Requests from The Other Side

IMG_0602 I slipped into my polkadot gum boots and headed into the mortuary, the droning of the body fridge reminding I was home.

‘Before you start!’ Mads waddled over, hands full of paperwork. The operations manager is too cute not to love, yet has a miraculous way of appearing out of nowhere with tasks and information you really don’t want to hear or see when you’re already busy. ‘This morning you have to take Mrs. Joy to the private viewing room at head office. The family want to apply her make up and do her hair themselves.’

This request made me happy, I could hardly contain my glee! The broken relationship the western world have with death saddens me. And you will hear this non stop in my book. Most families are petrified once their loved one has died, quickly handing the corpse over to the professionals. Only two nights ago I was on a call out where Grandma had fallen over in the shower and died while paramedics attempted to revive her. Her tiny frame wrapped in a sheet, she laid on her bed alone, with pipes still attached on her face and down her small mouth. Upon our arrival in our suits and shiny shoes, the family refused to enter the bedroom as if the room was now contaminated. This is when I hold the deceased’s hand for a moment and assure them their family are simply grieving and we will be there for them now.

Other families, like today, continued to embrace their lost family member and will request multiple viewings prior to the funeral and even ask if they can help prep them. Supervised, in a dimly lit room to soften any hard edges with flute music playing softly, the family confidently take over role of mortician, minus the mouth suture and placing of eye caps and cotton in cavities, but you get the idea.

But it can take hours. Letters are written, prayers and rosaries chanted and quiet time, no words, no tears; just being, by the coffin.

When a family wishes to dress the deceased themselves, we have to take them out of the fridge for an hour prior so the skin feels less cold to touch and no condensation forms on the face. The coffin isn’t frosty and the ‘mortuary smell’ is softened.

Once at head office, the always cheery funeral director, Parker, bounded down the stairs to greet me. ‘I went on a date last night,’ he beamed as we pull Mrs. Joy from the back of the van in her coffin, placed her on a gurney and took her into the viewing room. Red velvet drapery makes the room appear royal, water sparkling in crystal jugs on corner tables and battery operated candles flickered in dazzling candle holders. ‘She’s so lovely, I just can’t wait to take her out again,’ Parker giggled like a school boy as we adjust Mrs. Joy’s head into a perfect upright position and dab her face with tissues. ‘Anyway, I’m off to arrange a funeral. 26 year old,’ his smile leans downwards, eyebrows furrowed. ‘Wasn’t found for a week. How does that even happen? Here we have a family who want to apply the make up to this lady’s face herself, and then on the other end of the spectrum, we have a family who don’t give a fuck about their kid.’

We share a moment of silence.

‘Anyway, toodles!’

It is only a few minutes later that I heard the bell tingle that is fastened to the grand front door of the Funeral Home. Greeted with red carpets and fresh roses at the reception desk, I pictured the family loaded with Mrs. Joy’s make up and accessories.

There is a knock on the door to the viewing room, and I open it, to find a lady with pastel pink hair in a croppy cut style and glowing blue eyes. The skin on her forehead smooth as a twenty year old but the wrinkles on the back of her hands indicate she is in her late fifties. She studied my face.

‘Have we met before?’ her pink glossy lips smiled at me.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said motioning her inside.

‘Anyway, my name is Ashley. I am here to do lovely Joy’s hair and make up today.’

Without further ado,  Ashley pranced over to the coffin, placing a suit on the lounge by the casket. The pink haired makeup enthusiast opened a giant, leopard print make up case and started rattling about in the bottles of foundation, eyeshadows and lipsticks.

‘No one else?’ I felt my frown but grateful for Botox, you wouldn’t have been able to tell. I peered into the hallway expecting the usual tribe.

‘Nope, just me,’ Ashley fluttered about, preparing colours on a table by the coffin. She gazed at Mrs. Joy with adoration, as if she was simply asleep and she was about to wake up and greet her.

‘Hello, Joy,’ Ashley sang . ‘I’m doing what you wanted…yes I brought Frank’s suit for you!’

I stepped to the side and say in my best Funeral Director’s voice:

‘I will be here to help you at any time. Joy’s skin is a little cool, you may touch her all you need to apply the makeup, all we ask is that you don’t move her and please, ask me any questions you need.’

