The Modern Day Grave Robber

Tyres screeching as a thief takes off with a funeral home vehicle is probably the last thing you would expect during a service. But this is exactly what happened at the Bearden Funeral Home in the United States earlier this month.

As mourners gathered inside to farewell their loved one, it is reported that the custom extended Chevrolet van used to transport flowers to the cemetery was stolen from behind the funeral home. The community is reeling that such an act could take place during such an important and sensitive moment, some calling it sad and desperate.

The Funeral Home owner who is also the county’s coroner isn’t so shocked, saying he has also had porcelain ornaments stolen from the business, but the vehicle theft is certainly the first robbery of that caliber in his time.

FuneralFlowers van_1507243282239_9392486_ver1.0_1280_720
The van Bearden Funeral Home used to transport flowers to the cemetery following a service. Image courtesy of wsbtvnews.com

 

Also using death as a way to benefit their own situation was a woman caught stealing bouquets of flowers from a grave in Adelaide on Mother’s Day. Caught red handed on camera with an armful of colourful blooms, she insisted she had bought them from the nearby train station.

As funeral directors, it’s nothing new to be accused of profiting from other people’s grief. I’ve even been trolled online condemning me for using death as a platform for my stories saying I am disrespectful, heartless and dense.

What these people don’t realize is yes, while the Death biz certainly is a flourishing business, we wake each and every day to serve others and help the grieving through the darkest time of their lives. Many of us have tried other jobs but we always find our way back to the funeral home. It’s in our blood and there is no other job on earth we would rather do. These guys (and gals) thieving from the dead and their families are the ones disrespecting the deceased, and it’s sad to say that this is actually a very common occurrence.

Years ago as rain pelted down upon the cemetery, I found myself huddling beneath a small sheltered area with the operations manager awaiting the family to arrive for the burial of their loved one. The coffin hovered on the lowering device above the grave, the flower arrangement pretty against the backdrop of stormy sky.

‘They’ll be knocked off for sure,’ the cemetery grounds manager sighed.

‘The flowers?’ I felt my brow furrow, looking up at him.

‘Sure,’ he shrugged. ‘It happens all the time. That’s one of the reasons we have closing hours and the big gates at front, but it never deters the thieves.’

New to the industry I stood there in shock, shaking my head as he continued…

‘The porcelain vases, toys, even alcohol. Some family members may leave a bottle of wine or beer on a grave, but it won’t stay there long. I’ve worked at a cemetery were almost a hundred grand worth of materials were stolen, the bronze plaques mostly. They resell the metal.’

I watched as the family began to arrive, the headlights streaming through the gravestones, pondering how awful it would be to pay respects to your loved one to find the headstone plaque or vase gone. Fast forward some time and nothing really shocks me anymore.

 

IMG_0212
Thieves tend to target bronze plaques and vases to resell the metal.

In January this year a Cairns cemetery was targeted by the chilled hands of grave robbers, not only stealing expensive ornaments and vases but heartlessly vandalizing graves.

One woman was devastated when she visited her father’s resting place to find a sentimental cross she had purchased overseas had been torn from the headstone. ‘The thing is, the cross was superglued there. They had to actually rip it off..’ she said. It was the second time thieves had damaged the grave.

Another Cairns lady was horrified to find her late mother’s grave had been targeted. Everything was gone, including two butterflies the family’s children had put there.

As well as stealing precious items, the culprits had gone through the grounds making a mess, dumping ornaments from one grave to another and throwing shrubs and branches about to make their mark.

The neighbouring funeral home also had a trailer stolen and gardens damaged. They are currently updating their survellience system with improved lighting so these callous offenders can finally be caught.

 

575cf380c3b93f61271d328eaad09a9d
Senior Sergeant inspects the scene at a Cairns cemetery where someone has driven over graves. Photo courtesy Stewart McLean and cairns.com.au

It’s saddening also that some cemetery websites have included ‘How to stay safe when visiting’  precautions, warning visitors of potential theft from their vehicles while they are paying their respects to their deceased loved ones.

“While most people would think that others would respect the cemetery environment, unfortunately, some offenders see a cemetery as an ideal place to prey on distracted visitors” one cemetery writes. “Incidents or break-ins and the theft of property from vehicles are unfortunately not an isolated issue.”

