“Granted, there might be a few still running around, but that's not us,” Sellers said.
Sellers, the funeral home director at Walker’s Funeral Home on West Franklin Street, right next to the newly opened Moe’s Southwest Grill, will always be surprised by how many people, especially those closer to his own age, have never had to make a funeral arrangement before.
“I was raised on a farm, so I knew about agriculture and pork and beef production and where things really come from, just not the grocery store,” he said. “And our children know for the most part what happens when someone dies and how we deal with families and how we deal with the remains of their loved one.”
So when people ask Sellers what he does for a living, he takes it as an opportunity to educate.
“Somewhere along the way, we, as funeral directors, failed to take advantage of that offer to take that knowledge to people,” he said. “The cliche, ‘Knowledge is power,’ is such a true statement there.”
Sellers took over the Chapel Hill location of Walker’s in October. But he’s been in funeral services since he was in college. This is the only career he knows.
Like most other funeral homes, Walker’s services include coordinating the specifics for a memorial service, working with cemetery officials or cremating the bodies in their facilities in Mebane, assisting with obituary placement and curating death certificates.
And it means working directly with families to figure out the best way to memorialize their loved one. Each family is different, so there’s no such thing as a typical day.
“Personalization tends to be important to most families, and we try to help them create that event — something that's memorable and it's a good reflection on the person who has died,” Sellers said.
‘Good to be back’
It’s the funeral service of an 8-year-old boy who was abused that sticks in Sellers’ mind.
Sellers remembers it being early in his career when the boy's mother and her boyfriend had allegedly stabbed him with an ice pick, decapitating him. And when the mother came in, they both blamed it on the neighbor’s dog.
“The bad ones seem to be the ones that stand out more than the good ones,” he said. “And I guess that’s because we have so many good ones that I don’t want to get complacent about it.”
Sellers knew he wanted to be a funeral home director before he even finished college at Chowan College, now Chowan University, in eastern North Carolina.
“I did that really to appease my parents because I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be a funeral director,” he said.
“They did not want me to be a funeral director, so I started off in school there, but I went to work in a funeral home almost immediately once I got settled into school.”
He bounced from an apprenticeship at Walker’s in 1978 to mortuary school to learn how to embalm in Atlanta, to stints working in funeral services in Winston-Salem and Hickory.
Rives Hicks, who worked with Art while he was in Pittsboro, said Sellers has compassion both for the funeral business and for the people being served.
"He just has a good sense of the funeral business and the compassion and all that it takes to serve the community and the families," he said.
And just prior to coming back to Walker’s, he worked as a partner for a funeral home for 14 years in Pittsboro, where he still lives.
“The opportunity to come back here where I got the foundation of my beliefs as a funeral director has filled a void that I didn’t know existed until I walked into the door to go to work,” he said. “It’s good to be back here.”
‘Bottom line, you do the right thing’
Walker’s Funeral Home doesn’t turn anybody away.
Each year, while writing the annual budget, the staff accounts for a handful of families who might not be able to afford a funeral service.
“Not every family that walks in the door can probably afford a $10,000 funeral, just to throw out a round figure,” Sellers said.
“I know of funeral homes in the area that will tell families directly, ‘If you can’t afford it, you need to call somebody else.’ We just don’t treat people that way. Bottom line, you do the right thing.”
This isn’t easy for a company that is still locally owned and operated and has prime real estate on Franklin Street.
Sellers thinks of the handful of funeral homes in the area that are corporately owned and operated and that take meetings with shareholders. Sellers says he does not want to be like them.
“We are a business, and certainly we need to make money to keep the doors open, but there’s a difference between making a fair profit and gauging someone,” he said. “And strictly from a business point, our profit margin is not nearly what people would think it is.”
When Sellers walked into Walker’s for the first time as director two months ago, he entered a funeral home that only had one remaining employee from the previous management. Change was inevitable.
Now, five people work at the Chapel Hill location, including Sellers, his son, Tripp, and his wife.
Right now, Sellers is focused on rebuilding the staff at the Chapel Hill location. Down the road, Sellers wants to build a new funeral home location, away from Franklin Street. The current building, created in the 1920s, was not built to be a funeral home by today’s standards.
Ideally, Sellers wants to have a building that’s just one floor and with ample parking.
“We have been basically landlocked by the buildings around us and part of the University, so the dirt this building is on is worth a whole lot more to somebody else than it is to us.”
The other funeral home director at Walker's, Tripp Sellers, 29, is Art Sellers' eldest son. He's been in the business for eight years, finding the career while taking a break from college.
When he started in the business, he knew what to expect, but somethings were more demanding than he thought — like getting death certificates or placing obituaries.
"People, generally, unless they've experienced a death recently, don't notice the costs associated," he said.
‘The party will go on for you’
Art Sellers doesn’t want a “cookie-cutter” funeral for himself.
He’s religious and goes to church, but he doesn’t want his family to take him into a church for his service.
“Some people are intimidated by going to church, some people don't go,” Art Sellers said. “I want as many people to be there who choose to come to be comfortable.”
Art Sellers knows he wants to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered across the ocean at Emerald Isle.
He talks about his plans with his wife, and she talks to him about her own plans. But like Art Sellers says, the funeral service is about those who are left, not about the one who has died.
“She’s already said that the party will go on for you. There’s no doubt,” Art Sellers said. “That’s comforting to me.”