TRAVERSE CITY — Death is no stranger to Penny Cox and Joy Marotzke.
Death took a young son from each woman. Then it took a step-daughter from Cox.
Death, and the holes it punched in their lives, brought the women together — first in pain, and now in a business they view as a calling.
Cox, of Lake Ann, and Marotzke, of Traverse City, recently launched Grave Care Specialists. They're now spending a lot of time initiating the unfamiliar — which is most people, they said — in what they do. They tidy graves — scrub stones, plant flowers and place wreaths at local cemetery plots. They weed. In the winter, they may place a "grave blanket" of evergreen boughs, ribbon and pine cones on top of the snow.
Packages vary from a $25 water visit to total seasonal care, plus two special occasion days, for $375.
This strong desire to help people honor their dead results from their personal experience and happenstance meeting — both working through death and around it. The mothers met each other in 2013 while working in local hospice care.
Marotzke, a former nursing director in Midland, had just moved to Traverse City after her 27-year-old son, a Suttons Bay beekeeper with a wife and three young children, was killed in a semitruck crash in 2012.
Cox's son, a U.S. Army combat veteran, took his own life that same year after serving in Afghanistan. He was 24. Then Cox's stepdaughter died in 2014, a 28-year-old mother of three.
The women — grieving, working and supporting families in death — discovered each other.
"Through the leaning on each other and the grieving, and the days, we developed a friendship," Cox said. "When things like this happen to you, you have to believe there's a reason you've been dealt these cards, that it serves a purpose. Our paths otherwise would have never crossed."
Both also bonded in their shared belief that their children's gravesites reflect their continued care and love. But they discovered this is easier said than done.
Families move. People vacation in Florida. Tidying her son's grave in winter involves snowshoes, and looking in on her parents means a four-hour round trip, Marotzke said.
A weedy gravesite doesn't mean you've forgotten the person, but while memory is instant, going the actual distance isn't always possible, Marotzke said.
So as their friendship grew, so did the seed for a business idea, they said.
"We wanted to do something meaningful," Marotzke said. "We want those loved ones to be reassured, knowing that we're looking out for them."
Working in cemeteries is also healing on a personal level, she added.
"I still cry almost every time," Marotzke said. "In a cemetery you look at the names and you wonder what this person was all about — when you see a whole family buried together your heart breaks for them. ... but the cemetery is also a step back in time, and place to celebrate life."
Cemeteries are places Cox holds close to her heart — looking after the dead is what she's meant to do, she said.
"I feel so relaxed, so peaceful. I feel that's right where I'm supposed to be," Cox said. "It just makes me feel that whoever is there is well cared for and loved. These people live on, they know that we still love them."