Late Nights Early Mornings

I know it’s morning because the birds are chirping, just a few as it’s also raining. I’ve otherwise lost track of time but I do know it’s Sunday. I feel quite delirious now.

I make my way to the bedroom and lean on the bed for support as I undress, throwing my soiled suit to the floor. After three consecutive house calls I have sweated my blouse into a stinky mess and my white collar is make up stained. My jaw cracks with a yawn as I catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror. I hardly recognise my reflection- I think I looked better when I used to stumble in at this time from a nightclub marathon in my twenties. Mascara smeared and red lipstick on my chin was a far better sight than the  fright that peers back at me now. I appear pale, lines under my eyes and my Botox has worn off completely – I look haggard. The rain batters down heavier now as I roll into bed without taking off my two day old makeup and knowing I should shower but I simply can’t stand on my feet any longer.

As I pull the covers up to my chin and pray the work phone also takes a nap, I revisit my time on the road overnight. The dead I collected from beds.

The 35 year old cancer victim holding her childhood teddy bear.

The heavy lad that had me almost toppling backwards off the porch as we manoeuvred him on a carry stretcher around tight corners.

The tiny frail lady with a daisy in her veiny hands clasped across her chest.

I’m so grateful to feel this tired, weak, exhausted. 

And as I decline yet another Sunday coffee date via text before I close my eyes, I know that right now- in his time of my life, I live for one thing and that is helping the dead any time day or night.

To take helpless bodies into our care.

I feel myself drift off to sleep and my tummy grumbles.

On second thought, I really could have gone a good smashed avo on toast and latte….

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Ray & Ruby

The son of Ruby* took his place behind the lectern, his eyes magnified by his oversized spectacles. I was drawn to his energy, watching him from the back of the church by a bookshelf wobbly with bibles. I loved his kind nature from the moment he introduced himself prior to the the service. 

“I’m Ray,” he said gently when I offered him a service booklet. I knew Ray was the “applicant” by reading the funeral conductor’s paperwork. The applicant is the person who made the funeral arrangements and the person we give most of our attention to on the day.  

“Ray,” I shook his hand and looked into his teary blue eyes blinking behind his glasses. “Condolences. I see you will be delivering the eulogy.” I referred to his name printed in the order of service next to a photo of his mum taken decades before this day. I was drawn to her energy too, just by the image. I was transfixed on her pretty face and I couldn’t wait to hear her story presented by this gentle man.

And what a eulogy it was.

I hear a eulogy or two every single day of my life. I’ve heard the life journeys of doctors, housewives, war soldiers, pilots, scientists, authors. And no matter their social and professional status, commonly the eulogy follows the same chronological structure.

(Name) was born in 1925 in (city/town) They were the second child of (how many siblings) They lived in (the town) until they met (love of their life) and so forth. Each and every story surely is fascinating and I wish I could flick out a notepad and finally use all those shorthand lessons I endured when I dabbled in journalism. But I do wish the eulogy was more about the deceased’s passions- their favourite food! Best holiday experience! Funniest drunken moments! Not what year they got hitched.

Today’s eulogy wandered from the usual path with Ray begining his mother’s story a little differently.

“Two weeks ago I was sitting with mum having a coffee. She seemed so full of life, her usual mischievous self. A few days later we received the news that she was not well and a week after that, here we are. Just like that- she’s gone. So quickly.”

He sniffled.

I looked down at my shiny shoes. 

Yes my friend. Just like that. 

“Mum complained of neck pain and headaches the past few weeks,” Ray continued. “And after some tests, the doctor said she had a major brain bleed and she would not survive. All they could do was keep her comfortable. I spent every hour with her until she passed. Mum never regained consciousness but while in her coma, I had a lot of time in her small room to reflect on who she was to me. Who she was to everyone. I found a photo album full of photos of a life I knew nothing about. It was mum in her younger years, so beautiful. And all I could do was kiss her forehead and say ‘oh mum.’ I had only ever known her as this grey frail lady. I forgot she was young once too, and she lived a full and incredible life.”

 I suddenly admired this kind man even more. He had understood the lesson of death, and it changed his life. He was one of the rare few who listened. 

He spoke as if Ruby was in the room and thanked her for the lessons she taught him. Even in her death. “If mum wasn’t in a week long coma, would I have spent seven days by her side in reflection?”

He called it a coincidence.

I believe there is no such thing and I call today’s, the best eulogy ever.

