In youthful Ann Arbor, a city known by some as “the best college town in America,” death can be a foreign language. As much as smoking commercials and PSAs attempt to remind us of our mortality, the widespread youthful delusion of invincibility can be hard to shake for a population that has little experience to the contrary. Students cross the street without looking both ways, drink more than they probably should, smoke cigarettes in the name of hipsterdom and yet, more often than not, still see the light of day tomorrow.
But death is a very real part of life in the ostensibly invincible Ann Arbor. We recently mourned the death of Chad Carr, the 5-year-old son of former University quarterback Jason Carr and the grandson of former University football coach Lloyd Carr. Last July, a 21-year-old student fell to his death after climbing onto the glass ceiling covering Nickels Arcade. And of course, as with any city, there are people who pass every day.
For transient young students — for young people in general — it’s easy to absorb these deaths as one would anything else on the daily news cycle. When murders in Chicago are treated with more stoicism and banality than the morning traffic report, it becomes hard to see the emotion in death. For those who aren’t close to the individuals who pass away on TV, there likely isn’t a lasting impact from these tragedies. Loss is not a part of the local young adult vernacular.
For a few, however, death and grieving are their livelihood.
Muehlig Funeral Chapel is the only funeral home within the city limits of Ann Arbor. Founded by Florian Muehlig in 1852, it is the oldest funeral home in the state of Michigan, originating in an upper floor office along Main Street and eventually moving into its current building on South Fourth Avenue in 1928. Once a private hospital, the history of Muehlig Funeral Chapel is the history of Ann Arbor.
Thomas Jensen, director of the Muehlig home, has worked in the field for the last 34 years. While many enter the profession because of family ties, Jensen explained in an interview with The Michigan Daily that he entered the field “totally by accident.”
“Over a summer during high school I got a part time job at the local funeral home washing cars, working at ceremonies, answering the phone and such,” Jensen said. “I went to college, and in my third year I decided that this (the funeral businesses) was what I wanted to do.”
As a student at Wayne State University in Detroit, Jensen continued working at funeral homes, and lived in one nearby during his later college years. Aside from the social strain that comes with living in a funeral home, Jensen explained that it was little different than living in your average apartment.
“It’s hard to get your friends to come over,” Jensen said. “And forget about girls, I didn’t even try.”
According to Jensen, social stigmas are common for funeral directors. With the prominence of TV shows like HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and fantasized horror films like “After.Life,” there’s a tendency to focus on the morbid and tantalizing, regardless of accuracy.
“People are very intrigued by it (the funeral profession),” he said. “There’s two ways it goes if you’re on an airplane. They’ll say something like ‘I work in accounting,’ and I respond with ‘I’m a funeral director.’ Either they’re not going to say another word to you, or they’re never going to shut up. People have a curiosity of what goes on. They focus more on the technical, backroom things that aren’t actually as scary or creepy as people think they are.”
“There is a technical, medical part to the job,” he added. “It’s an important part, but it’s a really small part. It’s not the majority of our time.”
Rather, Jensen said, a lot of time is spent helping families. “For the first few weeks we’re getting them through the stages so they can move on. We’re not grief counselors, but we educate people on what to expect, what they might go through emotionally.”
It’s this, not the cadavers, that drew Jensen to the business.
With his intimate place within the Ann Arbor community, Jensen offers a unique perspective on both our ever-changing modern society and the lives of Ann Arbor residents. Whereas the funeral ceremonies that Jensen officiated when he began his career over 30 years ago were often religious, traditional and perhaps cookie-cutter, today’s ceremonies are remarkably personal.
“Now, people are telling us what they want, and it’s our job to make it happen,” he said. “We’ve had people bring in motorcycles and put them up with the casket. We’ve had them bring old cars in and park them outside. We’ve had them bring boats and park them outside. We had a gentleman who had participated in the Mackinac Races for over 30 years, and they had all his flags from all his races all the way around the room, with pictures of his boat everywhere.”