The cemetery grounds then go on to provide a list of safety measures in order to keep belongings safe, including locking vehicles and reporting suspicious behavior.

To add to the growing list of reports, a distraught mother in the United States posted online that she lost her beautiful son only days after birth. He had been buried with her grandparents and the woman finds solace in handcrafting silk flowers for the graves. Following countless losses, the heartbroken mother laminates a note to include in the flowers, begging thieves to stop stealing her artwork. Her plead ignored, robbers continue to help themselves maliciously leaving behind the note.

So in conclusion, the next time you feel like lashing out at your lovely funeral director for charging too much for a casket, perhaps redirect your anger to the real villains. (Or pour a whiskey and meditate instead. Anger is bad for you).

We are here for you. We want to help you in any way we can. You can call upon us 24/7.

And adhering to this, I would like to offer you one word of advice. Your loved one is forever alive with you in your heart. While placing symbolic items on their resting place may bring you solace and some sort of relief from the pain you are feeling, maybe create a place in your home for these items. Build a shrine of photos, flowers, candles and that bottle of wine. Visit their grave often most certainly, but it’s a sad fact in today’s society, nothing is safe even in the places you thought was reserved for peace and respect.

Advertisements

The Birds & the Bees & a Murder

The wind whistled through the soaring gum trees and birds swooped and chirped, pecking at the blooms that fluttered in the breeze. A splinter pierced my skin through my thick stockings as I sat waiting on the log. But I didn’t mind, as I inhaled the fresh air like I had just stepped into a bakery first thing in the morning and closed my eyes taking in the peaceful moment. It reminded me of the farm I grew up on when I was a kid. Living on forty acres my siblings and I were forever on adventures in the bush land, playing with farm animals and napping in long grass. I opened my eyes and gazed towards the gaping hole in the ground before me, the roots of life underground swirling in and out of the soil. The dirt was rich and tickled my nostrils. It was one of the most sobering moments in my life as I sat there peering into the grave, all alone deep in the bush.

‘I think it’s going to make it!’ Tony’s voice echoed, breaking my trance. I stood to my feet and peered up the hill, trying not to laugh as I watched the tubby funeral director bouncing about in the hearse driver’s seat as it crunched over stones in the uneven dirt driveway.

‘You sure we won’t get bogged?’ I ran, meeting him at the driver’s window. The aging service conductor wiped his specs, breathing heavily. ‘I’ll try get down a little closer, then we will carry him the rest of the way.’ He popped his specs back on his nose and I stood back and watched the hearse hobble down closer to the grave. At a regular cemetery, there are smooth roads paved through the headstones for hearses and visitor cars to glide through, to allow processions take place and even the grave digger can drive his tractor about the grounds effortlessly. At the Bushland Cemetery there were no roads. There weren’t even headstones. Just trees, long grass and plenty of wildlife. A kangaroo took off amongst the trees as the hearse came to a halt close to the grave. The Bushland Cemetery was one of the first green burial sites in Australia. Here, bodies are laid to rest wrapped in a shroud or timber coffin, which is why we were trying to get the hearse as close to the grave as possible. Mr. Anderson was wrapped in cotton so we had no handles to hold onto as we carried him from the back of the hearse. Mr. Anderson was also victim to a brutal murder- limbs detached violently in order to fit into a storage unit and was not found for some time. So it wouldn’t be an easy feat, carrying his decomposed remains that leaked through the material. The hearse stank, but we would sort that out later. For now, we had to focus on getting the poor soul into the grave nicely before the family arrived. Tony jumped out and we lifted the back of the death car.

‘Ready?’

I nodded. I took Mr. Anderson’s feet, the sweet and sour stench of decay scratched at the back of my throat and my eyes watered. Stones crunching underfoot we carried our dear deceased and gently placed him into his final resting place, only the shroud separating his rotting corpse from the soil.

‘Right,’ I’ll take the hearse back up top.’ Tony wiped his hands on his suit and reversed the gleaming hearse up towards the office at the top of the hill.

green burial blog
Natural Burial is becoming increasingly popular in Australia with “green burial” grounds now available in the Gold coast Hinterland, Northern NSW and Sydney.

