The complex transverse water proton magnetization subject to diffusion-encoding magnetic field gradient pulses in a heterogeneous medium such as brain tissue can be modeled by the Bloch-Torrey partial differential equation. The spatial integral of the solution of this equation in realistic geometry provides a gold-standard reference model for the diffusion MRI signal arising from different tissue micro-structures of interest. A closed form representation of this reference diffusion MRI signal called matrix formalism, which makes explicit the link between the Laplace eigenvalues and eigenfunctions of the biological cell and its diffusion MRI signal, was derived 20 years ago. In addition, once the Laplace eigendecomposition has been computed and saved, the diffusion MRI signal can be calculated for arbitrary diffusion-encoding sequences and b-values at negligible additional cost. Up to now, this representation, though mathematically elegant, has not been often used as a practical model of the diffusion MRI signal, due to the difficulties of calculating the Laplace eigendecomposition in complicated geometries. In this paper, we present a simulation framework that we have implemented inside the MATLAB-based diffusion MRI simulator SpinDoctor that efficiently computes the matrix formalism representation for realistic neurons using the finite element method. We show that the matrix formalism representation requires a few hundred eigenmodes to match the reference signal computed by solving the Bloch-Torrey equation when the cell geometry originates from realistic neurons. As expected, the number of eigenmodes required to match the reference signal increases with smaller diffusion time and higher b-values. We also convert the eigenvalues to a length scale and illustrate the link between the length scale and the oscillation frequency of the eigenmode in the cell geometry. We give the transformation that links the Laplace eigenfunctions to the eigenfunctions of the Bloch-Torrey operator and compute the Bloch-Torrey eigenfunctions and eigenvalues. This work is another step in bringing advanced mathematical tools and numerical method development to the simulation and modeling of diffusion MRI.