A Courteous Man

I stood close by and watched the suited man check the pockets of the body. Effortlessly he removed car keys, a mobile phone, a notepad. He handed them to me. I wondered what type of car the dead man drove and resisted opening the cover of the notepad to discover the scribbles that would bring the poor soul back to life for a moment.

Was it a shopping list beyond the cover? Appointments?

I glanced at the police officers standing back- maybe they could open the notebook looking for answers?

Yes, the cops would reveal this strapping old man’s plans for the day.

A date perhaps?

He was elderly, but looked younger than the age printed on the Life Extinct form I had sighted moments ago. Handing the contents of the dead man’s pockets to the officers, a lump formed in my throat when I saw them place the keys and notepad on a nearby bench.

I’d never know.

The suited man who emptied the pockets and was now preparing a body bag on a stretcher is my new work partner. He has been in the business for almost twelve years and he’s four years younger than I am. His movements fluid, professional, I’m momentarily intimated until it’s time for me to help lift the man from the hallway floor onto the funeral cot; a collapsible stretcher we lowered right to the ground.

It’s my very first police call.

“Ready?” he peers up at me.

I nod.

“One, two, three!” he counts and in one movement, strangers become a team as we remove the dead gentleman from the floor where he lost his life.

Coming from a big city where we handle up to twenty bodies a day, I was not used to being in the presence of somebody who had died only an hour earlier. I had conducted copious body removals from homes and aged care facilities, but in a city with traffic jams and winding motorways, the decedent had usually been dead a couple of hours by the time we arrived- rigor mortis well and truly set in and skin cooling. I was in a smaller town now, where it takes thirty minutes at most to get from one end of town to the next, and the hospital morgue only a five minute drive from our facility.

I’m also blessed to be employed by a funeral home with the police contract- which means we are the team who remove the body from an accident, suicide or any other case requiring further investigation by the coroner. 

Today was my first police call and less than an hour earlier, shoes polished and tie fastened, I dived into the van excitedly. I couldn’t wait to discover the case that awaited, my eyes wide as my partner told me stories of some of the cases he has worked on. From aeroplane disasters to murder cases, the wannabe forensic journalist inside me somersaulted! My heart always aches for the family involved in any loss, but it’s a well known fact in the funeral biz that Emma Jane loves the coroner cases.

Back in the city, whenever a removal from the forensic science unit was required, the funeral directors loosened their ties and flicked off their polished shoes. “Emma can do it!” they’d sing, reaching for their microwave lunch meals. It was break time for them while I leapt into the van and headed off towards the giant building of secrets. Black body bags, detectives – I felt like I was apart of a crime scene investigation TV programme!

I always dreamt of working for a company granted the police contract- and now my dream had come true. 

We arrived at our scene today with little information and I admired my partner’s ability to predict the scene we were about to walk into, simply by the appearance of the dwellings around us. “A lot of older people live around here,” he studied the houses through the windscreen as we turned down our designated street. “I betcha it will be a case where a doctor will sign off on his death. Nothing too exciting,” he winked my way.

I pouted.

Although no decomposition kit was needed (a go-to pack containing heavy duty gloves and goggles) I was deeply moved by today’s police case. It wasn’t because the poor soul’s body defeated him only moments before paramedics arrived. It wasn’t even the tiny frown line between his brows, indicating a little pain when he took his final breath.

It was his perfectly ironed trousers, his shiny leather belt, the notepad and car keys in his pockets. Not a hair out of place,  he smelt of Classic Brut. Only a short while ago, he rang the ambulance service reporting chest pain. His heart failed him before they arrived. Had he dressed well out of courtesy for the hospital staff? He sure did look lovely. His skin still warm, limbs floppy as we moved him from the floor, I experienced a little chest pain of my own.

Once we strapped him in and lifted the stretcher in the back of the body removal van, my partner and I climbed back into our seats and headed off towards the hospital morgue where further tests would be carried out. We chatted about our favourite TV shows and the sunset casting brilliant pinks and oranges across the sky but, inside all I was thinking to myself was “Mr. Wilson had no idea a few hours ago, that tonight he would be dead.”

I had anticipated a gruesome discovery with the call from the police.

Instead- I was moved by pleated trousers and a notepad.