For ten minutes or so it was just me and Mr. Anderson, the birds and the bees and whistling of the wind. I felt so blessed, at one with the Earth. I’m regularly alone at cemeteries with the deceased as the Funeral Conductor checks in to the office. But with a grand flower arrangement on the pretty coffin and plenty of movement all around, from tractors to visitors attending to graves, you sometimes forget there is actually a dead person lying only inches from you. This day, I could see the shape of dismembered Mr. Anderson, I could definitely smell him, but with the richness of the soil and the freshness of the gum trees around us, it was one of the most beautiful moments in my career as a funeral director.

Adjoined to the grounds with native wildlife and flora, there is the regular lawn cemetery. Many who wander there reading stories etched in the headstones may have no idea what takes place down the hill. The Bushland Cemetery looks more like an overgrown paddock and as you explore looking for others who have been buried here, you really do have to keep an eye out for a snake or two. The burials are located using a GPS tracking service and all is used to signify that someone is sleeping forever is a stone. As you enter the grounds, there is a giant pile of rocks you can choose from to use as a headstone. As you search through the grass and trees you discover a stone here and there but presently there aren’t many. However people are catching on to the “Green Burial,” also known as “Natural Burial.”

If you are buried here, it is asked you use a timber coffin or shroud. No metals or laminates and bodies cannot be prepared with chemical preservatives. You are left to decompose naturally feeding the flora and allowing the wildlife to live comfortably as you decay below.

From my rotting corpse flowers shall grow. I remember seeing this quote on a headstone in a historic cemetery once. This is what happens here at the Bushland Cemetery and other natural burial sites around the world. There are over two hundred natural burial grounds in the U.K and approximately eight percent of the population are buried in this fashion. The United States are literally running out of room to bury their dead the traditional way and the natural burial is catching on here in Australia to minimize carbon footprint. It is also cost effective with the price much less than a well known burial with all the trimmings.

After the Priest and the family said their farewell to Mr. Anderson and discussing the horrendous way he died, I wiped a tear and hopped back into the hearse ready for the lengthy drive back to Brisbane. I took a mental note of where our friend was laid to rest, and that weekend I drove to Northern New South Wales to visit him on my own. For an hour I sat by the mound of dirt yet to settle, again watching the birds and listening to…nothing. So peaceful.

You can visit the Bushland Cemetery in Lismore for yourself. Pack a picnic, it truly is a peaceful part of the world.

ppt-green-or-envirnomentaly-friendly-burials-14-638

Food Forever

Open casket during the first part of the service, the chapel walls trembled with song and prayer. Oil was anointed on the deceased’s face, incense burned and food placed in and around the coffin like a flashy picnic. By the media controls at the back of the chapel, I watched the monitor intently. The camera allowed us to watch what was taking place and I bit at my shellac manicure nervously. Is the poor dead guy going to catch on fire? Look at all that amazing food! Would the guests mind if I popped up to the lectern and grabbed a buttered roll? I had skipped breakfast. Suddenly the family opened the deceased’s mouth and I cringed…loudly. “The mouth suture! They’ll see the thread” I panicked, turning to my colleague.

“It’s okay. They’ve seen it all before,” he assured me, polishing his specs as if this was totally normal. Well, to the Hindu family it was. And the more I watched the more I wished the western world could embrace death the way this beautiful culture did. In Australia and many other countries, death is commonly ushered out the door quickly, taken care of by the funeral directors. At viewings I’ve had family shudder when I suggest they partake in the viewing as if I had just advised they eat a can of worms.“Ugh, no. Not for me,” they quiver. And here was a family feeding the dead so they had food to take with them to the next life. Food forever. Now that’s love.

The second part of the Hindu ‘celebration’ took place behind the chapel by the cremator. Next to the retort four family members continued to chant and pray. The area usually reserved for staff had been tidied and trays of bones covered. My heart started racing when I noticed someone was being cremated beside us. Would they notice?

