Photo by Lisa Bicknell
Jason Abner, at left, now owns the Lewis- Abner Home for Funerals. Junior Estes has worked for several owners of the business, but he’s been in the same place for more than 48 years.
The new owner of the business formerly known as the Lewis Funeral Home has recently bought the business, “lock, stock, and barrel.” “But I’ve been here a long time,” said Jason Abner, who came to work at the funeral home in 2003, fresh out of mortuary college. Abner hopes to renew the local and family feel of the place, such as it had when the original owners, Tom and Cornelia Wilson Lewis and their daughters and families, operated it. Passersby have likely already noticed the bright new sign out front with the new Lewis-Abner Home for Funerals logo. Although Abner is not related to the original owners, he said, “No one can remember when it wasn’t a funeral home,” so he decided to keep the Lewis name. Abner has been busy making repairs and freshening up the place, something he says is long overdue. He is completely remodeling the casket selection room, and he is also replacing wall paper and carpet inside the funeral home. The storage shed out behind the funeral home beside Court Street has been demolished. Abner says the space will be used to expand parking. The funeral home was owned and operated by the Lewis family from 1929 until their daughters, Patsy and Marthalynn, eventually sold it in the early 1990s to a company from Canada. Abner said that company eventually went bankrupt and was later bought by two men, one from Cincinnati and one from Versailles. They operated the business from a distance for several years, but Abner says he doesn’t think they ever really understood the dynamic of a small town like Irvine. Abner was the first in his family to work in the funeral home business. He was influenced by a funeral director at home named Carl Wells, whom he called a “really good guy.” Abner and William Bledsoe operated the Lewis funeral home for the absentee owners, and Abner said he was sometimes frustrated with the company’s unwillingness to spend money to freshen up the place. “Funerals are expensive, and people deserve a nice facility,” he said. When people ask Abner about his job, he explains that it is “nothing like people think it is.” Ninety-plus percent of his time is spent with the survivors and only a small part with the deceased. “This is a people job,” he said. “You have to like people.” He claims he specializes in impromptu family reunions, and one phrase he hears over and over again is, “This is the only time we ever get together.” In a small town, operating a funeral home is a big job, one of wearing many hats. Abner is responsible for everything from retrieving the body, to embalming, to serving the family and running the business. He is on call “24/7, 365 days a week.” If he goes out to eat or to a movie with friends, he drives separately in case he gets a call. Although the schedule is demanding, Abner says he isn’t trying to throw himself “a pity party.” “It’s a life of service, and I like it.” While Abner has long served the Estill County community, he lives in Clay City on the same street where he has lived since he was six. He hopes to buy a home in Irvine, but until then, he’s just a few minutes away. He also hopes to keep his right hand man, Jr. Estes, who has been employed full-time at the Lewis Funeral Home for 48 years. Before that, he worked part-time for them a couple of years. Abner says he hopes Estes is working for him for another 48 years. Although folks tend to avoid coming to the funeral home, Abner is hoping they will not wait until an hour of crisis to come and see him. He highly recommends funeral planning and pre-arrangement, which he says is “certainly easier on the survivors.” “It takes emotion out of the selection process,” he explained. “People tend to overspend out of emotion, or, they underspend because they are in a place of financial hardship.” Even for those with a life insurance policy, pre-planning is still a good idea, he said. Pre-arrangement locks in the price so that it will remain the same, even if the funeral doesn’t occur for another 40 years. Arrangements are always made through a third party also, so that if a business were to change owners or close, they would be still honored. Abner said he is working on packaging services to fit different budgets, and he is happy to discuss those at any time. He can be reached at 723-2151.