A Quick Departure

The Nursing Home Transfer tells a great  story of the deceased – their entire lives have been compressed into one room. They could have chosen anything from their homes, so the possessions inside the small room show what was most precious to them during their time here on Earth. I always find myself scanning the walls of family photographs while snapping on my gloves, distracted by all the cherished items – mementos from a garden once was, ornaments, war medals, books and stuffed toys showing wear and tear, perhaps from their childhood passed through generations.

It was a steamy Good Friday and sweating in my suit, I was replacing Easter eggs with body bags. Public holiday penalties on my mind and a fat paycheck, I pulled into the car park of the nursing home where I met my transfer partner who was already waiting. On-Call for the Easter weekend, we were on our sixth death call in twenty-four hours. I’m sure I saw an Easter Egg wrapper poking from his vest pocket.

‘A Holy day for a departure!’ He grinned, fixing his tie.

‘Too right!’ My eyes meeting with his as we headed towards the revolving doors. Bright carnations fluttered in the garden bed that lined the footpath.What started out to be regular transfer sadly became one of the most shocking. It wasn’t the condition of the body – I had been to far worse scenes in my time! It took the cake for the most absurd transfer due to family behavior. I literally had to pick my mandible from the floor!

When we entered the room with our stretcher, I found it quite fitting that Joyce was dressed in a silk nightie with a hand made Samoan Church Pall over the top of her. Crucifixes embroided on her robe, she looked like a stunning Church figure. A teary but smiling lady stood by her bedside and greeted us lovingly, even hugging us –  explaining she was a “Hugger”. Dressed in a happy floral blouse, the Hugger said she had just arrived from Melbourne to say goodbye to her mother. As I asked her to sign the required Valuables paperwork, she refused shyly.

‘Oh! My brother, Peter. He is the executor. He will want to sign this.’ She shuddered.

We proceeded, snapping on our gloves and gently covering Joyce with a sheet. Almost waking the dead, a man barged through the door and approached the bed standing in our way of the stretcher.

‘They are the undertakers,’ the Hugger said softly to the man. I noticed how her friendly tone towards us shifted to a fearful tremble when she spoke to him. He crossed his arms across his chest and snorted: ‘Yeah, well, hurry up and do your business!’

I felt my jaw drop and quickly turned away from him. I secured the name tags around the deceased’s frail wrists and together my partner and I slid Joyce from her mattress onto the stretcher using the pat slide. As we went about our work, the man grabbed bits and pieces from around us – magazines, cushions and a few photo frames. He could not even wait until we were out of the room!

‘Hurry up, would you!’ he blasted, pushing past us so he could reach for various items of his late mother’s. The Hugger shot us an apologetic look and hung her head.

‘Do you mind…?’ I started, passing him the Valuables paperwork. ‘Could you please confirm that Mum was wearing these items?’

‘I don’t bloody care what she was wearing!’ he spluttered, spit spraying from his lips like a garden hose.

‘I’m sorry, Sir,’ I was in disbelief at this man’s behaviour! Right there next to the dead body of the woman who gave him life! ‘It is company protocol that we take your signature.’  Grunting, he scribbled along the dotted line. I gave him his copy and he screwed it into a ball and tossed it into the bin.

‘I would like to walk with you,’ the daughter smiled and followed behind as we wheeled her mother out of the room and down the narrow hall towards the elevator.

Now, this is where I wanted to take off a heel and peg it at Peter’s head! As we waited by the elevator for the door to spring open, the air was filled with a loud screeching sound like an unoiled train track. To our shock, Peter was pushing his mother’s chest of drawers down the hall. This man could not even wait for his dead mother to leave the room before he took her furniture!

Once back at the vehicle, I lifted the back door of the van and the daughter finally allowed a tear to stream her blush. I lifted and pushed, the stretcher wheels collapsing into lying position and I slid her mother into the back of the Body Collecting Van. ‘ The funeral arrangements…’ the Hugger stuttered. ‘I am not in charge of this, but I don’t think it is going to happen for some time. My siblings want to organise it and they are …rather challenging personalities.’