The family draped in colourful satin and dripping with jewels poured a whole bottle of what appeared to be vegetable oil over the deceased, and again I cringed. The beautiful makeup the mortician had spent time perfecting is ruined! Fire starters were placed in the coffin, set alight and the retort doors lifted revealing the sleepy glow. Embers scattered on the cremator floor, the coffin was pushed in and engulfed in flames as the family watched, howling and holding onto one another for support. I stood in my polished shoes in shock. When the door lowered they shook our hands, thanked us and returned to the rest of the family waiting in the chapel.

I was shaken but so grateful for being apart of such a rich cultural experience. That night I immersed myself in research, reading all I could on Hindu practises and discovered the Western world really could take a page from the Hindu way of life. Believing Braham, the God of all things is everywhere and in everything. Death, (Samsara) is a blessing and the ultimate life goal to meet with the God and to be reincarnated. Food forever! Colour, karma and Peace! I think I may be a Hindu.

 

pooja
http://www.hindubrahminservice.com

DVDs and Legacies

 

‘One day we won’t need to do this!’ my Daddy chuckled as he popped the rented VCR into the player to rewind. Adhering to the video rental store policies, he had a pile of tapes to spin back to the opening scene for the next person who chose to hire them. ‘One day movies will be on discs just like a CD!’

I had just finished a phone call with grandma interstate, using a giant telephone with a long coiled chord. ‘I miss grandma, I sighed, gazing into my scrambled eggs for dinner. ‘I wish we could see faces through the phone when we talk to them.’

Decades later, I am “Face –timing” my sister in North Queensland and Dad is dusting his DVD collection.

One balmy Brisbane evening, I find myself sipping wine and redecorating my living room. Blowing dust off book covers and fluffing my cushions, I remember the well-known sayings: “You can’t take it with you!” and “You don’t want to be the richest one in the cemetery!”

You want to know somethin’? I don’t know a funeral director who doesn’t collect something, from coins to books. We are house -proud and love our guests to visit beautiful, comfortable surroundings. We can’t pop our ceiling-high book collection into our coffin but what we can do is leave them behind as legacy for our loved ones. Our nephews, nieces, children and grandchildren can polish our DVDs when we are gone and remember when movies were played on disc rather than streamed online. They can trace their fingers across ageing book pages and remember us as they dust the mementos from the home we once cared for.

So, no. We can’t take our material belongings with us. But we certainly leave them behind for others to cherish, and if we are blessed to have that eternal love, we will be the richest one in the cemetery after all.

Pedicures and Bucket Lists

Last Saturday I was faced with my own death.

Now that I have your attention, that’s not entirely true.

There was plenty of blood, (warm blood freaks me out) screaming, morphine, (that part was fun) and an ambulance ride to a country hospital in the middle of nowhere. (It was actually a township of over twelve thousand, but for a city girl like me, we may as well have been in Willawarrin).*

It was meant to be a relaxing weekend camping with the family in bushland that resembled the woods in The Blair Witch Project. The trees were tall and slender, unlike common thick gum trees and wild horses slurped from the pretty lake lined with daffodils. It didn’t feel like we were only two hours inland from the city.  I could have been lost somewhere in the majestic American wilderness we see on our movie screens.

My life had been busy lately, so I stretched out my limbs on the chair by the campfire, cracked open a beer and breathed in the fresh air with what I am sure was a fat smile stretched across my face. The adventure was panning out nicely. We ate scones that mum baked over the embers and played games my siblings and I loved as kids, from Truth or Dare to Spotlight, a game of hide and seek in the dark where the seeker can use only the beam of a torchlight.

Best camping trip ever.

Until the next morning.

Of course, Emma Jane (that’s me – clumsy, blonde, unsteady me) stepped on an ancient, rusty drill part that had clearly been in the ground for months, even years. Yep, that piece of nasty, corroded metal was probably untouched for a long time and of course I came along and impaled myself right on top of it. I went into shock, something I had never experienced before. I couldn’t stop trembling, my vision was blurry and I don’t remember much, except dad lifted me to a tent and lied me down where we waited for the ambulance.

Ambulance? No! I was just about to drive into town and retrieve fresh coffee! No! No! NO! I Waaant coffee!

‘Relax,’ my brother instructed, squeezing my hand. ‘You’re turning blue.’

