Mark Musgrove gave his mother CPR on the deck of a snorkeling boat during a family vacation in Hawaii. His children stood and watched, panicked, as their grandmother died of a heart attack. Back home, in Oregon, Mark’s brother, Jeff was packing his bags to meet up with the rest of the family when he received the news. The younger Musgrove brother soon altered his vacation plans to make funeral arrangements.
“I wouldn’t have traded that for what Jeff had to go through,” says Mark.
For months after the funeral, Jeff suffered panic attacks. His chest would cinch tight. He would often think about his mother’s untimely death, and how he too, would soon die.
“Just having that experience gave me a deeper understanding for the people that I serve,” Jeff says.
The Musgroves grew up in the funeral business. A trip to pick up a dead body in Salem turned into an enjoyable family outing. The boys’ parents worked in a funeral home that would later become the Musgrove Family Mortuary.
Mark lived in the home until he was three. Jeff lived there during college. Mark became a funeral director after graduating from college. Jeff eventually joined his brother in the family business—a business that is often unpredictable and challenging.
Everyday is different for the Musgroves. One of their many tasks include helping with the pick up and delivery of a body. Within 24 hours, by law, the funeral home must embalm or refrigerate the corpse. If it requires refrigeration, the body must be bathed, the hair shampooed and eyes closed.
“The family will bring in clothing—everything from a nightgown to a robe… we’ve had guys bring in tuxedos; we have no dress code,” Jeff says.
Though Jeff helps in preparing the bodies, his main job is to help guide the family through their grieving process.
“People are so desperate for some guidance. It’s like the tsunami has washed over their life and they don’t know what to do,” Jeff says.
Although the Musgroves need to be sympathetic, they say it is hard not to take their work home with him. Their mother had to leave the funeral business because she would often lay awake at night crying, wondering what would happen to the grieving families she had helped earlier in the day.
“She had to stop because it was killing her,” Jeff says.
The brothers acknowledge the constant exposure to grief is taxing—both emotionally and physically. Fortunately, they had a good example to follow.
“Our parents taught us ethics; especially my mom, who was so loving,” Mark says.
Mark often has to reeducate families about the funeral process because of misinformation perpetuated by shows like Six Feet Under or C.S.I.—a difficult task that is often exacerbated by his clients’ unstable condition.
“Some are in grief, in shock… maybe they haven’t slept in days. Maybe they popped a valium or something to help them deal with this big stress in their life,” Jeff says.
The family seeks to give their clients options, but says their brains sometimes cannot process the information correctly. As a result, the funeral directors are occasionally the recipients of misplaced anger.
Mark says more people are thinking ahead and planning for their funerals—a process that is hard for some people to comprehend.
“All these decisions are heart decisions. It’s really hard to wake up one morning, when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping, and to say, you know, ‘I’m going to go plan my funeral today.’ You know it doesn’t work that way,” Jeff says.
While the business of death is familiar to Jeff and his family, grief is something hard and foreign. When his mother died, he claims it was easier for him because he knew the about difficult decisions he would have to make. He says the planning process even helped bring the family closer.
“We were crying, laughing, hugging, and kissing,” Mark says.
When their mother returned to Oregon, she was dressed up and her makeup was done. The Musgroves say that it made the family feel as though they were tucking their mother in at night and taking care of her.
Ultimately, the family’s own traumatic experience helped them grow professionally.
“It made those of us that went through that better funeral directors. It put us on the other side of the table,” Mark says.
In spite of the hardships, the family obtains a deep-rooted sense of fulfillment from the work they do. They often receive phone calls of gratitude and Christmas cards every winter from families they helped years previously. Jeff says a lot of people need to volunteer to feel self-actualized in their lives, but he feels that he is helping people every day – and helping himself to realize his own mortality.
“There are instances where if I am not touched by the circumstances, then I need to get out of the business,” Jeff says, “the family who loses a little child. If I don’t shed a tear, then that’s not good, but sometimes I need to shed a tear and move on because I need to be the anchor for them.”