‘It’s okay,’ I smiled, resting my hand on her arm. She took my hand in hers and squeezed it in appreciation for the kindness she so evidently lacked in her family. ‘Now is not the time to worry yourself with decisions. We will be taking good care of mum and you can take all the time you need.’

‘Well, the only decisions to be made are for the funeral,’ the woman sighed. ‘Peter has already sold everything. The house sale was finalised last week. Mum was only sick a month when Peter put her home on the market!’

I am sure there is more to the story that led the son to drag his mother’s chest of drawers down the hallways, mere minutes after we had collected her body from the bed she died in. Perhaps Mum was a cranky old soul and Peter did not get along with her. Maybe there was a family feud going on and a lot of tension burned amongst the siblings. I don’t judge, I do however, have a huge problem with people disrespecting the dead! The soul may have left it’s mortal shell, but they still deserve the same respect as you would give someone who is living!

Whether it’s Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving, be grateful you have your frustrating family around you. Drunk Uncle Joe may be inappropriate again and the differences between your siblings have you downing that extra glass of wine!

Be grateful. Bite your tongue and be thankful they are even there to irritate you. You are lucky they care enough to spend this time by your side to celebrate.

You don’t want them clearing out your room the second you exhale your final breath, do you?

 

Be nice.

Drumsticks and Flower Petals

If I could have one superpower, it would be to click my fingers and know all about your loved one who has just passed away so I could create the best goodbye possible while you relax at home. I have assisted on funeral arrangements and watched families crumble at the large shiny desk with a jug of water and box of tissues separating us. It took all my strength to stop myself from leaping across to hug them, promising I will take care of all the arrangements. Just go home and rest we will see you on the day of the funeral.

At the arrangement, big questions are asked which can be painful when you have lost someone dear to you. Mind clouded, the last thing you want to do is answer so many questions. Today I will provide you with a few ideas to write down to take with you to the arrangement. You may feel you have all the information you need as you drive to the funeral home, but I know too well, the moment you sit down and the funeral director offers his/her condolences, everything you had in mind will disappear.

The most recent funeral home I worked at, we had a wonderful in-house florist. I found it touching that she provided the funeral director with a checklist for the family to fill out prior to creating the floral display. Using this list of hobbies and passions, the florist brought to life the deceased’s personality through flower petals. Just like the flower artist’s checklist, here are some topics to have ready for discussion with your funeral director.

What clothing would you like your loved one to wear for their final farewell?

Ask yourself,  while Dad may look strapping in a suit, did he prefer wearing shorts, enjoying a cold one while fishing? I have often dressed people in their hobby clothes from football jerseys to tutus. Feel free to provide a can of beer. We call it One For The Road.

Would you like a newspaper obituary?

This is a great way to invite friends of your loved one to the service as you may not feel like making all of those phone calls while embarking upon the frightening grieving process. Again, I wish I could do all of this for you and pour you a whiskey so you can relax. 😦

Are there any group activities that would be appropriate to personalise the farewell?

I am blessed to have been apart of some unforgettable funeral services. One that has stayed with me was a simple graveside service. There was no celebrant or priest, the son conducted the funeral himself. On closing, he offered everyone, including the funeral directors, a Drumstick. I thought he meant the drumstick from a chicken, but as he retrieved an Esky from the back of his car, I realised he meant the ice-cream cone. As the sun belted down upon us, we all slurped at our Drumsticks. Apparently his late father had a deep freezer at home and was never seen without one in his hand.

What music would you like to include in the service?

Music is an integral part of life for many people. There is no rule you have to play a somber, tear jerking tune. Did your loved one enjoy Elvis Presley? If appropriate and you feel it won’t offend, why not play a little Rock ‘n’ Roll? One of my most memorable moments in death care was pall bearing to The Rolling Stones.

Are there any decorations you might like to use to personalise the service?

Its lovely to create a tribute centrepiece, like a memory table of photographs. I was apart of a service for a young BMX rider and the chapel was decorated with bikes and helmets.

When the service has concluded, there are some formalities you also need to think of. The executor will be responsible for notifying companies following the death, particularly where there are outstanding accounts for example:

  • Telephone, gas or electricity accounts.
  • Government departments.
  • Banks.
  • Insurance companies.