And, because this is Ann Arbor, pride for the University finds its way into the most intimate part of a person’s life. Funerals are not to be held in Ann Arbor when there is a football game. Families hang the University flag over their loved ones, and often request for the home to be decorated in maize and blue for the service. Some even manage to incorporate the Big House into their commemoration: “It’s not unusual for people to request we drive past the stadium,” Jensen said.
But with emotions running high, funeral ceremonies are not always flowered with family unity. Jensen said everyone handles loss individually, but often one family member’s idea of how to commemorate a loved one differs from another’s. In some families this leads to passive aggressiveness, though in others it can be much more overt.
“We’ve had fist fights, we’ve had yelling, we’ve had the police show up,” Jensen recalls, noting a particular quarrel over a seemingly innocuous portion of a ceremony
“With one family, there were two daughters arguing over flowers, and they were throwing them at each other,” he said. “Not just the flowers, but the vases. So sometimes you’ve got to step in and separate that.”
Beyond stepping into physical altercations, funeral directors have the daunting task of handling the emotional weight of other’s grief on such a consistent basis. Jensen said there is no doubt that the job is draining. Indeed, there is an element of separation that the funeral director must have.
“You have to deal with that (loss),” he said. “But I tell people, not that we don’t have feelings or don’t feel for them, but we’re not emotionally connected to the people who pass like those who come for our services are. They’re paying us a lot of money, and they’re not paying us to cry with them. Not that we don’t do that, but that’s not what we’re here for them to do. We’re just here to help them any way we can, to help them get through their grief, so that they can hopefully move on.”
Jensen explained that the most difficult part of the job is — perhaps surprisingly — the long hours.
“For me personally, the families always come first,” he said. “I’ve missed a lot of my family things.”
He added that with modern technology, it’s become almost impossible to truly remove yourself from the job. But, as he points out, that is little different than most careers, and the satisfaction that he receives from helping a family through the process of loss is rewarding enough to make the profession worth it: “I love what I do,” he said.
For a profession so rooted in death, Jensen says that his job gives him an important perspective not just on loss, but on life.
“We just had a 17-month-old yesterday whose parents are from Alaska,” he said. “They came down here just for U of M, with their son, and he didn’t survive the surgery. Life’s not so bad compared to all the people I’ve worked with. It keeps things in perspective that way, not to sweat the small stuff.”
But when it comes to the big stuff, Jensen says that he isn’t worried.
“I don’t want to die yet, but if I die tomorrow, I’m OK with that,” he said.
For Jensen, faith is an important element in facing any fear of passing.
“It (the job) affects my belief in life after this; I hope, so yeah, it affects a lot,” he said. “Again, treat the body as just a vessel. The soul is then going to live on.”
Last October, a close friend of mine died in a drunk driving accident. I won’t lie and say that this gave me some kind of epiphany about valuing my own life. Everything didn’t suddenly become clear. I didn’t “see the light.” Rather, I drank to blackout the following weekend and missed the service. A moral low-point? Probably. For me then, and likely still, it’s easier to embrace the ignorance of death as an abstract.
I offer this not for sympathy, but to recognize the shortcomings of one-size-fits-all clichés. We’re constantly assailed with the importance of each day of our lives. We’re supposed to accept that we can be gone at any minute, and therefore need to enjoy every moment of our days here. “Thank God it wasn’t us,” people said.
But if each day could be our last, should we attach such gravity when a day doesn’t fit the bill for “best day ever?” The idea that we can be extinguished like a candle isn’t an enjoyable concept. It seems in ignorance there is far more bliss.
Jensen’s proximity with death reminds him, and us, that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. To me, this extends to the things we cannot change. I can’t change that someone texting down I-94 could leave me, or anyone, six feet under. But what good is there for it to weigh on myself, or anyone else? People enter funeral homes each day. Worrying about when we’ll go can’t change that. For me, embracing each day doesn’t come from the fear the it could be the last, but because so far it isn’t.
“It’s going to be OK,” Jensen says. If a funeral director can believe this, we sure as hell can.