Celebrity Bones

IMG_6746

When we hear the name; “Judy Garland”, most think of sparkling red slippers and rainbows, the tin man and a scarecrow skipping about made of straw. Not skeletal remains and graves.

Writing a book, I have been distracted from my blog but last night, with cheesy macaroni dropping into my cleavage, I stopped the spoon feeding when I saw Judy Garland’s face flash upon my plasma.

Judy Garland’s remains have been exhumed… the news reporter announced. Seated upright, I raced to my office. I absolutely had to write about my love for celebrity deaths and exhumations. If you’re not entirely sure what an exhumation entails, put simply; it’s digging up a dead body from its resting place. This is done to retrieve further evidence or to transport the remains to a new grave. In some cultures an exhumation is a celebration! Digging up the bones and dressing them in silk parading the skeleton around like a piñata to celebrate the dead. I could write about the exhumation for days! (Another book perhaps?)

I will never forget my very first exhumation. The grass twinkled with frost and the cemetery was still closed to the public. With opening hours between six AM and five PM, the headstones were shadows in the thick fog of dawn. In our high-vi’s glowing like the sunrise, we jumped out of the van with our shovels and began attacking the grave like grave diggers in search of jewels. It wasn’t riches we were sifting through soil for – we were in search of remains of a man buried thirty years ago. When *Robert was buried, this particular cemetery did not offer “double plots.” This is when loved ones request to be buried together in the same grave. Commonly; on top of one another.  Three decades later, *Simon had passed, and his dying wish was that his brother *Robert could join him in his resting place. So shovel to soil, we were instructed to retrieve *Robert so he could be layed to rest with his sibling.

The burial, again, is a whole other story! What happens to the body once it’s lowered six feet, the underground water currents swishing bodies about like a Caeser salad and the fees and regulations involved with purchasing a grave!

Back to the story of raising the dead…

By law, when exhuming a dead body, we must retrieve all remnants of the corpse which is sometimes piles and piles of soil! Bone fragments are all over the place like a jigsaw puzzle which results in a very stinky funeral home! The morning of my first exhumation, the funeral home smelt like a fart in a car. There was no escaping it. The stench from the remains was far worse than any decomposed case I had been called to! And here I was, thinking burial was beautiful! More like rotten compost! Heaving into the sleeve of my funeral director suit, I gathered the bits and pieces in soil and wrapped them in *bio seal; modern body bag technology, a self-sealing containment device for human remains.

I could smell the corpse remnants for days. The stench weeped from my pores and hair follicles. However, when I layed down to sleep at night, I felt peaceful that I had carried out a dying man’s wishes. I had helped the world in some small way.

So, when I discovered that Judy Garland had been exhumed, I dropped my bowl of macaroni and dived into my desk chair, flicking on my computer to find out why!

And it seems, the beauty who once clapped her heels together in hopes of heading back to her family from a far away land, was finally, (no pun intended) heading home.

The Wizard of Oz actress had been buried in a mausoleum in Hartsdale, New York following her death at age forty-seven. But Garland’s body had now been exhumed – forty eight years after her death – and transferred to Los Angeles, California.

The decision came at the request of her daughter. Garland’s daughter is understood to have wanted her mother moved to another plot where there would be room for plots for her children. The daughter of the Wizard of Oz Princess in twinkling heels  wanted to be buried with her mum – but the plot in New York had no extra space.

So the decision was taken to move her remains to the famous “Hollywood Forever” Cemetery.

I found some comfort in this news report. I realised, as my fluffy Maltese licked macaroni from my Peter Alexanders, that we truly are, all the same. Yes, some may sparkle in diamonte studded heels and soak in golden bathtubs but at the end of the day, we will all end up as a rotting corpse in the ground or bone fragments in an urn.

Hey! Don’t let me stop you from being glamorous! I just hope that when you click those sparkly heels and sip that Espresso Martini, you remember, that you really are no different to Anna Nicole, Michael Jackson or the Beauty of Wizard of Oz.

Which could be, if you think about for it a moment, a pretty awesome thought.

The decaying Author… (And the flesh eating kittens)

“Number four, there!’ I pointed, looking up from the map. Squinting through his small spectacles, Mick pulled into the gravel driveway of the house, squared off with police tape. Now that we could see the house, we also noticed the police car parked to the side; two officers leaning on the bonnet with coffee in hands.

“Hi, Officers!’ I waved as we jumped out of the van.

They grunted.

You would be surprised how afraid the police seem to be of dead bodies. Same goes with many paramedics. Once life is declared extinct, they tend to leave the scene pretty quickly.