The death of someone close to you is incredibly overwhelming yet the one time you need to think of so many things! I hope mentioning the points above can help you focus on the wonderful life they lived. You just focus on what brings your loved one alive into the room one last time and we will take care of the rest.

xo

 

No Splashing!

A month’s worth of rain has fallen in just one day in our city! Roads closed, causeways flooded- but have you ever wondered about the cemetery?

Unless you work in the biz, it’s probably something you’ve never considered. Grass is sodden, graves filled with water and there’s no option than to postpone burials.

No, you can’t splash in these puddles. It’s a long way down!

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Take Your Time

As a funeral director it was important to understand the grieving process to serve the families who came to us. It was common to hear the identified framework for grief bouncing off the walls at the funeral home.

“Oh, yes, Joan is at the depression stage. That is why it was hard to communicate with her during the arrangement this morning…”

 “Jim has reached the stage of anger…did you see his blood boil when I asked him about his late father’s suit to be worn?”

The five stages of grief were brought to life by author and medical professional, Elisabeth Kubler Ross. If you’re not familiar with her work, Ross has been putting pen to paper to help create awareness on end of life since 1969 with her first book “On Death and Dying.” The Death Positive movement around the globe may seem like a fairly new concept, but the late Ross studied and wrote about death long before morticians around the world secured themselves fancy publishing contracts and the TV drama Six Feet Under.

Facing her mortality in 2004, Ross completed a manuscript that would help change lives around the world. “On Grief and Grieving” introduced the famous five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

So, here I was in my polished shoes and pressed suit with the duty of helping grief stricken strangers. When conducting funerals I would observe the family members to establish the stage of grief they were experiencing. I assumed the five stages evolved sequentially. First, experiencing denial then anger and so forth until reaching the finish line with ACCEPTANCE printed on a shiny banner. Yes! We did it! It’s all over! Where’s the confetti?   

However, the older I grew and the more funerals I worked on (and attended) I discovered I had been rather naïve. A young adult with frizzy hair who saw the silver lining to every situation had a lot to learn. As well as the wisdom that comes naturally with age, I experienced grief personally and it was the most frightening experience of my life. I had seen decedents who faced violent deaths, infants and even a murder case in my time but nothing terrified me quite like the dark prison of grief.

When I lost a loved one, I thought I was different to everyone else. Like most areas in my life I was doing it back to front. I accepted the death quite quickly, before becoming depressed, then angry. I then denied that Pop was cremated in an urn on Nan’s bedside table and pretended he was off working in a far away city. This wasn’t right, was it? How could an amazing writer get the five stages of grief so wrong? Or was Ross correct and this meant something was wrong with me?

Over the years, I watched my own family grieve with countless losses. There was plenty of anger and depression, and not a whole lot of acceptance. Then, at work I witnessed a colleague “prepare” his own mother for her funeral, yet he was at peace and not angry at all.

I slowly began to realize there is no concrete framework for grief. The five stages are certainly a place to go when feeling overwhelmed and no one around you seems to understand. However, grieving is not a cookie cutter system. We all react to events differently each and every day, why would it be any different with trauma?

I also learned the grieving process is a very lonely path. Grief outlasts sympathy, so when everyone is back at work and packing school lunches, driving the kids around to sporting events on weekends and attending weddings and birthdays, the grieving are in shock that the world can keep on spinning as if nothing had ever happened. And time doesn’t heal wounds. It’s what you do with your time that can help mend you. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you can’t live without die. You will never heal completely. No matter what the culture or “stages” tell us, I really don’t think we are suppose to get over the loss of a parent, sibling, best friend. Their absence will be a life long nightmare of home -sickness for us. Time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will hydrate you, but they will not wash away the memories of your loved one. Nor should they. Why is there such a rush to get on with things?

