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. The droplets glisten on the petals, adding warmth and colour to the slender box locked in the back of the hearse. 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 catapulted me into situations where I wish 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!

Today, 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! I fell in love (and I have my eye on you when I move interstate 😉💞)

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. I don’t have a business savvy bone in my body so I could never make it happen- but have sore cheeks from smiling at the idea… 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! Tears will be shed of course- 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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Cloud Bling

Writer Florence Scovel Shinn once said “Prayer is telephoning to God, and intuition is God telephoning you.” I’m not a religious person, but I’m really into spiritual shit, and last night I received the most wonderful phone call.

‘Beautiful night,’ I grinned at the truck driver, jumping down from his giant machine beside me at the fuel station. ‘I have NEVER seen lightning like this!’ I pointed up at the clouds glowing with the forces of nature. No thunder or rain, the sky was showing off with a silent light display. If you were inside at home, you’d have no idea of the spectacle taking place above you without the usual stormy companions.

‘It sure is a special sight,’ he agreed, gazing upwards. ‘We do see it a lot though, late at night in the distance. The open road makes it easier to see. Kind of a shame really, what people miss out on when in bed.’  I felt the smile creep across my cheeks. That’s what I always say. Well, to myself anyway. Nature is at its best at night. Moonlight, stars, the cooler breeze, and if you’re out and about, expect adventures.

Oops!

Fuel began leaking from the pump and down my hand. I was so mesmerised, I almost forgot I was filling up. It didn’t matter. I was in the middle of the most beautiful road trip and the funny thing is, I was meant to be asleep in bed.

I’ve been on the road for some time now, and planned to get a nights sleep before continuing the drive. But I was restless. I brewed some tea, stared at my open suitcase on the floor, peered over at the bed. I moaned thinking how boring bed was going to be. And something told me to grab my toothbrush, zip up the suitcase and skip it altogether. I felt a sudden surge of joy zap through me like the lightning illuminating the sky. In no time, the car was packed and I was singing out aloud to James Blundell for good measure, as I drove through the country. Huge trucks were the only vehicles sharing the road with me and some honked their horns to say hello. (Or to tell me to get to bed like everyone else, I’m not sure.)

The trees stood out in silhouette, hauntingly beautiful with the backdrop of lightning, as if the Universe was releasing fireworks in the clouds just for me. I felt a sneaky little tear. Not many people know this about me, but I have actually travelled the open road extensively in the past. I witnessed some incredible sights on my travels, but nothing quite like this. For hours and hours the lightning played with the clouds, sometimes rolling from one cloud to another like a synchronised routine, other times lashing out and splitting the sky with bony fingers of blinding light. I felt so incredibly blessed to witness the magic. As well as the unforgettable light show, I was captivated by the enormous trucks on their overnight journeys with number plates different to ours. No plates identifying which State they come from, instead they read “Federal-Interstate.” I thought how great that would be, to belong to the entire country. Some trucks had what looked like a nightclub attached to them with flashing lights and even their giant wheels were decked out with twinkling bulbs. I pulled over at a rest stop and text my friend who works in the truck industry.

Hey there- sorry for the late night text. Just been driving the country, sharing the open road with giant trucks with what looks like a disco attached to them and thought of you! Just wanted to say hi and hope you’re doing well.

Almost instantly my phone beeped with a reply.

Hi. Yes, it’s a term known as ‘Night Bling’.

 I laughed. A bit like myself!  I replied, referring to my addiction to sparkly heels after dark.

You know what they do compared to the trucks without it?  My friend wrote.

 The same thing I asked.

 Exactly. If not, less. They spend tens of thousands extra on that stuff but it doesn’t do anything  was his reply as another truck spruced up with ‘Night Bling’ blasted past me.

 A bit like people  I found myself typing.

 Night Bling, I like that, I thought to myself as I veered back out onto the highway. Even the clouds had bling tonight. I suddenly realised I was not alone late at night when I couldn’t sleep. Whenever my insomnia would strike from now on, I would think of the dedicated drivers out on the road delivering goods to help the world go round. I usually thought about fellow funeral directors out on transfers caring for the dead (taking the deceased from place of death into the care of the funeral home 24 hours a day) but now I would also think of the hard working truckers so we can be fed and provide products to make our life easier. While most people slept, they worked- but I began to think they may have the best darn job in the world. (Besides a funeral director, of course.) They get to drive all night under lightning skies, listening to late night radio where the most interesting characters call in to take part in quiz shows. (Where I learned, I might add- the only fruit specifically mentioned in the story of Adam and Eve is Fig, referring to the fig leaf used for modesty.)

I was so grateful for my intuition in this moment. The “Phone call” from something bigger than I.

You see, there’s this thing I do. I can’t make an important decision on rational judgement alone. I don’t write a pros and cons list, ask my friends for advice or research products before buying. I rely on intuition. That’s right, I can safely say someone makes the decisions for me, and while I carry out the actions physically with my own arms and legs, it certainly isn’t me who governs them. Sometimes I come across crazy to those closest to me, but while I frighten the bejesus out of people with my ideas, these experiences enrich my life and make me the happiest little human on this planet.

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Intuition is everything xoxo

But as soon as I got back in that car and witnessed the magic in the sky –  the Cloud Bling – answers came to me and I blew a kiss to the heavens for making me… Me. Crazy little messy me, who never misses the phone call.

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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 have an opinion on this (they say a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it, after all)  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.