Missouri News

Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel celebrates a century of service

James J. O'Donnell stands in front of a display inside the Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017 in Palmyra, Mo. The northeast Missouri funeral home is celebrating its 100th year in business this year. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
Phil Carlson 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 12, 2017 6:05 pm

PALMYRA, Mo. -- Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel in Palmyra is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.

The chapel will host a Business After Hours event with the Palmyra Chamber of Commerce 4:30 to 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at the funeral home, 424 S. Main. Refreshments and tours will be available. The public is invited.

The business has been associated with the Lewis family since August 1917, when two brothers, John Best Lewis and George B. Lewis, bought the former Joseph Quest Undertaking Company and converted it to the Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel.

The business has been housed at several different locations in downtown Palmyra. The sons of the founders -- John B. "Jack" Lewis and George M. Lewis -- built the current chapel in 1964.

A third generation of family members -- cousins Steven W. Lewis and David M. Lewis -- subsequently took over the operation. Then in September 2015, the family sold the business to James J. O'Donnell, but the Lewis Brothers name remains intact. Steve Lewis now manages the chapel, and David Lewis is semi-retired but works on a part-time basis.

O'Donnell hails from his own long-established funeral home family. He owns and operates the James O'Donnell Funeral Home in Hannibal, founded in 1895. He said it made sense to acquire the Lewis family business when the opportunity came along.

"Our grandfathers worked together, and our dads worked together. So our relationship goes back many, many years," O'Donnell said.

David Lewis said the O'Donnell and Lewis families "have been really good friends over the years." So when he and Steve Lewis began exploring the possibility of selling the business, the first person they thought of was O'Donnell.

"We're kids compared to them," Lewis said. "We're only 100 years old. And they've got five generations while we're only three. So I think we're in good hands."

David Lewis said the funeral home has flourished for a century because the Lewis family has taken pride in providing a vital service to the community.

"Our motto for years and years has been: ‘Our family is serving your family.' I think that's what's kind of made it a special thing," Lewis said.

"We've always been involved in the community, and I think that's made a big difference in getting us to 100 years."

For many years the Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel provided ambulance service to residents of the Palmyra and Philadelphia areas. At one point it was common for many small-town funeral homes to operate ambulances because they had extra-long vehicles capable of accommodating ill or injured people on stretchers.

Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel got out of the ambulance business in 1973, and a year later Marion County established a tax-supported ambulance district. The O'Donnell Funeral Home halted its ambulance services in the mid-1960s.

O'Donnell said Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel has prospered for 100 years because the Lewis family "kept up with the times." This includes transitioning from the horse-and-buggy days to become the first funeral home in Marion County with a motorized hearse in 1918.

In addition, he said, Lewis Brothers Funeral Chapel provides personalized "life celebration experiences that allow families to truly celebrate and remember their loved one."

For example, the Palmyra chapel in recent years was converted into a replica of a bowling alley to honor the life of a local man "who loved to go to the Pal Bowl and bowled all the time in leagues," O'Donnell said.

On another occasion, he said, "We had a gal who was into biking, so we had her bike club lead her funeral procession to the cemetery down Main Street."

The chapel also honored a local woman known for her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies by printing her cookie recipe on a special memorial card. The home also arranged to have someone bake a batch of the cookies for distribution to people attending the visitation.

Steve Lewis said this personalized approach makes a big difference.

"We aspire to make our services to be personal and relevant," he said.

"No two lives should be celebrated identically. Tradition is a very important part of what we do, and we will always honor that. We want to provide the community with a way to heal that truly honors their loved one."

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