If you have recently lost someone,  don’t put so much pressure on yourself if you feel you are not progressing with your grief. There is no timeframe for recovery. Grief is a deeply personal experience, and going back to that good old saying “Comparison is the thief of joy,” do not look at how others are doing in contrast to your journey. When my pop passed away, my mum busied herself with perfect roasts and a sparkling house while her brother appeared deeply troubled and cried often. If I was my uncle, I would have looked at my mother and felt inadequate and weak. ‘Wow, look at her, she’s keeping on wonderfully. I wish I was as strong as her!’ But you see, mum did cry –  in private. She also channels her pain into art as the director at a child care centre. (I still find it ironic mum assists little ones starting out in life while her daughter takes care of them at the end.)

Every single person mourns differently. This is your experience and yours only.

It’s hard to believe, but there are people out there who haven’t experienced deep grief. They’re not close to their family and it’s common that they discover family deaths years later. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed just remember, you miss someone because you were blessed to have that person in your life. Your life has been effected by their absence and if you stop to think for a moment, it truly is a beautiful thought. Your broken heart is in pieces because you once gave it full and beating to someone else.

Many are not so lucky.

It’s Not All Bad

Following the hiatus in the media lately, I am shocked with the lack of support shown for the “Funeral family” by others in the business. So, speaking for the funeral directors who put their lives on hold to care for your loved one, I want to raise a glass (or two) for those sacrificing sleep, important dinner parties, birthdays and weddings so they can serve you.
Yes, the whole “$1 cent government contract” sucks, but the real problem there is lack of education to the public leaving room for misconceptions. The public simply need more information when it comes to coronial cases. Yes, the body needs to be removed from the scene of a crime or accident, just as a forensic cleaner needs to remove traces that it occurred. You’re not going to call in the forensic cleaners to do a bond clean of your apartment, and you’re not required to arrange the final goodbye with the company that removed the body. The body is not taken to the funeral home following a coronial case, rather the city morgue for autopsy and further investigation. The family can choose any funeral home they wish for the service.

Reading comments on the latest stories, it breaks my heart that the majority of Australia believe funeral homes perform mass cremations, swap coffins and only in it for the money. Just like any industry, there have been unfortunate cases and this creates the stigma attached to the death care profession. Funeral Directors care for your loved one as if they were a member of their own family. I’ve worked on services where staff almost pass out in the heat as suits stick to sweating backs like a jellyfish while serving families and know a funeral director who paid for a butterfly release out of his own pocket for a young girl who died and the family were lacking finances. Furthermore, we leave a flower on the pillow after removing the deceased and apply moisturizer to their skin with care to prevent dehydration from the cold environment in the mortuary fridge. Every small step is taken in caring for the deceased and their families left behind. I have assisted a mortician on a case where the body was in no state to be viewed or dressed due to not being found for a long time. Respectfully, she placed his suit over the top of him neatly as if he was wearing it. She didn’t have to do that, no one would ever see him again but this is the kind of respect and dignity practiced by funeral homes and people need to be assured of this!
Funeral directors are some of the most dedicated people you will ever meet. The mortuary staff do everything they can to take care of your loved one with respect and some hearse drivers will study the route for the service the following day in their own time over their dinner plate. Of course there are fees and big money involved in arranging a funeral, but it’s not so the funeral director can go and jump in his Porsche parked out back. People don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes, including a hard working team. The only person who sleeps when someone dies, is the deceased. There is the “Transfer” crew who remove the body anytime of day or night, coffin trimmers, the mortuary staff, hearse cleaners and media professionals who create the photographic slide of memories. These people need a wage to support themselves and their own families, and the hearses need regular servicing, filled with fuel, and that’s a whole fleet of cars! Look how expensive it is for us to have our own on the road! Imagine up to twelve vehicles! Then there are the flower orders, staff uniforms pressed professionally…the list goes on. There are expenses behind the scenes that the majority of the Nation don’t even think about.

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It’s expensive maintaining your final ride.

When my poppy died, my nan turned to me and asked if he would be cremated with others. It broke my heart and it’s an all too common belief that many coffins are reduced to ash in a massive burn off. The cremation retort is built to accommodate one coffin at a time, and following cremation, the remains are kept with identification and this is very strict practice. It’s heartbreaking when I have seen how hard the crematory staff work, only to be slandered. The crematory staff are some of the loveliest guys you’ll ever meet and incredibly strict when it comes to paperwork. One day I had forgotten to get a form signed before I left the funeral home on route to the crematory, and the staff were on the phone to funeral home management for a length of time before he took the body from my care.