Dreadlocks and Dragons

I nursed Brad* on my lap in the passenger seat of the van as it climbed higher up the mountain. Brad wasn’t a baby or child. His cremains (cremated remains) were sealed in a lovely oak box with his name carved in the wood. We were en route to his funeral service. Normally a body would be cremated AFTER the funeral and the last ride is always a hearse. Today was different. EVERYTHING would be different.

We brought the van as we were carrying half of the funeral home up the mountain, from a lowering device to an empty coffin in place of stretchers. I began to think we should have also packed a tent, food and water as we had been driving for quite some time now, and the winding road seemed neverending. My ears began to pop like on an aeroplane and noticed just how high we were, taking in the extraordinary view. There were green-blue mountains for as far as the eye could see, we were level with low cloud and felt the drop in temperature even with all windows closed.  ‘Feel that?’ my work partner chuckled as he shifted gears and the van heaved uphill further. ‘I can feel the cold through my suit!’

In a mountaintop cemetery overlooking the country side, Brad would be farewelled by friends and family. His death was a coroner’s case- it appeared the twenty six year old had died at his own hands. And made quite a mess while he was at it…of himself. His mother had requested we cremate him and during the funeral she would place the ashes inside the coffin with some of his favourite belongings. It sounded rather straight forward but as soon as things sound simple, a funeral director must be prepared for the opposite.

‘Apparently he was quite the gypsy,’ my partner began his brief as we turned onto an unsteady dirt road. ‘There may be quite a few things going in the coffin. Who knows what is going to happen up here. The locals are a little different in these mountains!’

Usually a lowering device is fitted before our arrival. All we need to do is place the coffin on the straps and at the appropriate time, flick the lever and the decedent is lowered into their grave. 

Not up here!

We were required to bring our own that had collected dust in the work shed. Now I would learn how to actually set one up!  I felt a flutter in my stomach- this service was going to be one to remember, I could feel it. My intuition was screaming at me, hope you’re ready for a banger!

I held Brad’s box of ashes tighter.

We finally pulled into the tiny cemetery with only a dozen headstones peeking through the fog. There was no time to appreciate the scenery- we had twenty minutes to set up all of our equipment before the family arrived! I climbed down from the van onto the dewy grass and placed Brad on the passenger seat where he would wait until it was time. Our hands aching from the cold, my partner and I unloaded the empty coffin, set up the chairs, sound system and lowering device. It’s amazing the strength and energy a funeral director can muster in challenging conditions. The icy air burned our skin, but ensuring Brad’s goodbye was perfect mattered more than a little windburn…or frostbite. Once all was prepared, we straightened our ties and waited. 

Then a beautiful thing happened. The sun broke through the clouds and the harsh wind settled. With the light I noticed we were surrounded with avocado trees and the cemetery had a view that gave Sydney Harbour a run for its money. The family began to arrive in droves- the mother greeting us behind large dark sunglasses. She acted strong, not a quiver.  Too many people refuse to shed a tear at funerals, and while I understand no two people grieve the same way, I sometimes long for them to take advantage of the reason for funerals. Funerals are a time to cry, scream, shout! It’s a launching pad for the grieving journey. However I could not imagine what it would be like to bury your own child and the pain a caliber of its own.

‘I have so much to set up,’ The mother pointed towards the family members approaching us holding large boxes. ‘I’m sorry it’s not the traditional way…’

‘Please,’ I placed my hand on her shoulder that I noticed was trembling beneath her coat. ‘Don’t apologise. It’s perfect and very special.’

‘It will be special,’ the mother agreed. ‘But I’m not allowed to cry just yet. I’ll set it all up and then I can deal with it.’

I nodded. 

‘Please let me know if there is anything I can do.’ I leant forward and hugged her and I heard her sniffle.

My partner and I stood back to supervise as the family set up a table by the open grave with the most beautiful belongings- spell books, crystals, incense, dragon ornaments, candles…so many candles! His favourite chocolate biscuits were set up by a canvas of photos and for the first time, my eyes met with Brad’s. Prior to this moment I had only known him as the cremains in the box with a glossy finish. In the photos he was laughing, pulling funny faces with a head full of long purple dreadlocks. A lip piercing sparkled on his smile and he wore trendy fur coats.

‘He loved dragons,’ his mother busied herself with his shrine, placing so many crystals and dragons around the grave I thought I had stepped onto the set of a fantasy film. His friends began to arrive, all dressed gothic style and glitter patterns on their cheeks. I could see in the photo collage Brad enjoyed glitter with much of his clothing sparkling with it. I felt a lump form in my throat and suddenly felt an intense connection to the  young man as if he were friend.