Right. This may have been one of those times that I listened to someone when they told me to relax. I could die here.

Well, at the time it certainly felt like it. My niece was crying at the top of her lungs, holding me and promising me she would never leave me. ‘You’re my only Aunty!’ ‘You can find another one,’ my four year old nephew rolled his eyes and headed to the Esky to help himself to a drink. Aunties could be replaced was his philosophy as he sucked on his juice, clearly bored.

But, as I lied there awaiting the ambulance with my niece sobbing on my enhanced chest and my dad holding my leg in the air so the foreign rod in the sole of my foot didn’t touch the ground, I wondered, What if I did die?  What if this led to a life threatening infection? Or worse! What if my foot and leg was amputated?

Most people I know have a bucket list. They have considered all of the things they want to do before they die. I am forever going on about how the western world dismiss death and prefer to ignore its existence. I am drumming into brains that we need to acknowledge our mortality in order to live full and prosperous lives. But, here I was, on my metaphoric death bed and I have never even thought about a bucket list. And everyone else has! Was I the one who needed my head checked after all? (Don’t answer that).

I hadn’t thought about my funeral, what colour lipstick to wear during my open casket or how I would like my hair set by the mortician. (You know, the important stuff). I am faced with death every day as a funeral director and believe it or not, I have never even considered the things I would like to do before I die.                         I’m sure you’re thinking I’m a crazy hypocrite, continuously reminding the world to live life to the fullest! Achieve your dreams! Live everyday as if it’s your last! Love whole heartedly and tell your family you love them each day! And there I was with not even a bucket list.

But, then as I nuzzled into my niece’s strawberry scented hair as she sobbed, I realised, I didn’t need one. I am no hypocrite. I am the total opposite. I subconsciously live my life to the fullest every waking moment and I live my life so wonderfully, that really, (I mean this as un-morbidly as possible) it’s quite safe to say I would have died happy then and there. Mark Twain once said, A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. As the ambulance arrived and pain relief was pumped into my veins, I looked around at my wonderful loved ones and I was grateful for them. Then, as I was assessed and put to sleep, I revisited the years I spent travelling the world, hiking mountains, camping around New Zealand on my own and pitching a tent anywhere I liked. I made global friends, ate unusual foods and bathed in freshwater springs naked. And then, I thought about all of the souls I have buried and cremated. I thought about all of the families I have helped over the years, the hands I have held through grief, the hugs, the affirmations, the privilege. I was ridiculously blessed.

I don’t need a list to remind me to live fully, and not for one moment do I think it’s a bad idea if it works for you. Lists just aren’t for me. Gosh, I don’t even write a shopping list. All I am trying to say, maybe we don’t need to be so serious about it all, crossing off activities on wish lists. If you simply live in the moment, you will be pleasantly surprised at how many things you achieve and accomplish without even realising it. Of course, if swimming with Orcas in Iceland is on your bucket list it will require conscious effort and a travel agent, but I’m talking about inner peace. Love. Living each day as if it’s your last, just incase.

Lovey dovey stuff aside. I did learn one thing. You know how your grandma used to say ‘always wear fresh undies incase you’re in a car accident,’ or something along those lines? She was right.

On the Thursday before the camping trip, I was booked in for a pedicure. I missed the appointment but it didn’t matter. I was only going camping anyway, right? No one would notice my toes. The whole time I was lying on the ground with the drill part hanging out of my foot, I was so embarrassed at my rough feet, unclipped toenails and chipped varnish. Everyone laughed at the state of my feet and when the cute doctor assessed my wound, I cringed. Would he take a snap shot of my disgusting feet while I was sleeping and share it with his mates? ‘Hey Guys! Check out the ogre I have in emergency right now!’

So. I don’t have a bucket list. But I do have a new list. A list of grooming essentials before I go camping, just incase I end up going into emergency surgery, because let’s face it, when I’m around, there’ll always be be some sort of dilemma.

 

 

*Willawarrin is a tiny, remote country town with 304 residents. Consisting of a pub, a town hall and post office, you’ll miss it if you blink. I grew up here.