 

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The cremator is designed for one coffin at a time.
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From perfect petals to coffin handles, there’s expenses behind the scenes you haven’t even thought about.

Funeral directors are not out to get you or use your grief to fill their wallets. They genuinely care for your loss and are there for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and would probably miss their own funeral to be at yours.

xx

A Little Less RIP.

I don’t want to know what Fred Durst is eating for lunch today. It’s not that I don’t love him to death, (pun intended) it’s because I enjoy the mystery. The anticipation for the next album release. The upcoming film clip. Well, back in the day anyway.

When my favourite band were taking over the globe in the nineties, the only thing that kept me in class during the week was knowing on Saturday morning I would see them rock out on TV during the music countdown. Hip hop stars, pop princesses and rock gods graced our airwaves, and it wasn’t unless we turned on the radio, bought their albums or watched them on Saturday morning TV that we, well… saw them.

You waited months for album release. Saved your pennies and rode your bike or skateboard to the CD store and there it was gleaming on the shelf. You paid $35 for the plastic cover, sparkling disc and booklet of lyrics and photographs. This little bundle of joy became your life. You replayed that beautiful CD until it skipped with scratches. By that time, the concert tour had almost arrived and the week leading up to the performance you couldn’t sleep. The electricity in the air was inspiring. You wanted to hang out with your mates more, even back chat your parents. You were a rock star yourself because before too long you would see them on stage.

You sometimes waited years for this.

Today, you can follow your favourite singer online, kept up to date with their daily routine from the shower to the hair dryer that shapes their hair. Why bother going to their concert? You already know them like a friend, right?

When Dolores from the Cranberries was found dead last month, the film clip for Zombie shot to 666 million views on YouTube. Prior to her death, it was thousands and thousands less. It took her death for much of the world to remember her, yet she was one of the best female rock stars of our time. True music artists are fading from memories until headlines pronounce their death.

I know I sound like a prude stuck in a musical past, but this isn’t the case. I’m the first to bounce at photo opportunities to share with family and friends on Instagram and Facebook. I don’t mind a good filter or two either. I just feel people have forgotten the deliverers of earth rattling art.

The Bee Gees once drove over a rickety bridge and the sound of the car rolling over the boards gave birth to the beat of one of their most famous songs. Kurt Cobain titled one of our favourite tracks after a deodorant scent. He had discovered “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” spray painted on his bedroom wall. It was etched in paint by a mate, and six months later the graffiti culprit received a phone call from Cobain asking if he could use what she wrote on the wall for a lyric.

Where have all the rock stars gone?

To their graves.

And it’s commonly the passion for their art that killed them far too early because no one really gets it anymore.

Today’s music is great. Nothing quite like a bit of RiRi (see? I’m still hip, right!?) to start the daily commute with coffee in tow. But, let’s face it. Radio announcers aren’t talking about the singer’s artwork anymore. In fact, it’s almost like the music break is an inconvenience to their chatter. And I’m not saying the work we hear today is no good. I just really miss Dolores as if I have lost a friend and I encourage you to revisit your own memory bank of favourite artists. Add a few more views to their iconic clips available on YouTube before they leave this world. A little less RIP messages, and more of “your music is timeless. Miss you!”

 

Gut Health

When I mention “Gut health” I’m not talking probiotics and a nutritious diet.

It’s that gut feeling when you first meet someone, or when you’re in a situation and it’s telling you to run or embrace the moment. The ability to understand and follow this inituition is what I mean when I say “Gut health”.

Gut health is essential to following your path in life. In almost everything you do from applying for that new job to going on a first date, you almost can’t ignore that little voice inside putting their two cents in. And if you do ignore it, in time you realize your sidekick was right all along and if you had just followed the advice in the first place, you wouldn’t be living on two-minute noodles or crying into a box of tissues when you found out your new love was cheating on you.

So, ask yourself. Kale, beets and chia seeds aside, how is your Gut Health? Do you follow your intuition? Are you able to feel the energy zapping between you when you meet someone new? Are you able to read messages from others without them saying a word?