FINALLY! A service that was brimming with the deceased’s personality. No somber black suits and depressing music! Fleetwood Mac floated on the mountain breeze as his friends placed mementos by his coffin from witches brooms to more dragon ornaments. A stunning velvet cloak was placed in his coffin along with his spell books and letters… it was endless.

Before too long the cemetery was busy with eccentric characters, dancing and crying, hugging and dancing, throwing glitter in the air and dancing, sharing stories and you guessed it…dancing. You’d think you were at a dance festival if it weren’t for the coffin which was now loaded with all that made up the story of his life.

There was one thing missing.

Brad.

‘I would like to see him now,’ his mother approached us a few minutes before the service was scheduled to start.

‘Certainly,’ and I led her to the passenger side of the van and opened the door. She began to cry now, reaching forward and hugging him. ‘Oh my baby!’ she sobbed. ‘My dear boy. This world was never for you. I’m so sorry!’ She cradled her son in her arms before taking him over to the coffin. On sight of the box holding his ashes, his friends and family began to weep. 

The eulogy connected me even closer to the young man, learning he was a creative, a misfit, a writer, a poet, a stargazer. He had no time for social norms, for politics, conformity. His personality was described to have been ‘haunted’ by his inner demons, but my intuition told me they weren’t demons at all. He knew he didn’t belong in this crazy world- he wasn’t the crazy one at all.

Driving back down the mountain I felt changed. I was moved, challenged, unsteady in conversation with my colleague. I couldn’t think clearly, I felt foggy. A speck of glitter twinkled on my knee.

When people find out I work in the funeral industry, a common question I get asked is: “But isn’t it depressing working around death all day?”

How on earth could it be depressing when you’re standing on a mountaintop with glitter on your suit and your head held high knowing you’re helping someone in their time of need?

I was meant to conduct that service today. It was no coincidence that a glitter loving, dancing funeral director landed on that mountain.

Brad chose me.

RIP beautiful soul!

If You’re Trying to Lose Weight…

DIET TIP!!!

Become a funeral director! You may get to eat once a day when you’re on call- maybe not at all!

You run on coffee but work these off racing a zillion miles an hour & exposed to human fluids that you’d expect only to see in movies! 

You lift weight you had no idea you could manage until confronted with it and heaving coffins become part of everyday.

Salads look more appealing when you’ve seen a body in a sad state (bless their soul) & you stay away from anything that gives you gas. (I’ll leave that one there but fellow funeral directors know what I mean).

D08DE583-F121-47AB-927F-BE533ED6E181xox

Funeral Flowers, I hate you (erm…I mean I love you)

F3E2CB95-34E1-47E8-A763-780C31528E78So, I have a love/hate relationship with funeral flowers. Some days they are my friend as I spritz the casket spray with water to freshen the petals before placing them on the coffin. They smell amazing- the white lily my favourite, while other funeral directors sneeze and splutter at the strong scent. Once at the church or chapel it’s an honour to place the flower arrangements on the altar artistically so the guests can see all the wonderful work florists spent their time creating. 

These dear colourful blooms have also had me wishing I could jump into the burial plot myself. 

In the early days while in training, my conductor explained that prior to the service we would be doing a drive by.  A drive by??? We weren’t gangsters! Were there guns hidden in the under carriage of the hearse? ‘What exactly is, erm…a drive by?’ I whispered to him, and he looked at me as if I had just asked if he would care to drive off a cliff together.

‘You don’t know what a drive by is?’

‘Well, I am a fan of hip hop, I know some great music artists who have been wounded in drive bys.’ The expression on his face had me wanting to melt into my polished shoes. Turned out a “drive by” entails driving to the decedent’s home on route to the funeral. The hearse stops outside the home and the conductor takes a moment to put a rose in the letterbox, bows respectfully then returns to the hearse. I shed a tear the first time I witnessed this. We see so many bodies get rolled into our facility on stretchers and while we care and respect every single one of them, we don’t have much of a back story of their life besides what disease or accident snatched them from life.

“Drive Bys” became special to me. You had the opportunity to see their home, the gardens they once watered, the patios they swept. When I became a conductor I felt blessed to stand at the front of the deceased’s home to place the rose in their letterbox which I’m sure was usually filled with utility bills- envelopes they needn’t worry about anymore.

So now Drive Bys are important to me, but that very first day I learnt about them I felt excruciatingly embarrassed. 

