While many gather with family and loved ones around the holiday season to celebrate and reminisce, others are grieving. The holidays remind many of their loved ones who aren’t present.
But for Jack Jensen and MaryAnn Cruz, the reminder of death isn’t seasonal or rare. In their roles at Miller-Dutra Coastside Chapel Funeral Services and Cremations in Half Moon Bay, they help more than 100 clients a year through “one of life’s most difficult experiences,” as Jensen described it.
Jensen has been in the funeral business since high school, and he’s always been interested in the other-worldliness of death. As a child, he remembers there were three funeral homes on the three blocks where he lived. These were places of “formality,” “seriousness” and “sacredness” to young Jensen.
When his great-grandmother died, he, his aunt and his mother drove through town one early autumn day to the funeral home.
“We drove down the tree-lined street, parked in front of the building. There was the soft
glow of the sun in the windows,” Jensen said, his speech ethereal. “It was so set aside
from ordinary life. ... It made a huge impression.”
He now works as a funeral director at Miller-Dutra.
The process sometimes begins with a phone call in the middle of the night after someone has died, Jensen and Cruz said. But often they meet their clients to plan the funeral before the tragic time comes.
“We’re event planners for the worst part of someone’s life,” said Cruz, who is a manager at the funeral home.
When they receive inquiries, the most common question is about pricing — which at Miller-Dutra costs about $6,600 for a full traditional funeral service with other options available — but Jensen said there’s more to it than that when a loved one dies.
“It’s a human need to pause and come together,” Jensen said. “Death is profound.”
“People don’t call asking how long it takes for you to pick up the body,” Jensen added. “It’s easy to ask about price when you don’t know what questions to ask. But you shouldn’t choose anything in life just for the price.”
Jensen said he and the staff strive to ensure families can stay within their budgets.
“We’re never going to turn someone away,” he said. “Part of my philosophy and the
philosophy of the company if we talk about how important funerals are, then they are for everybody.”
Although they have a familiarity with death as they frequently encounter it, Jensen and Cruz are not immune to the intense situations that are inherent in the industry.
“You go home and are thankful for your life,” Cruz said. “You see a lot of sadness, and it makes you thankful for every little thing.”
“I’ve cried for families. ... The pain overwhelms you,” she added.
“If there’s ever a moment where things don’t affect you,” Jensen continued, “then maybe you shouldn’t be in the business.”
Cruz remembers attending many funerals as a child where she grew up in south-central Los Angeles. She was about 5 years old when she attended her first. During the viewing, she remembers looking in the casket and telling her foster mom, “I could do better.” His makeup was too dark, she thought, and it didn’t look like him.
Later in life, Cruz had the opportunity to attend San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. She now pays extra attention to the small details when preparing for a viewing — making sure the buttons are straight, a person’s hands are folded, their face is gentle and the decorations surrounding the casket are in order for the funeral and viewing.
Often a family has watched a loved one dying in hospital rooms where they’re suffering in hospital gowns, surrounded by machines and tubes. It can be a traumatizing experience, Cruz said. But when people have an opportunity to see a loved one for one final time, in a favorite outfit, at rest and in a quiet place, Jensen believes it can provide peaceful closure.
“It’s only natural you’d want to say goodbye, not to a closed box or an 8-by-10 photo, but to them,” Jensen said.
Funerals and viewings, Jensen believes, allow people to grieve and remember together.
“Yes, it’s sad that Dad died,” he said, “but it is fantastic that he lived. Every funeral is not a happy party, but there is balance in mourning and rejoicing that this person lived.”