‘Oh, my dear!” she chimed, almost laughing as she continued dancing about the room retrieving make up brushes and hair curlers. ‘I know all the answers, she’s right here. You see, I was her hair dresser for twenty years and she asked me to do this for her when she passed…’ Ashley paused, looking beside her as if someone had joined us in the room. ‘Yes, Hun, I know. Dave said that already, and the suit is here. I will give it to this lovely lady when we are finished!’

Was this lady bat shit crazy or what???

Ashley began applying foundation onto Mrs. Joy’s face with a professional brush. ‘I’m sorry about your loss,’ she said unexpectedly towards to me.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Your loss,’ she repeated as casual as board shorts in the summer. ‘You had a huge life change a year and a half ago. A husband? Your step son was a terror wasn’t he?’

I gulped and took a deep breath but wearing the funeral home logo pinned on my suit, I focused on remaining calm and sober.

‘I’m so sorry, love,’ she flashed me a look with her twinkling eyes as she explained to me that there were many conversations happening around us and it may become overwhelming for me. ‘I am a medium and clairvoyant and I tell ya what! It can be really bloody annoying. See?! Here I am trying to do what Joy requested, yet she’s standing over there telling me I brought the wrong bloody earrings for her burial!’

With questions burning inside, I remained quiet. Apparently there was enough noise in the room already.

‘Would you mind if you made me a coffee?’ Ashley asked kindly, and I nod. Once in the staff room kitchen scooping Moccona into a floral china cup, I took several deep breaths. I returned with the coffee and the bubbly hairdresser sat it on a table close by rather than taking a sip. ‘Thank you, dear. It was for my mum. She loved coffee, and when she’s here I always have a cup for her so she can smell it. Your middle name, it represents family,’ she said casually again, stepping back to study her work on Mrs. Joy. I wasn’t sure whether she was talking to ghosts, the body in the coffin, or to me.

She looked at me and smiled.

‘The letters in both your first and middle names mean family, and your maiden name means God’s Child. Family and God. Not the religious figure, just a higher being… the Universe. It is with you always and you live by it, don’t you?’

She reached for the hair curlers.

‘You were meant to be here today, love,’ she began to curl Mrs. Joy’s hair while humming a tune I don’t recognize. Then, ‘Yes! Okay, Frank! I will tell her now!!!’

Ashley turned her gaze from grey curls to my face.

‘Okay, darling. Listen carefully. Frank is Joy’s husband. He was buried six years ago wearing an outfit he was not happy with. He hated it! He has asked if you could please place his suit in the coffin beneath Joy so he can wear it please. They loved dancing together and they want to go dancing tomorrow night.’

Ashley pointed to the pressed suit and black silk tie lying the armchair she had brought with her. I nodded, gulping to moisten my cotton dry throat. A beer would be nice right about now, I thought. Or a shot of vodka. 

‘So…there is there an afterlife?’

As if I had just asked if she was gay and her hand in marriage, Ashley threw her head back and laughed wiping a tear with her free hand, the other hand holding the steamy hair curler.

‘Darling, there is more of an afterlife than the life we are living right now! This, right now, is not even a speck compared to what’s over there! They love it! Now I’m not saying lets all go jumping off bridges so we can join the party, but the energy and spirits on the other side are in a beautiful place and are with us everyday.’

‘So, my pop…’ I choked. ‘He would be there? My friends who have died?’

‘Well, your pop is still in limbo,’ she explained. ‘Sometimes when someone dies, their spirit is confused, they don’t know where they are and they go to a dark place for a little while until they realize what has happened. He is still there but he is smiling because your Nan is doing so well, and he is actually a little jealous!’ she laughed again. ‘He wants to know why she is cooking more these days!’

We both laughed and my heart grew like a flower.

‘Your friends, they are not here right now darling. They crossed over so long ago and they are far away but like to check in occasionally. We become boring to them after they have gone for so long!’

Makeup applied and curls set with hairspray, Ashley packed up her cosmetics and handed me Frank’s suit. ‘Please, he really wants to wear this.’

