He nurtures families through their final good-byes. Funeral home director Judd Sellars proves a steady hand in the face of death.
Story and photos by KEN BECK
Black—that’s my color,” says Judd Sellars as he surveys the two Cadillac hearses parked inside his business garage.
He’s not being funny nor dead serious but simply stating fact.
The 36-year-old Lebanon native opened Sellars Funeral Home in 2003 to fulfill an ambition that began during his teenage years to become a licensed funeral home director and embalmer.
“It’s not a nine to five business. We’re on call 24-7. Death waits on no man. When it occurs, we go,” Sellars said.
“It was always my ambition and goal to come back to Lebanon and open a funeral home. We took care of 75 families our first year, and every year we’re taking care of more families. This year we performed about 150 funerals in Lebanon and 75 in Mt. Juliet, and we did about 500 cremations.”
There is far more to operating a funeral home than what meets the eye at church, chapel or cemetery. It involves combining compassion and comfort along with detailed medical procedures, keen coordinating skills and the ability to calm the nerves and soothe the feelings of those who have lost someone they cherish.
“A good funeral home provides a dignified service for their loved one,” said Sellars. “We try to take as much off a family as we can while they are grieving here at the funeral home. We provide state-of-the-art facilities. We take care of cemetery and flower arrangements. From the preparation standpoint for viewing the remains, we want everything to be as natural as possible to provide good closure.”
There are a myriad of tasks that funeral homes undertake in the days between transporting a person from death to the grave. It usually begins when they are contacted by hospital staff and/or the family about the death. The first step involves bringing the body to the funeral home where the embalming process takes several hours. In the meantime the director is coordinating details with family members. The funeral home also often writes the newspaper obituary notice and composes the death certificate, which must be filed in the county of death and signed by a doctor before it is passed to the health department. Finally, and foremost, the funeral home coordinates the viewing, funeral service and burial.
A difficult vocation at best, for Sellars the most rewarding aspect of his work is forging friendships.
“I‘ve seen it all from bad car wrecks to plane crashes to suicides,” said Sellars. “Every situation is different… I don’t ever want to become used to it. If you become calloused to it, you can’t be effective, and I don’t want that to ever happen. Accidents and suicides tear me up.
“What you do for people as they go through the grief process, they never forget it. It’s truly gratifying,” he says. “The hardest part is dealing with the death of children. From my spiritual background, if I have the opportunity, at the end of a conference I ask the family if they would like to have a prayer and I’ve never had a family turn me down.”
Sellars’ faith runs deep, a heritage handed down by his parents and his late grandfather, Walter Sellars, a minister to all denominations who Judd affectionately refers to as “Pa.”
“He had a Church of God here in Lebanon and was a preacher in the county for 30 years. Sheriff Terry Ashe called him ‘the pope of Wilson County.’ Every day he was visiting the funeral homes, hospitals and nursing homes. He genuinely loved people. He did more funerals than anyone in the county,” said Sellars, who also operates a funeral home in Mt. Juliet.
He plans to begin construction on a new facility in Mt. Juliet this spring or summer. The proposed site will be on West Division Street, about three quarters of a mile west of Mt. Juliet Road. “It will be very similar to our location in Lebanon,” said Sellars, who is on the board of directors of First Freedom Bank as well as a board member of the YMCA in Mt. Juliet.
Sellars Funeral Home in Lebanon was designed by Wilson County architect Mike Manous. The entrance foyer boasts two large lions from Cuz’s Antiques beside a stone fireplace. A lounge area and three visitation rooms are to the left, and a not-so-dark chapel with its high ceiling and lots of glass windows is on the right.
“I love the glass. It‘s so different from what most funeral homes look like,” said Sellars. “We keep everything so natural.”
A patio outside the visitation rooms contains a koi pond with a fountain. “I think it‘s good therapy and really nice to come out here and hear that running water,” Sellars says.
The funeral home also holds a casket room and preparatory room with an embalming machine and other tools of the trade such as forceps, scalpels, aneurysm hooks, drain tubes, needle injector and trocar.
“There’s an art to all of this,” Sellars said of mortuary science which involves restorative art and cosmetology. He receives major assistance from Eric Hendricks, a native of Franklin, Ky., who has been working with him for 2½ years. “After we have done the preparation, if the body is emaciated often times extensive tissue building (around the temple, eye orbits and mouth) is necessary. Then we come back and do some light makeup and lip color and rouge to give the person color.”
Separate and located at the back of the lot is the only crematorium in Lebanon. Self-contained, the crematory heats up to 2,000 degrees as it transfigures a body to ashes in about three hours. This facility cremates about 500 bodies a year from across the mid-state.
One other interesting corner here is the Precious Moments Room next to the lounge. Filled with such items as old leather boxing gloves, newspaper articles and photographs from the 1950s and ’60s of Lebanon High football teams and cheerleaders, it serves as a virtual Lebanon sports museum.
“Everybody who played football on this field comes in here,” says Sellars, referring to the fact that the funeral home is built on the former football field where Lebanon High played home football games in the 1950s and ’60s.
Judd is the son of Danny and Kathy Sellars. His father has been minister for 30 years at the Mt. Juliet Worship Center where a building on the church campus has been named the Walter Sellars Life Center in memory of his grandfather. Judd has two brothers, Scott Fakes and Jade Sellars, who live in the county, and the family carries an athletic heritage.