Only recently, we arrived at the scene of a man who had drank himself to death. His rum and coke had spilt across the kitchen tiles by his side, his arm frozen in the air as he had tried to save his fall. Alcohol seeped from the overweight man’s pores. The police had met with us at the door, but when  I returned to the front steps to fetch the police for a lending hand, they had already left!

Gravel crunching underfoot, Mike and I headed to the front door of the small house with our carry stretcher. The instructions from our call centre advised the home was small and our regular stretcher would not make it down the hallway and around the tight corners. The police had suggested our decomposition wear also; the deceased had not been discovered for over a week, and it is mid-Summer.

As soon as we opened the door, although we could not see a thing, the humid smell of death hit us and almost knocked me backwards onto the ground. The elderly lady was a hoarder;  rats scurried beneath our boots as we stepped over piles of books magazines and newspapers. Bags of rubbish were moving with buzzing flies and cockroaches.

Meow!

‘Is that…???’ I turned to Mick, flashing my torch in his eyes.

Meow!

Something brushed against my leg and I shrieked! I pointed my torch down to find not a rat or cockroach, but a kitten! No bigger than the size of my hand. It rubbed against my trousers, peering up at me. Two others joined it’s side.

‘There’s bloody kittens, Mick…everywhere!’

Trying not to step on the small pets, we continued towards the room at the end of the hall. The stench of decomposition was almost unbearable, I held my nose as we approached the bedroom.

“Shiiit!” I screamed jumping back. There on the floor lying by the bed was the remains of an old lady, dressed in her pale pink, floral nightie, her slippers still on her almost non existent feet. Her face had been eaten away by her kittens, and/or the rats and other crawling creatures who had taken up residence. The yellow glow from her bedside lamp cast eerie shadows across the wallpaper, shedding enough light upon her remains for us to go about our job. Without a word spoken, Mick and I stepped into our plastic body suit, pulled down our goggles and snapped on our gloves. Stepping over more books to make way for our stretcher, we discovered pages and pages swept across the wet carpet as if they had been dropped. The pages looked like journal entries typed on a typewriter. As I gathered the papers, I discovered the title page:

‘Happily Ever after, written by Madeline Rhodes.

‘Come on, Al,’ Mick hurried me as I had now stopped, scanning the print of what now appeared to be a manuscript. ‘Sorry,’ I gulped, unable to wipe a tear that escaped from my eye now that I was wearing my space suit.

We leant down to pick up the poor old lady, the carpet squelched under our boots. It felt as though I had stepped in a puddle.

As we lifted her, she literally fell apart in our hands.

“You reckon the cops will still be outside to help us?’ Mick joked, laying part of her leg onto the stretcher.

Elbow deep in flesh, blood and goop, we zipped up the body bag and softly closed the door behind us and the dim glow of the lamp that had given light to the elderly writer as she had written her story.

89 cents & Coffee cup messages

My skin itched in my thick black stockings and sweat gathered at my top lip as Molly took her place behind the microphone at the lectern. A long time friend of Lynn who layed peacefully in her coffin at the front of the chapel, Molly was proud to deliver the Eulogy on behalf of the family who whimpered  in the front row.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and the air became stickier by the minute. My suit stuck to me like a jellyfish to a leg. A Summer storm was brewing and the hearse driver looked concerned.

‘It is my honour to speak today,’  Molly’s voice trembled. Her kind blue eyes met mine and I nodded in encouragement. As Molly had arrived to the chapel, she grabbed my arm and cried: ‘Im scared I won’t make it through the speech without breaking down!’I squeezed her wrinkled hand and assured her that Lynn would be watching over and be grateful for the delivery since her husband of fifty five years would have troubles speaking on such an emotional day.

Side by side, my colleague and I stood at the back of the chapel listening to the stories that created the life of Lynn. The years at Christmas Carol festivals at the church, wrapping and packing christmas hampers for the community as she sweated into her top, just like we were in that moment.

‘Lynn’s giving nature radiated from her,’ Molly said sweetly looking up from her notes to peer around at the guests who sniffled into tissues and fanned their flushed faces with the orders of service. I quietly attended to the grieving with cups of water.

It was stifling.

‘We are all sweating here,’ Molly giggled. ‘Just like Lynn when she stood in challenging weather giving to the less fortunate at Christmas time.’

Lynn was a giving and kind lady who lived to serve others. I was grateful that I had spent some time with her back at the funeral home while preparing her body for the service today. I bathed her, washed her hair and dressed her in her best, applied her coral coloured lipstick and polished her shoes. I felt there was something special about this woman as I placed her gently in her final resting place and closed the lid of the coffin.

I had been right.

