Managing a mortuary |

Managing a mortuary

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunThe Murray family: Joey, Lilli, Joe, Katrina and Olivia pose for a photo in the Tahoe Truckee Mortuary.

By any account, Joe Murrays job is far from ordinary. Hes on call every hour of every day and spends as much time with the dead as he does with the living.Like in HBOs acclaimed television series Six Feet Under, Murray operates an independent, family-owned funeral home the only full-service one in the Tahoe-Truckee region.But unlike the fictional show, dramas are few and far between for the Murray family. After all, work is work, whether its paving roads, selling skis or planning funerals, Murray says.Its a job, you know? To me, I think being a nurse would be gross, he says.

Dressed sharply in a dark suit and tie, Joe stands firmly planted on two feet, his arms politely folded behind him at Assumption Catholic Church in Truckee. Its a hot summer day and Joe is organizing a full, traditional funeral for a local Latino family whose matriarch died.He instructs the pallbearers on how to lift the casket from inside the church to load into his hearse, then speaks with the grieving family on the logistics of where and when the cremation will occur.Hes amiable and polite, but its not like hes moved to tears. He sees well over 100 families each year who have lost loved ones.

Joe Murray, his wife, Katrina, and their three children moved from Elk Grove to Truckee about four years ago. They purchased the Tahoe Truckee Mortuary and lived in the funeral home for a year before moving into a home that was sure to be free of death and mourning.We had to share a room, that was the worst part, says Joey, 12, of living at the mortuary.Fourteen-year-old Lilli, on the other hand, didnt like her temporary residence because she thought it was creepy.Its cause it was a mortuary I was scared! I never wanted to come down here by myself, she says with a shy laugh.To be expected, Joey and Lillis teen friends think its cool their dad is a mortician, but Lilli said she gets annoyed by the questions people ask.They just assume the mortuary is haunted and there are dead bodies everywhere, she says, rolling her eyes.Joey and Lillis younger sister, 2-year-old-plus Olivia, doesnt yet understand what her daddy does for a living. But shes not completely in the dark sometimes shell toddle by while her mother is curling a clients hair, and comment on the casket.The ladys in the box, shell say, doe-eyed and curious.Both Katrina and Joe Murray say they rarely discuss work outside of the office because of their children, because work is work and because if they bear the emotional brunt of every case, wed be a wreck, Joe explains.Thats part of this job, you dont bring it home with you. Its not something you think about, he adds, matter-of-factly.

A small tattoo peaks out from Murrays right sleeve as he explains how the course of his life led him to manage the funeral home.Joe grew up with a mortician for a father he was in pre-school when he first saw a dead body and started working in his familys Grass Valley funeral home along with three of his four brothers during high school.I was raised in it. When I was 5 years old we lived upstairs at a mortuary. Through high school I would help with all the dressing, casketry, making removals, he says.After high school, Murray entered a two-year program at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. He now holds licenses as an embalmer and a funeral director.Even at 33 years old, Joe has a baby-face, which he says works against him occasionally families expect morticians to be gray and old and that much closer to death themselves, he jokes.

The hardest part about running a mortuary, for the Murray family, is the demanding hours.From the start it would be 3 a.m. and I would have to go to work. We always had to explain [to the kids] that someone died and they couldnt wait, Joe says.Katrina Murray nods in agreement.They are used to us getting interrupted. Dinners get interrupted nightly, she says.Three years ago the Murray Family even had to reschedule their traditional Christmas dinner because Joe was called to a body removal.Were always tied down, Joe Murray says. Everyone assumes were always here.Even after 14 years of a happy marriage, Katrina sometimes catches herself wishing Joe had a regular job with consistent hours.Its always, Well, what if we get a call? she says.But she knows that Joe is happy in his career choice.Its the nature of the business, they say.

For many, seeing a dead body can be either traumatic or meaningful, but for Joe Murray, its simply business.Whether its natural causes, a tragic accident or disease, Joe responds to an array of body removal calls. But its those left alive that he really works for.The families are more like clients than the deceased person, Katrina Murray observes.Because the Murrays are well-versed in death and sorrow, they are far from squeamish. But when it comes to the death of family and friends, they sing a different tune.Even raised and being in the profession, its still different when its personal, Joe Murray explains, his eyes shifting uncomfortably to his lap.When Joes best friend died more than two years ago, he said he experienced both his work and his grief simultaneously.Unlike some funeral home operations, the Murrays are forthright but sympathetic when dealing with families.We try to talk to them normally. We dont try to be fake at all, Joe Murray says. Everyone has their different little opinions on death. We mainly just want to make them feel comfortable.The Murrays say they lead lives like any other family. But, with the unpredictability of a career in the business of death, they are kept on their toes. Whether he has to work on the morning of his daughters eighth-grade graduation, or respond to his toddlers curious inquiries as he makes up the face of an old man, like any other father and husband, Joe Murray is forced to balance work and family demands.

5: Murray family members, the clan that owns the funeral home140: Average number of calls each year22: Calls in December 2006, the busiest month in Murrays four years12: Number of bodies the mortuary had at one time10: Average number of cases each month4: Years the Murray Family has operated the funeral home4 to 1: Approximate ratio of cremations to burials in Tahoe-Truckee40: Degrees in Fahrenheit of the cooler that stores bodies1800: Degrees in Fahrenheit of the crematoryGeneral Costs at a GlanceCaskets: Starting at $500Cremation: $1,675Burial plot: $11,000Average funeral director salary: $30,000-plusAverage embalmer salary: $50,000 to $75,000

Pronunciation: im-bomFunction: Transitive verb (used with object): To treat (a dead body) so as to protect from decay Definition from Merriam-Websters Medical DictionaryEmbalming is the art and science of preserving human remains to prevent decomposition and make suitable for viewing at a funeral.While embalming has an extensive history and is practiced in many cultures, embalming in the United States follows a general protocol. The first thing the embalmer does is verify the identity of the deceased, usually through a wrist or leg tag. At this point the embalmer performs basic tests for signs of death noting things such as clouded corneas, lividity and rigor mortis, or simply by checking for a pulse. Any clothing or jewelry on the corpse is then removed, set aside and inventoried. The corpse is then washed in disinfectant and germicidal solutions. The embalmer bends, flexes and massages the arms and legs to relieve rigor mortis. Next, the embalmer sets the features We make sure their eyes are closed and their mouths are closed so it looks natural, Joe Murray says.Next, the actual embalming process includes replacing blood with formaldehyde. While most people attribute the strong smell of embalming to the dead body, its actually the scent of the chemicals that is overpowering.A typical embalming takes one to two hours.Additionally, cosmetic embalming is typical in the U.S. including makeup and hair style. The goal is to convey a natural appearance of the deceased. Some information taken from

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User