As funeral directors, we work alongside many Priests, Brothers and Celebrants.
There’s Father Stevens – an ageing but good looking Italian with the adorable accent and warm smile. Father Rueben who forgets to turn off his microphone when he blows his nose and sneezes, the explosion from his lungs echoing throughout the church and I have to step outside to giggle. Paul, the gentle celebrant with creative analogies and phrases with the odd (respectable) joke in attempt to crack a grin on the mourning faces. And then, there’s Annie, with the huge soul that lights up the room. I almost expect balloons to fall from the ceiling during her services and a clown who jumps out from behind the coffin and sings “Surprise! It’s all phony! Uncle Jim is actually alive and this is a party!!!’
We see these lovable characters day in and day out – smiles are exchanged, handshakes shared and even a hug, but today, there was a man whom I had met before when I was only 13 years old.
My eyes landed on his face as he draped the white robe over his casual wear and walked past us as my colleague and I positioned the coffin at the front of the church. The windows glistened floor to ceiling overlooking mountain ranges, yet my eyes were transfixed on Father.
My heart bounced into my throat as I hissed to my work partner, ‘That Priest! He conducted my Nan’s funeral when I was a kid! He was our family friend…’ The words struggled, catching in my throat as memories locked away bombarded my brain and tickled my tear ducts. I watched his walk, his smile – he hadn’t adopted a single wrinkle from the last time I saw him, splashing Holy Water on my Nan’s coffin moments before being lowered into the Earth all those years ago.
Since the last time I heard his voice, I had travelled to five countries, fell in love many times, said ‘I Do’ and divorced, yet in this moment I felt like no time had passed at all. We locked eyes for a moment, his face telling me he knew me but not sure where from.
Shaking my head as if it would clear it, I tried to focus on my task at hand…
‘Here’s some water, ma’am’… ‘
The toilets right this way ma,am’…
‘I worked on your father in the mortuary myself, Sir. He looks peaceful and happy’….
Yet all the while, all I could think about was my Dad.
His slender figure cutting wood in the paddock as I watched from my swing set. I remembered his flannelette shirt torn at the sleeves as he slashed the rolling green hills of our farm on his tractor, filling the air with the scent of freshly cut grass.. I remembered the many birthdays of his that I dressed up for, wearing fake pearls in my ears and singing to him as if he was the love of my life – and he is.
I remember the night my dad’s mum died as if it was yesterday, and can still feel the squeeze of his hand as I snuck into the back of the taxi. He had received the phone call that his mother had not survived the night, and with family members all around howling and crying, my dad slipped outside as the taxi arrived to take him to the hospital. I was told I couldn’t go. But there was no way my Dad was going without me.
It was just Dad and I, in the dark back seat in the middle of the night. My dad was not crying, but he squeezed my hand.
The hospital was quiet.
I had visited the bright white corridors many times during the day but not after visiting hours. I decided I would be strong for Dad because he started to tremble as we approached the room at the end of the long dark corridor that had Nan’s name on the door.
“How did this happen?” he cried out to nurse who met us the door. “She was fine when I left her this afternoon!!! How? How did this happen???”
The adults were taken away. I’m not sure why, or where. I snuck my head around the doorway to see my Nan lying in her hospital bed with a dim light above her head and a flower in her hands. I walked in and without hesitation, sat by her side and watched her, even though she wasn’t doing anything. I observed her fading skin colour and her lips – so blue. I reached forward and I touched them. They were so cold and I wondered why. I would find out, I knew. I didn’t know how, why or when. But I knew one day I would know why her lips weren’t like mine anymore.
It was so quiet.
After what seemed like a very long time, my dad and others entered the room, and Dad didn’t seem to see me or, or if he did, he didn’t mind that I sat by Nan’s bed – a kid in her pyjamas, hair messy and eyes wide.
He looked calmer now, shaking hands with the nurses and doctors.
The next thing I remember is the day of the funeral. We all gathered outside the chapel and there were garden beds everywhere. My Aunty – Dad’s sister, was wailing. The gleaming white hearse pulled up and in the back was a shiny brown box covered in flowers. Like on cue, as the long car slowed to a halt, everyone started crying.
The men in black suits got out of the car and did not look at us. They carried the long brown box out of the car and into the church. I instantly wanted to be them. I wanted to know what they were doing.
As the men in suits wheeled Nan into the church on a silver trolley, I remembered the many holidays I spent with Nan without my siblings.