As funeral directors, I believe good Gut Health is important to fulfill our duties successfully. A wise old funeral director gave me the best advice when I was training to become a conductor. “The key is to let the family know you’re there, but don’t be in their face. Be present, but out of the way.”

I had been his assistant for some time, offering cold water to the mourners, polishing the hearse and helping guests locate the rest rooms. When I was able, I would watch the conductor and how he interacted with the family, and I noticed that all conductors had their own way of doing things.

Patricia* took the gentle touch approach. She would gently touch the “Applicant” on the arm when she spoke, the priest, the vocalist, everyone. Just a gentle touch to let them know she was there for them. She nodded a lot, but kept out of their way unless they gave her the look and she was right there, by their side.

(The Applicant is the main person the funeral conductor is to liaise with on the day of the service and isn’t always the executor. It is usually a child of the deceased or spouse, or whoever is strong enough to plan the funeral at the initial arrangement).

Then there was Albert* who I adored. Albert was the most beautiful funeral conductor I had ever met. While he had the lunchroom back at base in stitches with jokes, when conducting a funeral you have never seen such a professional. He bowed profusely, to family, friends, Father and even the catering ladies as they raced around laying out sandwich triangles on the plastic tables to the side of the church. Albert was there for not only the Applicant but for everyone. You could never locate him for yourself as he was always helping someone. An old lady with a walker, a child who dropped their cup of water and the larger man who needed assistance climbing the stairs. He truly was wonderful to watch.

Then there was Tony*. Tony was in his late sixties and new to the funeral industry. He had been a bus driver most of his life and even spent time in the military, so there wasn’t too much…softness there. A former beauty therapist, I longed to give that man a facial massage and relax some of those stern expression lines. He always looked serious, not empathetic at all and didn’t seem to know when to approach the family. I watched with my gut in knots but not able to stop him as he constantly approached the grieving family, at one point in his nervousness even dropping a precious photo frame that was to be placed by the coffin. I wanted to help him, but I was only the assistant. I could see his face burn red as he continued to make errors that affected the funeral service. Tony was a lovely man, but just didn’t know how to read the guests, their energy and listen to his Gut. Perhaps it didn’t even know how to speak to him as he had not given it any nurturing over the years.

During my conductor training, I soon learnt that the good Gut Health that helped me through everyday life was soon to become my best friend on a funeral service.

Not all family want a stranger in a suit running up to them and bombarding them with questions and information on seating arrangements. They sometimes don’t want to talk at all and quite often, the Applicant and close family will arrive only moments before the funeral commences to avoid the interrogation and conversation. Standing at the front of the church or chapel watching guests arrive, some sobbing into tissues, others dripping with jewels that jangle as they sign the guest book, I can tell almost instantly if they want to engage in conversation or not, and this is crucial in making the family and guests at a funeral feel comfortable and safe.

I will introduce myself to family of course, and let them know that I am there for them if they need, but if I can sense that they do not want to say one word, I nod and it’s amazing at how this one little movement can tell them everything.

“I’m right here if you need me. Any time for anything. Just look my way and I’ll be there.”

From displaying the flowers at the front of the church to approaching the elderly, my Gut Health is in full swing as the funeral begins. And at the cemetery, as the Applicant and close family arrive, sobbing graveside to watch their loved one lowered into the earth, my Gut lets me know whether I should go over and hug them or stay clear until it’s all over.

Yes, good Gut Health is our “go to” on a funeral, but it’s also there for you in your profession and personal life! Whether you’re a teacher or a chimney sweeper, if you listen to your intuition, I assure you that you’ll excel, meet the right people who belong on your path and avoid spending copious amounts of money on a date with someone who isn’t going to call you back.

In a world where computer screens have taken over the printed word, where “likes” mean more than a phone call and a stranger’s comment justifies your existence more than a posted letter in the mail in a real life envelope (Yes! They still exist!), how about spending some time focusing on your Gut Health. Nutrition yes, but while you blend the rainbow of goodness to care for your physical self, just remember your spirit and mental health is equally important and this health is going to bring you nothing but success. Funeral director or grave digger, florist or plumber. Your intuition knows the answer. Listen to it…always. No exceptions.