Mark Musgrove gave his mother CPR on the deck of a snorkeling boat during a family vacation in Hawaii. Back home, in Eugene, 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 canceled his vacation plans to make funeral arrangements.
Jeff Musgrove directs funerals for families every day and he says it was more difficult when he was making plans for his own mother. Although he is a funeral director he says, “My grief is no different from anyone else’s.”
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. While this may be some time away from his 50-year-old self, he says this concern with death is actually a normal reaction of grief he sees his clients go through on a daily basis.
“Just having that experience gave me a deeper understanding for the people that I serve,” Jeff says.
Jeff Musgrove grew up in the funeral business with his parents working in a funeral home that would later become the Musgrove Family Mortuary. A trip to pick up a dead body in Salem turned into an enjoyable outing for his family, and death soon became his life. He started working in the funeral home as soon as he was old enough to get his drivers license, lived above the funeral home during college, and eventually joined the family business—a business that is often unpredictable and challenging.
Every day is different for Jeff Musgrove. One of his 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 that the corpse will be shown in at the funeral—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 Jeff needs to be sympathetic, he says it is hard not to take his work home with him. His 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.
Jeff 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.
As a funeral director Jeff seeks to give his clients options, but says their brains sometimes cannot process the information correctly. As a result Jeff is occasionally the recipient of misplaced anger.
Jeff 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. He says the planning process even helped bring the family closer.
“We were crying, laughing, hugging and kissing,” Mark says.
When their mother was 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.
In spite of the hardships, Jeff obtains a deep-rooted sense of fulfillment from the work he does. He often receives phone calls of gratitude and Christmas cards every winter from families he helped years previously. Jeff says a lot of people need to volunteer to feel self-actualized in their lives, but he feels that h
e 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.”