My Mum would wave farewell as I climbed onto the stairs of the bus. I lived on a farm in country New South Wales and my Nan and Pop in Sunny Queensland. With views of the Gold Coast theme parks and ocean breezes, my parents thought sending me to the land of “fun” for the Summer was the best idea ever.
Back pack full of CDs, paper and pens, I slunk into a seat at the back of the bus, setting myself up for the long trip ahead.
The first week was indeed, fun. Scones, treats and cinema visits!
Second week: “Your showers are too long!!!”
Third week: Nan cursing at me for using all her beauty products.
I missed my friends back home. And my skin was shiny from the Queensland heat. Nan’s bathroom smelt of creams and perfumes and boredom led to investigation. This curiosity led to clumps of expensive face cream all over my body and singing with a hairspray can as a microphone in my Nan’s mirror framed with crucifixes and photos of Jesus Christ.
During the fourth week, Nan would get excited again. A trip to McDonalds and a shopping spree to the discount store where we would purchase useless china ornaments of cats and ducks that gathered dust in her grand antique glass shelving display.
One steamy afternoon, I was lying on a picnic blanket in the front yard of Nan and Pop’s Gold Coast home. The Jacaranda tree rained purple flowers upon me as I scribbled the pages of my notebook bringing to life the characters and worlds that I had seen in my mind.
It was very hot – much hotter than home.
I must have been lying in the front yard for some time as Nan brought me a jug of lemonade.
I returned to the world around me and looked up at her.
“You are gong to be an author one day,” she said as her wrinkly hands poured me a drink. “And you will make your Nanny rich.”
‘Emma Jane, can you please take this paperwork and put it into the hearse?’ My colleague snapped me out of my thoughts and into the moment. I was no longer 13.
I was 31 years old, sweating in a suit. I was a Funeral Director! I was one of those people in the black suits that I always wanted to be. And Father Gerry was looking at me. I took the paperwork towards the shiny hearse that I admired and continued with my job.
Father Gerry was different to other Priests. Many repeat the homily word for word, every single service.
Father Gerry quickly delivered his Bible passages, then spoke only of Mr. James in the coffin at the front of the church. He smiled as he blessed the bread and wine and offered communion with a backdrop of mountains behind him.
It was time to carry Mr. James to the hearse. As the farewell hymn began to play, my colleague and I walked down the aisle of the church until we reached the coffin – the shiny box that had stirred all of those emotions inside me nineteen years ago, and led me to this moment. My eyes met with Father Gerry who stood at the altar, and routinely we bowed. I took a coffin handle in my hand.
“May the pallbearers come forward please?” I asked, and instantly, four strangers united, we carried Mr. James towards the hearse.
The final part of the funeral arrived as we pulled into the cemetery. I had snuck my phone onto the funeral. You never know when you need the internet. I hid behind a huge Jacaranda tree to text my dad:
“Dad! I have been on a funeral all morning with Father Gerry!
He was Nan’s priest. I want to tell him who I am, and that I am Nan’s granddaughter I know they were close… he might remember us?”
Dad replied promptly –
“He will remember! Please say hi for me.”
The cemetery was hot and a storm was brewing. Grumbling clouds rolled in as we positioned Mr. James on the lowering device above the Earth. The roots of trees that once stood swirled in and out of the rainbow of soil – brown, gold and red. I bowed and stepped back as Father Gerry stepped forward and like he did to my Nan’s coffin back when I was 13, he splashed Mr. James with Holy Water. We began to pray and his voice reminded me again of childhood, of my Nan, Jacaranda trees and Dad.
We lowered Mr. James into the ground and I turned to Father. I told him who I was and that I missed my Nan.
His eyes cried and he said he was proud of me, and said: “Please my Child, say hello to your Dad.”
An hour later, we were back at the operations facility, eating meat pies and debating about the latest teams on My Kitchen Rules. Mid bite, minced meat on my chin, my manager bursts through the lunch – room door, her red haired curls plastered to her forehead in sweat.
“Emma, you’re needed in the mortuary!” she demanded. “We have three bodies to prep before clock off time!”
I was training to become mortuary assistant and the pie would have to wait.
I wiped the ketchup off my nose and slipped into my polka dot gumboots. I met with the cancer victim at the mortuary table.
His lips were cold and blue and not only did I know why, I knew how to fix them.