‘I will,’ I promised.

‘You were meant to be here today,’ she said again. ‘I will be calling you…we have plenty to talk about.’

I wanted to call out after her that she didn’t even have my number, but she had already left the building.

 

 

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Cool Granny and designer handbags

‘I’m going to test the music,’ I said to Macca, retrieving the USB stick from his funeral director’s folder, paperwork and pens spewing from its leather.

‘Good idea,’ he chuckled recalling the time we hadn’t done so and Busta Rhymes belted from the speakers instead of Elton John at the funeral service.

To avoid another embarrassing fail, I slipped into one of the hearses in our shiny fleet and plugged the USB into the slot on the sound system.

First track, check! Matched the paperwork.

Second track, success!

Third Track….

Macca!’ I squealed. ‘Come and check this out! Either it’s the wrong track or we have a super cool granny in that coffin!’

Macca waddled over and I turned up the volume, pop star Fergie echoing on the walls of the funeral home. A personal favourite track of my own, singing of luxury items and high heels, I hoped it was the right song…what a hoot!

‘Whaaat?’ Macca threw his head back laughing, his specs falling to the ground. ‘No, I think it’s wrong. Let me double check on the paperwork.’

While Macca returned to his folder, I went over to finalise the touches on Mrs. Davis. I snapped on the gloves and checked her make up was perfect, hair sitting right and no condensation on her cold face. A Gucci handbag clasped in her manicured hands and a bottle of Chanel no.5 was tucked by her side. Macca joined me and confirmed in fact, Mrs. Davis has personally requested the song Glamorous to be played at her farewell.

‘Well, it is fitting,’ I smiled, wondering what her voice may have sounded like. Grey hair set in full curls and her enhanced lips fire engine red; I pictured her in the chair at the skin clinic getting her lip injections and Botox. She looked terrific for a ninety five year old. Mrs. Davis was a Cool Granny.

I patted her thick hair and whispered, ‘You’re awesome.’

An hour and a half later, the curtains had closed on yet another life, but not a regular one. As Glamorous sang from the speakers and mourners left the chapel, slight smiles crept upon their grief stricken faces and I overheard one of the grandchildren chuckle, ‘Yep, That was grandma.’

 

Lost In Translation

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Many years ago, I found myself in a beat up old car with a Mexican flight attendant.

We had met on an Air NewZealand flight when my whiskey landed in my lap on the turbulent flight. The strapping lad with dark eyes and a bright smile slipped me an extra travel size bottle with a grin. We exchanged numbers with plans to meet up in Auckland City once the plane had landed.

He ended up taking residence in the beautiful harbour city, and So Did I…for 4 years.

We became life long friends.

Until he died in a motorcycle accident.

Only nights before his death, my Mexican friend and I drove around the botanical gardens. The Auckland museum, a bright white building stood tall amongst the rolling green hills of the gardens, scattered with breathtaking trees and greenery. Even in the middle of the city, there was always ‘green’ in Auckland City. I remember on one of our drunken nights of shenanigans we encountered a random goat while drinking wine at the city look-out.

Only in New Zealand. 

This particular night, we drove around aimlessly just because, and my friend invited me into his world playing one of his favourite albums. Spanish lyrics beamed through the speakers of the old Commodore we had scored from the newspaper for a thousand bucks. With each sentence sung, he translated the lyrics for me in English. I remember thinking to myself, looking up at the stars in a country not my own with a friend from the other side of the globe, this moment was special. I would never forget it.

Fast forward to dry-cleaned suits and hearses in 2016, it is Wednesday, and I was  allocated the role of Hearse Driver. Macca, my best mate at work, hailing from Italy, is my partner for the funeral and  excitement bounces between us when we see our names side by side on the roster.

Hearse polished and coffin secured in back, we head down the freeway towards the cemetery.

‘I brought something,’ he chimes, pulling a CD from his folder of paper work. If you have read my previous post about Macca, you know the bond we share through music.

Today, it is a collection of his favourite Italian ballads, and his cheeks glow as the songs pumps from the speakers. Together we bop our heads smiling, careful not to appear ‘too happy’ in the hearse. At traffic lights, we look ahead with our best stern expressions so the onlookers don’t judge us for smiling with a coffin on board. The light turns green, and again, we smile and tap our feet.

