Dreadlocks and Dragons

I nursed Brad* on my lap in the passenger seat of the van as it climbed higher up the mountain. Brad wasn’t a baby or child. His cremains (cremated remains) were sealed in a lovely oak box with his name carved in the wood. We were en route to his funeral service. Normally a body would be cremated AFTER the funeral and the last ride is always a hearse. Today was different. EVERYTHING would be different.

We brought the van as we were carrying half of the funeral home up the mountain, from a lowering device to an empty coffin in place of stretchers. I began to think we should have also packed a tent, food and water as we had been driving for quite some time now, and the winding road seemed neverending. My ears began to pop like on an aeroplane and noticed just how high we were, taking in the extraordinary view. There were green-blue mountains for as far as the eye could see, we were level with low cloud and felt the drop in temperature even with all windows closed.  ‘Feel that?’ my work partner chuckled as he shifted gears and the van heaved uphill further. ‘I can feel the cold through my suit!’

In a mountaintop cemetery overlooking the country side, Brad would be farewelled by friends and family. His death was a coroner’s case- it appeared the twenty six year old had died at his own hands. And made quite a mess while he was at it…of himself. His mother had requested we cremate him and during the funeral she would place the ashes inside the coffin with some of his favourite belongings. It sounded rather straight forward but as soon as things sound simple, a funeral director must be prepared for the opposite.

‘Apparently he was quite the gypsy,’ my partner began his brief as we turned onto an unsteady dirt road. ‘There may be quite a few things going in the coffin. Who knows what is going to happen up here. The locals are a little different in these mountains!’

Usually a lowering device is fitted before our arrival. All we need to do is place the coffin on the straps and at the appropriate time, flick the lever and the decedent is lowered into their grave. 

Not up here!

We were required to bring our own that had collected dust in the work shed. Now I would learn how to actually set one up!  I felt a flutter in my stomach- this service was going to be one to remember, I could feel it. My intuition was screaming at me, hope you’re ready for a banger!

I held Brad’s box of ashes tighter.

We finally pulled into the tiny cemetery with only a dozen headstones peeking through the fog. There was no time to appreciate the scenery- we had twenty minutes to set up all of our equipment before the family arrived! I climbed down from the van onto the dewy grass and placed Brad on the passenger seat where he would wait until it was time. Our hands aching from the cold, my partner and I unloaded the empty coffin, set up the chairs, sound system and lowering device. It’s amazing the strength and energy a funeral director can muster in challenging conditions. The icy air burned our skin, but ensuring Brad’s goodbye was perfect mattered more than a little windburn…or frostbite. Once all was prepared, we straightened our ties and waited. 

Then a beautiful thing happened. The sun broke through the clouds and the harsh wind settled. With the light I noticed we were surrounded with avocado trees and the cemetery had a view that gave Sydney Harbour a run for its money. The family began to arrive in droves- the mother greeting us behind large dark sunglasses. She acted strong, not a quiver.  Too many people refuse to shed a tear at funerals, and while I understand no two people grieve the same way, I sometimes long for them to take advantage of the reason for funerals. Funerals are a time to cry, scream, shout! It’s a launching pad for the grieving journey. However I could not imagine what it would be like to bury your own child and the pain a caliber of its own.

‘I have so much to set up,’ The mother pointed towards the family members approaching us holding large boxes. ‘I’m sorry it’s not the traditional way…’

‘Please,’ I placed my hand on her shoulder that I noticed was trembling beneath her coat. ‘Don’t apologise. It’s perfect and very special.’

‘It will be special,’ the mother agreed. ‘But I’m not allowed to cry just yet. I’ll set it all up and then I can deal with it.’

I nodded. 

‘Please let me know if there is anything I can do.’ I leant forward and hugged her and I heard her sniffle.

My partner and I stood back to supervise as the family set up a table by the open grave with the most beautiful belongings- spell books, crystals, incense, dragon ornaments, candles…so many candles! His favourite chocolate biscuits were set up by a canvas of photos and for the first time, my eyes met with Brad’s. Prior to this moment I had only known him as the cremains in the box with a glossy finish. In the photos he was laughing, pulling funny faces with a head full of long purple dreadlocks. A lip piercing sparkled on his smile and he wore trendy fur coats.

‘He loved dragons,’ his mother busied herself with his shrine, placing so many crystals and dragons around the grave I thought I had stepped onto the set of a fantasy film. His friends began to arrive, all dressed gothic style and glitter patterns on their cheeks. I could see in the photo collage Brad enjoyed glitter with much of his clothing sparkling with it. I felt a lump form in my throat and suddenly felt an intense connection to the  young man as if he were friend.

FINALLY! A service that was brimming with the deceased’s personality. No somber black suits and depressing music! Fleetwood Mac floated on the mountain breeze as his friends placed mementos by his coffin from witches brooms to more dragon ornaments. A stunning velvet cloak was placed in his coffin along with his spell books and letters… it was endless.

Before too long the cemetery was busy with eccentric characters, dancing and crying, hugging and dancing, throwing glitter in the air and dancing, sharing stories and you guessed it…dancing. You’d think you were at a dance festival if it weren’t for the coffin which was now loaded with all that made up the story of his life.

There was one thing missing.

Brad.

‘I would like to see him now,’ his mother approached us a few minutes before the service was scheduled to start.

‘Certainly,’ and I led her to the passenger side of the van and opened the door. She began to cry now, reaching forward and hugging him. ‘Oh my baby!’ she sobbed. ‘My dear boy. This world was never for you. I’m so sorry!’ She cradled her son in her arms before taking him over to the coffin. On sight of the box holding his ashes, his friends and family began to weep. 

The eulogy connected me even closer to the young man, learning he was a creative, a misfit, a writer, a poet, a stargazer. He had no time for social norms, for politics, conformity. His personality was described to have been ‘haunted’ by his inner demons, but my intuition told me they weren’t demons at all. He knew he didn’t belong in this crazy world- he wasn’t the crazy one at all.

Driving back down the mountain I felt changed. I was moved, challenged, unsteady in conversation with my colleague. I couldn’t think clearly, I felt foggy. A speck of glitter twinkled on my knee.

When people find out I work in the funeral industry, a common question I get asked is: “But isn’t it depressing working around death all day?”

How on earth could it be depressing when you’re standing on a mountaintop with glitter on your suit and your head held high knowing you’re helping someone in their time of need?

I was meant to conduct that service today. It was no coincidence that a glitter loving, dancing funeral director landed on that mountain.

Brad chose me.

RIP beautiful soul!

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