-grandson of the founder, oversaw the latest restoration of the home. He said their role as a family-run business in the community is an important one.

“The funeral business is a very personal business,” said Carl M. Ellington Jr. “Because death is hard – the hardest thing, really. You want to make it as soft as possible.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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