TRUCKEE, Calif. — In the 1990 film “Hard to Kill,” Steven Seagal declared, “The anticipation of death is far worse than death itself.” While there is truth in Seagal’s famous words, he may not have taken the painstaking process of planning a funeral into account.That’s where Joe Murray comes in. As owner of the Truckee-Tahoe Mortuary and Crematory, Murray’s sole mission is to ease the burden on grieving families by taking on the myriad of paperwork, planning and logistics of death. “It’s a rewarding career,” Murray said when asked how he maintains his sanity in such a melancholy field. “We’re helping someone after they’ve lost somebody and we’re there to keep them on track and get them through the paperwork so they can get on with the healing process.”When discussing his career choice, Murray maintains a calm disposition. He helps hundreds of families every year from all corners of the Tahoe/Truckee region who are mourning the loss of the departed; yet, there’s an easygoing, gentle energy about him. Nothing about his composed demeanor reflects his somewhat gloomy occupation.Perhaps it’s because Murray’s first rendezvous with a dead body was at the tender age of 6, when he stumbled upon an open casket at his father’s mortuary located on the first floor of his childhood home. “I remember walking through the chapel and seeing someone’s grandma lying in a casket, and I stood there, frozen, just staring at that first dead body I had ever seen,” Murray recalled. “I was so young, so I guess after that, seeing a dead body wasn’t a big deal to me anymore.”In high school, Murray was the only one of four sons to assist his father with the mortuary business, and after graduation, attending mortuary school seemed like a natural progression. “One of my brothers is a nurse and I always tell him I could never do that job,” Murray says, chuckling at the thought. After an intensive one-year program at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, Murray earned the credentials he needed to become a mortuary manager, embalmer and insurance agent in the event of pre-death planning. The licensed mortician then returned to his hometown of Elk Grove in Sacramento with his wife, Katrina, where he went to work on his apprenticeship before securing a position as mortuary manager. In death, there is also life, and it wasn’t long before the Murray family tree began to grow some branches. In 1994, the high school sweethearts gave birth to their first child, Lilli, followed by son Joey in 1996 and daughter Olivia in 2004.That same year Olivia was welcomed to the world, the Murrays purchased the Truckee Mortuary from longtime owners Joe and Claire Aguerra, who were looking to retire, but wanted to maintain the family-owned reputation of the mortuary. “Because we’re family owned, we can offer reasonable prices where corporate funeral homes want a secretary, a mortuary manager, an embalmer — all that sort of stuff that would make the prices go way up, probably double what they are now,” Murray said. The Murrays were eager to purchase the business and relocate the family to Tahoe, where clientele is much more relaxed and funeral services are far less traditional. “Everyone up here seems really appreciative — they don’t have stresses of the city and that’s the biggest thing we noticed when we came up here,” Murray said. Upbeat celebrations of life now outweigh traditional funeral processions, and cremations have also grown in popularity in recent years — a change Murray attributes to the troubled economy.One may assume the challenges of Murray’s job would be dealing with death on a daily basis; however, for Murray, personal burdens come from a lack of time off and California’s ever-changing mortuary laws and regulations. As the only embalmer on hand, Murray must be on call 24 hours a day and is constantly updating his records to avoid hefty fines imposed by state auditors.However, helping people through the grief process seems to overshadow any stresses of managing a mortuary. “It’s always nice when you’re appreciated for what you’ve helped people through, and they will always remember that,” Murray said. “That in itself makes it worth it for me.”
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