“My father, Danny, is the youngest of the four Sellars brothers (the other three are Eddie, Billy and Ronnie). They were pretty well known for their boxing skills. They boxed from the time they were kids until after their high school years. They were all Southern gold glove champions. They all played football at Lebanon High School, and all four were team captains,” said Judd, a 1991 graduate of Friendship Christian High School, who was an all-district linebacker on the football team and an all-state centerfielder on the baseball team.
It was during his senior year that Sellars met Lebanon native Becky Edwards, today his wife and the mother of their two sons, Storm, 5 and Luke, 3.
“She put me through mortuary school,” says Sellars. “I couldn’t have done what I’m doing without my wife. She’s my soul mate.”
Becky, a graduate of Lebanon High School and Cumberland University, met Judd when she was a sophomore and was introduced to him by her friend Melanie Morris. On their first date he invited her to one of his football games and then took her to eat at Cracker Barrel. They married six years later with the ceremony performed by Judd’s father and grandfather.
“Judd’s outgoing. He never meets a stranger and likes to talk. I’m not a talker. I’m married to him ’cause he does all the talking. That’s why I put people to sleep,” said Becky, who has been a nurse anesthetist at University Medical Center for the past three years.
During their courtship Judd briefly mentioned to her his dream of becoming a mortician. Later when he told her he was serious about it, she responded, “OK, let’s go get the papers for your school.
“There are a lot of nights when he works late until 10:30 and comes home and then gets called back up, but when I hear all the people say how wonderful he was helping them, it paid off for me. He likes to be there, helping the people at a hard time in their lives.”
Becky says the family likes to travel and they enjoy golfing together.
For Judd his priorities are family, business and working out. “I usually work out three to four days a week, lifting free weights, dumbbells and getting on the machines at Sports Village and Anytime Fitness.
“I enjoyed sports very much and working out was as big a part as the sports because of the drive and structure. I am pretty much self driven and give a lot of the credit to how I work my business to my sporting in baseball and football and working out on weights. It’s very regimented, and you have a schedule and it provides a work ethic.”
After high school Sellars studied for a semester each at Cumberland University and Vol State. He worked for several years at his uncle Eddie’s Hermitage Fitness Center and at Perma-Pipe in Lebanon before pursuing his dream.
“I wanted to go to mortuary school straight out of high school,” he says. “I really think it goes back to my being around funeral homes so much as a child because my grandfather preached so many funerals.”
At 22 he went to work at Hibbett and Hailey Funeral Home in Donelson, assisting with funerals and working visitations for six months. That was when he decided to make the jump and enroll in the two-year program at the John A. Gupton Mortuary School in Nashville where he studied chemistry, microbiology, anatomy and pathology while preparing for clinicals and being on call to participate in body preparations.
Simultaneously he went to work with Stewart Enterprises, which owned six funeral homes, and helped at their three Cole & Garrett Funeral homes in Goodlettsville, Hendersonville and White House for two years.
Then he took a national boards test, a law exam and had to go before the state board before receiving his license as a funeral director and embalmer at the age of 25.
After 14 years in working in the funeral business he says the biggest difference over the years has been the rising number of requests for cremations.
“When I first got into this, I’m guessing it was 90 percent traditional and 10 percent cremation and now it’s 70 to 30. We can still have the traditional viewing and service, and then do the cremation instead of going to the cemetery.”
What do families do with the ashes?
“They either hold on to them and buy a nice commemorative urn to keep them in or they have them interred. And then a lot of people scatter the ashes, usually at the home place, a farm or the beach.”
Tricia Farrar, office manager of Sellars Funeral Home in Lebanon, has been there since day one and sees her boss in front of and behind the scenes on a daily basis.
“I do the paperwork and hold down the fort for everyone,” said Farrar. “I do a little bit of everything. I’ve even helped unload caskets.
“Judd is a good Christian man,” she says. “He’s genuine in everything he does. He’s a good leader, who brings out our best qualities. He gives us a lot of room to express ourselves.
“Judd focuses on people. We all do. He’s always high energy, never dull, and a lot of fun.
He’s a big workout freak who likes Mountain Dew. I’ve seen him pour Mountain Dew into his decaffeinated coffee, and I’ve seen him eat a whole chocolate pie,” said Farrar with an elfin smile.
Sellars also maintains Wilson County’s only pet cemetery, a quarter of a mile or so behind Mt. Juliet Memorial Gardens. The site is located just beyond two pine trees where about 120 graves are topped by stone markers, large and small, that bear such names as Henry, Max, Peaches, Chardonnay, Jake and Blackie. One monument is shaped like a poodle, and several hold photos of beloved pets on the stones.
“We have at least one pet burial a month, sometimes three in a week,” said Beverly Austin, office manager of Sellars Funeral Home in Mt. Juliet. “You can buy a casket for $150 to $300 but most people use a rubber container. I even had a pet buried here last year, a family cat named Thumper.”
“The pet cemetery is probably 30 years old and was started by minister Wayne Coats. The property where pets are buried will always be taken care of,” said Sellars. “To some people their pets are just like family. We probably offer about 30 pet burials a years, about 70 percent for dogs and 30 percent for cats. We give good service and care. We have a committal prayer at the graveside before we close.”
For a man who touches the face of death on a regular basis, Judd Sellars possesses an optimistic outlook on life, an attitude that is bound to be a blessing for the hundreds of families and friends that he and his staff have assisted as they pay their final respects to those who have passed into the sleep of ages.
Contact writer Ken Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org.