Molly was determined to make it through the story she had written about her friend, looking up at me occasionally with tears in her eyes beckoning to spill over and streak her blush.

‘Lynn had a very dry sense of humour,’ little Molly continued. ‘I would like to take this moment to tell you about one particular story that I will never forget about my Lynn. My husband, Jim was in palliative care. He had announced to everybody that he did not want flowers at his funeral, only money to go to his widow.’

The chapel broke out in laughter.

‘Well, when my Jim died, Lynn sent me a letter and I would like to read some to you…’ she unfolded a piece of paper and began to read…

‘Dear Molly. Well, Jim said he did not want flowers…he wanted money to go to you to help you through the tough time following his departure from this life. Well, my dear, here is 89 cents…’

The chapel once again loud with claps and laughs…

‘…A cent for each year he was alive. Don’t go too crazy with this money. Spend it wisely.’

Molly then held up a string of shiny silver coins, 89 cents.

‘I am yet to spend this,’ Molly grinned. ‘I will keep it as her legacy, as I am sure when she meets with Jim they will have a good laugh about it.’

And with that, she winked my way and stepped down from the mic.

She made it. I felt so proud for this elderly stranger.

It was time for John, Lynn’s husband of over half a century to say some words. He held onto a coffee mug. His voice was croaky as his mouth met with the microphone.

‘I bought my wife a mug once,’ he stuttered. ‘I would like to read the message on it because it describes how much I love her…’

He paused for a moment. Then instead of reading the print on the cup, he stepped down, approached the coffin and placed it by the pink and purple display of flowers.

It was time for my colleague and I to walk down the aisle to meet with the coffin, turn the casket and call the pall bearers forward.

A beautiful version of Amazing Grace sang from the speakers as together, in sync side by side we walked towards the front, bowed and like in tune with the music, we turned the coffin so Lynn would exit the chapel feet first.

‘Pall bearers, please,’ I called out and on cue, six men in dark suits appeared from the crowd and took their place, each grasping a handle. Suddenly, Lynn’s husband appeared at my side and slipped his arm in mine. His lips were quivering, his eyes red with tears.

“Let me walk with you dear,’ he whispered.

‘Of course,’ I held him tightly and together, we led the coffin down the aisle and towards the hearse.

Heart thumping, I walked with him, the man who had spent more than half of his life with the woman lying in her coffin whom I had prepared for her final ride. Once at the hearse, the coffin was placed inside and locked in. I hugged John and Molly and slipped into the driver’s seat of the shiny black hearse. A guard of honour was formed either side of the driveway. I took a deep breath and slowly began to drive Lynn past her loved ones who cried and waved as if Lynn was sitting in the passenger seat next to me.

She may very well have been.

Still sweating, a storm broke open the skies and rain pelted down upon the hearse as I drove Lynn towards the crematorium.

A moment in the morgue

We reverse the van to meet the large roller door and in sync we open our doors, jump out and head to the back. My shift partner, Mick, lifts the back door of the van as I reach in for the gloves, paperwork, clipboard and pat slide. Mick pulls out the stretcher as the roller door groans upwards.

We visit morgues all across the city countless times a day, we are in and out pretty quickly: a brief chat to the morgue attendant, shuffling of paperwork, cross checking wrist tags, zipping up the body bag and transferring the body from the tray to our stretcher. Music turned up,  we head back into the busy road of reality and everyday life.

Today, there was more movement in the morgue than usual…

We walked in, the cold air tickling my face, the loud humming of the refrigeration one of my favourite sounds, almost drowned out by the commotion. Two nurses were standing by the mortuary register, writing in the book we sign when taking away someone who died in their hospital. There was a hospital bed just inside the fridge to the side, a sheet covering a lifeless body. I see out of the corner of my eye, the nurse glancing at his watch and recording 10:55am under the Time of Death column. He clicks his pen and slips it into his pocket, nods our way and they wave to the morgue attendant returning to their ward.

‘Right,’ the attendant snaps on her gloves. ‘Who are we after?’

I don’t speak, I just hand her the release form.

‘Bed seven,’ she points looking over her glasses. Mick and I walk into into the morgue rolling our stretcher past the hospital bed, I place my hand briskly on the sheet, feeling the warmth from the body.

As funeral directors we typically take care of those who died a few hours ago. Today was the first time I had ever been in the presence of someone who died only moments ago. While we were driving to the morgue, the person was still alive.

We reach Bed seven and unzip the body bag and check the wrist tags. Tummy fluttering, tears beckoning, we slip the pat slide under the body, slip her over onto our stretcher and the morgue attendant proceeds to fill the new space with the patient who died at 10:55.