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.
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.
‘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.