Then there was the time I had to carry a flower arrangement twice the size of myself down the (very long) aisle of a church before the family arrived. It was an Italian service- fellow funeral directors know just how extravagant these services are! 

So.Many.Flowers. 

Hardly able to see over the flowers in my hands quivering with the weight, I tripped and face planted into the arrangement. Pollen on my face and swamped beneath flowers, I envisioned my headstone: “Death by flowers at funeral. Please do not gift flowers as they were her enemy.”

Theeeeen that day. THAT DAY. The family had requested they would like to take the casket spray home with them. At the burial there is a crucial moment prior to lowering the coffin into the earth when the funeral director skilfully removes the casket spray and places them to the side on the flower grate. I forgot to do this because, well… it’s me. And as I pushed that lever, the coffin descending into the ground, my face burned with shock as I watched in terror-the flowers were lowering, lowering, lowering, six feet under. Thankfully the family were okay with my error, and still gave us a great review and even sent a thank you card. Phew! I later discovered the cemetery staff could have retrieved them. 

There are too many cases to count how funeral flowers can stress a funeral director. From placing the wrong arrangement on a casket, to the florist not delivering them at all. From forgetting to check the flower-room at chapels for flowers that may have been sent by family members unable to attend, to having them slide off the casket while driving the hearse around corners because someone forgot to put flower matting beneath the display to prevent them moving.

Aaah. Funeral flowers.

These adventures aside, have you ever wondered why there are so many darn flowers at a funeral?

Historically flowers were placed around the casket to ward off the smells that emanated from the decaying process of the body. Clearly we now have better techniques to deal with a stinky corpse than using flower petals, but a lovely way to mask decomposition all the same.

There was once even the role of the Flower Lady. The flower lady was similar to the pall bearer role but instead of carrying the casket, the ladies carried the flowers from the funeral service to the flower vehicle then set them up graveside.

Today this role is called… ALL OF US! The  FDA – Funeral Director’s Assistant does this – hence why I had a face smothered with pollen.

Whether the fragrance makes you sneeze or the heaviness of some arrangements boosts the chiropractic industry, funeral flowers are sentimental for many reasons. It can be difficult for mourners to put feelings into words, and flowers show sympathy and express love. 

I do believe flowers should sent to the grieving AFTER the service also, once all is buried and done with. Grief outlasts sympathy so take the time to send a bunch once in a while to someone who lost a partner, friend, child- anyone! Flowers brighten anyone’s day – unless you’re falling into them or accidentally putting the incorrect arrangement on a coffin.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Earth laughs in flowers.” This quote sure does describe my humorous experiences with funeral flowers but when it comes to grieving, I like to say “The Soul is Smiling in Flowers.”

And here’s to the whole darn team being The Flower Lady!

🌸🌸🌸

Zebra Print & Champagne

On my recent travels I discovered the cutest funeral home. Okay okay, so a holiday is meant to be abundant with coconut trees and sand between the toes, not headstones and funeral chapels. Don’t get me wrong- I love a cocktail (or five) by swimming pools but this road trip was all about funeral homes and learning different ways other companies do their thing.

So while driving through the countryside I came across a company with the greatest uniform. No somber black suit, these ladies had zebra print material threaded in their Akubra hats and pink blouses beneath their jackets! What a wonderful way to celebrate life- with colour, patterns and warm smiles? I did also wonder, would the uniform be overwhelming to a family who have tragically lost a child? Had a partner killed in an awful accident?

Oh the Death Industry. A crazy world of controversy! 

It had me thinking though – how great it would be to develop a funeral home serving those who leave this world between 80-100 years of age. Of course it’s devastating to lose someone whether they’re 12 years old or 100, but when someone has conquered life and made it to age 99- now THAT’S cause for celebration! It’s awful to lose anyone!!! But how great it would be to honour lives who have outlasted generations- wiser than most of us, taking stories to their graves we can’t even imagine!

Someone close to me, 85 years of age, has never been in hospital. And over a few strong whiskeys she tells stories of the days she partied with rock stars and watched the construction of the Sydney Opera House so many many years ago. When it’s her time to leave this world, free of disease and a heart full of gratitude, her farewell will indeed be a celebration of LIFE. 💞

I daydream of a funeral home where the staff wear zebra print vests, bright shoes & serve champagne by the coffin as family celebrate a life well lived. 

💞🥂✨💋💯

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