Suddenly, I feel a tear, as Macca translates the lyrics from Italian to English. Some of the most beautiful words I have ever heard;

‘In my dreams I see your hands…’

‘You love me like I love you, and this is forever…’

‘My heart is sore, but it is not your fault, It was me who gave it to you…’

‘I must take a drink to forget your beautiful eyes…’

With my hands on the steering wheel of a Hearse, sitting next to my new best mate, I gulped away the lump that had formed in my throat. I was transported back to Auckland with my Mexican friend who translated every lyric from Spanish to the language I understood.

Together, Macca and I moved to the smooth flutes and Bouzouki’s on route to the graveyard as city folk drove past us, attending to their busy lives.

It was not until we came to a dead end street that we realised, we had forgotten to take the highway exit to the cemetery.

Faced with bunnies bouncing across a paddock in the middle of nowhere, Macca and I looked at one another and broke into laughter.

‘Macca! I believe we are lost.’

‘I’m sorry!’ he chuckled. “I was lost in the music!’

‘You were lost in translation!’ I laughed.

I gazed into the revision mirror, my eyes landing on the glossy coffin with  yellow flowers in the back, and I am struck with a sudden realisation…

The deceased in the back was Mrs. Harris…

My Mexican friend, all those years ago had asked me to call him ‘Harris’ because his Spanish name was far too complicated to pronounce!!!

‘Just look for the headstones,’ Macca instructed, peering over his spectacles, studying a map of the city.

‘No problem,’ I sniffled, wiping the tear that crept from my eye.

I was reminded, There is no such thing as a coincidence. 

 

 

Cocoa-Cola Princess

 

Professionally,  I am challenged every day.

I have discovered strength, determination and emotions I never knew existed.

Despite the courage I have found within myself as a funeral director and mortician, today I was tugged right out of my polished shoes and silk scarf. I felt clouded and numb.

I wasn’t here.

Like a spectator watching from afar, my heart was heavy and my head faint.

Fifteen year old suicide victim, snug and sleeping in her white coffin, blanketed in satin.

Her long, dark lashes rested on her blushed cheeks, her full lips stitched in a still pout, her long hair fanned across her shoulders, my attempt at hiding the bruises from the rope. A single yellow rose in her hands; the sleeping beauty struck every nerve in my body.

Some souls linger. You can feel it. Metaphysicians and Mediums report that many souls refuse to accept their death and for some time they hover, confused, sad and afraid, not sure where to go next.

Other spirits are pleased to be freed and you do not feel a presence at all.

This young girl lingered, her presence strong and suffocating. I leant on the mortuary table for balance.

It was time for her funeral. Guests began to arrive, some red eyed and sobbing, others dressed to impress. The young girl’s family worked in media and the crowd of  television stars packed the chapel.

When I passed the pen to them, asking kindly if they wouldn’t mind signing the attendance book, they almost threw the pen at me in anger as if it was I who tied the rope around the girl’s neck.

The service commenced with Eminem rapping through the speakers, her favourite music artist.

I could not, for the first time, understand it. Suicide is always confusing, but often, a reason can be identified.

This beautiful, young girl was much loved, successful in track athletics, living for the blue ribbon at the finishing line. Through the speeches from her friends and family, I learned she had many best friends who she shared late night phone calls, exchanging secrets, dreams, goals and desires. Teachers loved the beautiful young teenager, the local Fish and Chip shop owner gave her unlimited Cocoa-cola.

Why?

I could not feel anything when I usually do.

We will never know. Thirsty for answers I tucked into conversations pretending to wipe tables or collect empty water cups to try and piece the puzzle; the most I was given…

 ‘I didn’t think she was that upset.’

Dear, Natasha,

I wish I could have told you that it does get better, even if it hurts right now. Some times pain suffocates you and tempts you to believe there is no way out, but Honey, there is. Love. Faith. Family. Cheese. Chocolate. Coca-Cola (in your case).

I will always think of you with every sip of Coca-cola or when I hear Eminem’s “Hi, My name is…”