During high school, Keith Matthews, Matthews Mortuary founder, didn’t earn extra bucks as a soda jerk in the local drugstore. Instead, he worked at a funeral home. After high school, he attended Central Normal College in Danville before going to mortuary school. When World War II broke out at the end of his mortuary schooling, his instructors graduated the class, gave them licenses, and said, “Off to war you go,” according to Keith’s son Steven.
Keith came back after four years in the Pacific, and went back to work at the funeral home where he had been working prior to the war. While there, he met Roy Jones of Pittsboro, and the two men decided to open their own mortuary in Brownsburg. In June of 1946, the pair bought the undertaker establishment of Evans & Webb, which operated out of a storefront location on 8 East Main Street.
“No funerals were held in that store,” Steven says. “Back then, funerals were in homes or churches.”
Roy and Keith, both 24, purchased a two-story house at 402 East Main Street, which at that time was owned by the Brownsburg American Legion. The week Steven was born, Jones and Matthews Mortuary opened, making the pair the youngest funeral directors in the state of Indiana to own their own funeral home. For a short time after opening, Keith and Roy also ran a clothing store in Brownsburg, but it was too difficult to sustain both businesses so they chose to focus on the mortuary.
Both men and their families lived above the funeral home. This included Keith and his wife, Steven and his brother, as well as Roy and his wife. When both wives became pregnant there simply wasn’t enough room, so Roy’s family bought a house across the street.
“Our family continued to live above the funeral home until I was 10,” says Steven, who always planned to attend mortuary school and help his father with the business.
Life played on repeat when, after graduating from Wabash College, Steven was drafted into the Army and served two years, mostly in Germany. When he got out of the service in 1970, he officially started working with his dad and began mortuary college.
Steven’s son Jason’s journey is a somewhat different story.
“In high school, I was convinced that this was the last thing I was going to do,” says Jason, who had aspirations of becoming a teacher.
He had a change of heart, however, during his sophomore year at Ball State, when one of his high school friends died suddenly.
“That was a turning point for me because I came back here to attend services at Matthews Mortuary and got to see what my dad and granddad did, and what their service meant for people,” Jason says. “That changed my path.”
Though he still graduated with a teaching degree and briefly taught elementary school in Brownsburg, he went to mortuary school and got licensed in 1996. He’s been part of the family business ever since, making it a three-generation business.
All three men – Keith, Steven and Jason – got into the profession because, as Keith says, they have “a respect for the deceased and want to care for the living.” Plus, they enjoy providing a service for those in their community – a community the Matthews family has been part of for decades.
“It used to be that we knew every family we served,” says Steven, noting that when his dad started the business 75 years ago, the population of Brownsburg was 1,200. “As a kid, we knew everybody’s license plate numbers.”
Through the years Matthews Mortuary expanded several times. In 1952, Keith and Roy added a chapel onto the west side, then enclosed the front. Once Steven returned from military service, they put a garage on the back, bought a house next door, tore it down, and added more chapel space on the other side. After three major add-ons, they eventually outgrew the building. In 2002, after 56 years at the Main Street location, they bought a two-acre lot at Northfield Drive and 56th Street, and built a 12,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that includes large visitation rooms, a casket selection room, a public lounge, chapels and a flower room.
The Main Street location was sold to Mowery Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing, before changing hands again. The space is now occupied by the Brownsburg Parks Department.
Matthews Mortuary has now been around for 75 years, making it one of the oldest family-owned businesses and the top choice in Brownsburg funeral homes and even surrounding Indianapolis funeral homes. Steven attributes the longevity to a commitment to personal service. They take calls 24/7, because they do not use an answering service. During business hours, the entire mortuary staff answers the phone as needed. After normal hours, Steve, Jason, or Steve’s wife Karen usually answer the phone.
“You have to be involved in the day-to-day operation,” Steven says. “You can’t run your business without being part of it.”
At age 75, Steven no longer does many removals at 2 a.m., but he still answers the phone and dispatches the younger on-call funeral directors. The mortuary business typically runs 24/7 with no holidays or weekends off.
“The phrase ‘TGIF’ never comes out of our mouths,” Jason says. “My kids hear me take death calls in the middle of dinner. They’ve helped with funerals. My 18-year-old son has done a removal with me of a deceased. It’s truly a family business in that regard.”
His 15-year-old daughter has expressed an interest in perhaps continuing the family tradition.
“She has commented that she thinks she would enjoy this line of work,” Jason says. “Both my kids have the compassion necessary to do this job well.”
For the past 30 years Steven, who has degrees in psychology and biology, has spread his knowledge to other generations as a guest speaker at Brownsburg High School, talking to psychology classes about the grief process.
When COVID-19 entered our lives, much of the country went into lockdown and began working from home. Such was not the case for mortuaries, however.
“None of our work is virtual,” Steve says. “It’s all hands-on.”
Restrictions on crowd capacity often made funerals impossible for a period of time. In those instances, only immediate family could bury their loved ones.
“The pandemic was rough to say the least,” Jason says. “More so for those who were grieving since they were dealing with the pandemic plus the loss of a loved one.”
He recalls a young person who died of a heart attack early on in the pandemic, which was difficult to navigate because there were so many unknowns at that point.
“We did our best to provide comfort for the family, but the stress level for everybody involved was exponentially higher than it probably ever has been,” Jason says.
Families held small private funerals, and later held memorial services and celebrations of life when more people could come.
“The best return we get is when we are out at the grocery store or a sporting event, and somebody comes up and thanks us for the service we did for their loved one,” Steven says. “That’s really special.”
Matthews Mortuary is located at 690 East 56th Street in Brownsburg. For more funeral service information and information on their services such as funeral cremations, how to send flowers, pre-planning and more, call 317-852-4296 or visit matthewsmortuary.com.
*Dedicated to the memory of my grandparents and in honor of my parents. I have had the privilege of working alongside my father for more than 25 years in some of the most challenging, difficult and rewarding situations of a life lived and a death lost. Thank you, Dad! I have been truly blessed.” — Jason Matthews