The Cabinet maker (A history lesson) in the midst of Dying to Know Day

A few years ago, I giggled over my coffee cup listening to the ageing funeral directors deliver a history lesson in the lunch room. I found it unusual when they said our funeral home was once set in a furniture warehouse! That sounded so weird! A student of the death care industry, I listened attentively as they reminisced about the ‘Good Ol’ days,’ when they built the coffins themselves and the industry was run mainly by men.

‘Oh! Women have ruined it!” Bob, a-close-to-retiring funeral director scoffed, wiping his spectacles. He had been an undertaker for almost  thirty years. ‘Ever since women took charge, it’s been a bloody party! Balloons and bloody mints. I miss the days it was simple – a funeral was a bloody funeral. No bells and whistles!’

Recently, I was researching the history of funerals during the Victorian Era for a piece I was writing, and I discovered most funeral homes in fact, were part of a cabinet making or furniture business!

IMG_0297
Photo courtesy of ‘The Facts of Death.’ 1993
IMG_0296
Photo courtesy of ‘The Facts of Death.’ 1993

In the late 19th century, there were no funeral homes like we see today. Instead, there were “Undertaking Establishments.” These were an office used only for the transactions and paperwork and were usually attached to a livery barn or cabinet making factory. Many of the early undertakers were furniture makers and building caskets was an extension of their business. For them, undertaking was a second business rather than a primary profession – they built the coffins as well as their usual products. The farewell took place in the home where the family kept the body from decomposing by using large bags of ice, no fancy mortuaries or body holding fridges! The family often washed and dressed their loved one themselves and if they did not feel comfortable bathing the deceased, they would call a professional “Layer out of the dead.”

IMG_0295
Photo courtesy of ‘The Facts of Death.’ 1993

In fact, if you died in a hospital, it meant you had no family to take care of you. If you were apart of a family and fell ill, medical operations were carried out in the home and if you died, well, you stayed there.

Today, death is ushered out the door pretty quickly, and some family (not all) shy away from the corpse as if it was contaminated. They leave the deceased alone in the room where they died until we, the professionals, swoop in with our gloves and stretchers to whisk them away to a place of mystery. I wish the western world were not so closed off to death and embraced the inevitable. Only days short of Dying to Know Day, I would like to announce: acknowledging death is healthy and kissing your deceased loved one on the hand or forehead is not going to harm you! Planning end of life is not morbid or macabre- accepting our final destination can actually help you lead a full and prosperous life!

I think we can all learn a thing or two from the history lesson of the Funeral. Bring back the days were families pitch in and help prep their loved ones, embracing their death and getting involved.

Want to join the conversation?

Visit http://www.dyingtoknowday.org

 

 

 

 

Look at you!

 

unnamed-1

People ask: ‘Why Heels and Hearses?’

We can thank TV for the misconceptions of the death care industry – the mortuary often in dark basements with a greying man and a hunchback working in dim, flickering light. Warts on long noses mixing body parts in jars of bubbling liquid, hearse drivers resting their bellies on the steering wheels and ghoulish late night grave diggers.

SURPRISE!!!

The death care industry is nothing like this image many have created in their minds (okay, SOME hearse drivers have beer bellies), but the majority of us are young, fit and go to the beach on weekends. We have bright and fun hobbies and fantastic family and friends. I came up with Heels and Hearses to show you it’s not all gloomy cemeteries and blood splattered mortuary floors.

I love heels, fashion and combining my two passions – shoes and death care!

I looove driving the hearse, and often giggle to myself when guys gawk at the lights as if to say; ‘What is SHE doing driving a hearse?’

The funeral industry is alive (pun not intended) with bubbly young men and women who genuinely love and care for your loved one once they have taken their final breath. We live to serve you and ensure the deceased are well cared for, arriving at the cemetery or crematory safe and sound. It shouldn’t matter what we look like.

Young, blonde (except for in this picture, but I posted this pink monstrosity to make a point) and busty, I have often been victim to unusual glances by the public and even in the workplace by the older female funeral directors. They do not take me seriously and often ask; ‘Why are you working in a funeral home? Look at you!’

Look at me?

Why does my appearance matter when I am polishing a coffin or brushing a deceased’s hair for the final time?

It’s time young funeral professionals were celebrated! Glossy lips, cute heels and all!