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Family Services Counselor Jeff Martin loves life



One does not normally visit cemeteries unless one has a good reason and that reason usually involves visiting the grave of a deceased relative. I have passed Highland Memorial Gardens cemetery off Route 11 in Dublin on countless occasions, but never once thought of perusing the grounds as I knew no one who was laid to rest there.

When I visited Family Services Counselor Jeff Martin at his office at Highland Memorial Gardens, I took in the surroundings and found the setting to be visually pleasing in the extreme. Colorful silk flower arrangements adorned most every grave stone and the grounds were manicured to perfection. It was a sunny day and the scene struck me as being almost … cheerful.

As part of his job, Martin interacts with relatives and friends of those who are interred at both Highland Memorial Gardens in Dublin and at Sunrise Burial Park in Fairlawn. His demeanor is both calm and upbeat, which seems appropriate for a man in his position.

“To me, it’s about taking care of my neighbors … taking care of my community on their worst day,” said Martin. “I’m here to help them get prepared for it and then I’m here to help them get through it and then I’m here to help them move forward after that worst day. I just enjoy taking care of people and helping families transition themselves to another life without having mom, dad or their spouse.”

Jeff Martin was born in Radford and grew up in Dublin. He used to cross the cemetery from his home on Riggs Street to get ice cream at Mr. Mack’s store in Dublin. Always musically inclined, Martin took part in jazz band, marching band and concert band during his high school years before graduating in 1987.

He then attended Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, where he studied youth ministry and music, which both continue to play a major role in his life.

After graduating, Jeff joined his dad at the Dublin Fire Department but soon began volunteering for the Pulaski County Life Saving and First Aid crew based out of Dublin. For the next 15 years, in his role as an Emergency Medical Technician, Martin and his crew arrived first on the scene of some accident or illness related emergencies and did their best to help that person.

What motivated him?

“In 1988, I had a good friend who just died in his sleep,” recounted Martin. “I was wanting to know what went on behind the scenes of things.”

It was through his work on the rescue squad that Jeff met Carl Easter at Bower’s Funeral Home in 1993.

“Carl needed help one day for a funeral,” said Martin. “I said yea, I’ll help you out with that. I don’t mind.”

That started a trend and Jeff worked for Bower on a part time basis as a Funeral Service Attendant for the next 10 years, all the while volunteering for the rescue squad.

Martin never lost his interest in music.

“I would teach music,” said Martin. “I’d give lessons for saxophone and other woodwind instruments and I would do a couple of odds and ends type stuff while I was trying to figure out what to do in life.”

He began working at the Music Doctor’s store in Christiansburg and eventually took over ownership of the store in 2010. In 2012, he renamed the store East Coast Music and the following year started the East Coast Academy of Fine Arts.

In this capacity, Martin gave private music lessons, founded community concert bands in both Christiansburg and Blacksburg and provided guidance in the pageantry arts for school color guards. He was also involved in the Drum Corps International and motivational speaking seminars.

Though elements of the East Coast Academy of Fine Arts still exist, Jeff Martin closed his music store in 2016.

“I could never get enough volume to compete with online stuff,” said Martin. “I’d much rather teach the kids music and I can still tell them what to look for in a quality instrument.”

Apparently plastic saxophones are no good but plastic trombones are OK.

Jeff was reassessing his career when he saw a job opening for a Family Services Counselor for Dignity Memorial, which owns both the Fairlawn and Dublin Cemeteries, as well as nearly 3,000 cemeteries and funeral homes nationwide.

“I said, ‘You know I’m going to check that out’ and I did and I haven’t had a single regret since,” said Martin.

Martin landed the job in 2017 and by 2019 was awarded Dignity Memorial’s Service Excellence award, which is based on customer satisfaction, something Martin takes very seriously.

“Now I’m taking care of the community that took care of me, as I was trying to figure out what I was going to do in life,” said Martin. “When a funeral home calls and tells us that somebody has passed away, our whole priority shifts. We immediately go into gear to see what we need to do to serve this family.”

Every job has its downsides but isn’t working with the families of the recently deceased an especially tough deal?

“I love what I do so much that I really don’t have a tough part with it,” said Martin. “Some people think it’s hard when you’re working with small children. Well, it is but it’s also just as hard when you’re working with a gentleman who just lost his wife of 65 years and the first night that they spent away from each other was the night that she died, but I just enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve got my business cards with my cellphone number on it, so I can be reached any time of the day by my clients. Whether they want to share something good with me or cry with me.”

Martin sometimes has to deal with unusual requests.

“A gentleman in his 80s came in one day and told me that we needed to bring his wife back up.” Martin recounted. “I was like really? He goes ‘Yes sir.’ I told him that there’s a list of expenses and approvals we need to do that and it’s costly. He says, ‘I don’t care I got to bring her back up.’”

Martin pauses for a moment to see my reaction. Then continues.

“We talk a little bit and I ask why is it that we’re bringing your wife back up? He goes, ‘I need her wedding band and engagement ring.’ I thought OK. Maybe he wants to give it to his son or something like that. No, he’d already found another woman and he wanted to give her the same rings he gave his wife, so he wouldn’t have to go to Walmart and buy another one. By the way, his wife had been dead for at least 30 years!”

Apparently the fellow in question had a change of heart and decided not to dig up his wife’s remains after all.

According to Martin, the combined population of permanent residents at the Dublin and Fairlawn Cemeteries is 10,560. Dublin’s Highland Gardens is the final resting place for 8,000 of those souls, so that the Fairlawn’s Sunrise Burial Park has much more available space for newcomers.

So how long till Highland Memorial Garden’s is full?

“I don’t know exactly but I’m 51 and I won’t see it filled up,” said Martin. “The good thing is that the mortality rate is right about at 100%, so everything will eventually be filled up.”

That’s … reassuring.

It’s not all about burial plots either. Highland Gardens has mausoleums on-site to house crypts and the cremated remains of individuals. In the past, cremations were rare but these days about 50% of Martin’s clientele arrive as cremains (cremated remains).

“We have cremation niches in the mausoleum,” said Martin. “Glass front with urns … they look like book cases and we have Personal Estate remains set in benches.”

As dedicated as he is to his work, Jeff Martin is involved in many community activities. He serves on the Radford University City Joint Commission, the Workforce Development Board, the New River Valley Regional Commission for Radford, the Youths Art Education Board and acts as Chairman of the Board for the Young Life Committee for Pulaski/Radford, which has the stated mission of introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ.

It turns out that Jeff is a huge baseball fan who has coached several recreation league teams. He also enjoys regularly attending baseball games at Calfee Park to “cheer on the team or tell the ref he’s blind.”

He is a dog lover, too. His office is filled with photos of his favorite Siberian Huskies.

“’I’ve got seven Siberian Huskies,” said Martin. “That’s fun. The most we’ve ever had at one time was eight and that’s … that’s stressful. They’re so full of energy they’re not happy unless they’re tearing up something and they shed all year long.”

Jeff is also active in local politics.

“I’m the one at all the city council meetings saying, ‘whoa, whoa … let’s talk. Who knows? In a couple of years, I might run for city council and have my neighbors yell at me a bit.”

Jeff plans to stay in his home in Radford and serve as a Family Services Counselor for Dignity Memorial for many years to come.

“The best part for me is to actually see people smile,” said Martin. “When people can smile, when you can hug somebody and they hug you and they thank you for what you’ve done for them … not just me but our entire team … that’s the best part of it. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about serving other people.”



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