It’s Not All Bad

Following the hiatus in the media lately, I am shocked with the lack of support shown for the “Funeral family” by others in the business. So, speaking for the funeral directors who put their lives on hold to care for your loved one, I want to raise a glass (or two) for those sacrificing sleep, important dinner parties, birthdays and weddings so they can serve you.
Yes, the whole “$1 cent government contract” sucks, but the real problem there is lack of education to the public leaving room for misconceptions. The public simply need more information when it comes to coronial cases. Yes, the body needs to be removed from the scene of a crime or accident, just as a forensic cleaner needs to remove traces that it occurred. You’re not going to call in the forensic cleaners to do a bond clean of your apartment, and you’re not required to arrange the final goodbye with the company that removed the body. The body is not taken to the funeral home following a coronial case, rather the city morgue for autopsy and further investigation. The family can choose any funeral home they wish for the service.

Reading comments on the latest stories, it breaks my heart that the majority of Australia believe funeral homes perform mass cremations, swap coffins and only in it for the money. Just like any industry, there have been unfortunate cases and this creates the stigma attached to the death care profession. Funeral Directors care for your loved one as if they were a member of their own family. I’ve worked on services where staff almost pass out in the heat as suits stick to sweating backs like a jellyfish while serving families and know a funeral director who paid for a butterfly release out of his own pocket for a young girl who died and the family were lacking finances. Furthermore, we leave a flower on the pillow after removing the deceased and apply moisturizer to their skin with care to prevent dehydration from the cold environment in the mortuary fridge. Every small step is taken in caring for the deceased and their families left behind. I have assisted a mortician on a case where the body was in no state to be viewed or dressed due to not being found for a long time. Respectfully, she placed his suit over the top of him neatly as if he was wearing it. She didn’t have to do that, no one would ever see him again but this is the kind of respect and dignity practiced by funeral homes and people need to be assured of this!
Funeral directors are some of the most dedicated people you will ever meet. The mortuary staff do everything they can to take care of your loved one with respect and some hearse drivers will study the route for the service the following day in their own time over their dinner plate. Of course there are fees and big money involved in arranging a funeral, but it’s not so the funeral director can go and jump in his Porsche parked out back. People don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes, including a hard working team. The only person who sleeps when someone dies, is the deceased. There is the “Transfer” crew who remove the body anytime of day or night, coffin trimmers, the mortuary staff, hearse cleaners and media professionals who create the photographic slide of memories. These people need a wage to support themselves and their own families, and the hearses need regular servicing, filled with fuel, and that’s a whole fleet of cars! Look how expensive it is for us to have our own on the road! Imagine up to twelve vehicles! Then there are the flower orders, staff uniforms pressed professionally…the list goes on. There are expenses behind the scenes that the majority of the Nation don’t even think about.

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It’s expensive maintaining your final ride.

When my poppy died, my nan turned to me and asked if he would be cremated with others. It broke my heart and it’s an all too common belief that many coffins are reduced to ash in a massive burn off. The cremation retort is built to accommodate one coffin at a time, and following cremation, the remains are kept with identification and this is very strict practice. It’s heartbreaking when I have seen how hard the crematory staff work, only to be slandered. The crematory staff are some of the loveliest guys you’ll ever meet and incredibly strict when it comes to paperwork. One day I had forgotten to get a form signed before I left the funeral home on route to the crematory, and the staff were on the phone to funeral home management for a length of time before he took the body from my care.

 

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The cremator is designed for one coffin at a time.
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From perfect petals to coffin handles, there’s expenses behind the scenes you haven’t even thought about.

Funeral directors are not out to get you or use your grief to fill their wallets. They genuinely care for your loss and are there for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and would probably miss their own funeral to be at yours.

xx

A Little Less RIP.

I don’t want to know what Fred Durst is eating for lunch today. It’s not that I don’t love him to death, (pun intended) it’s because I enjoy the mystery. The anticipation for the next album release. The upcoming film clip. Well, back in the day anyway.

When my favourite band were taking over the globe in the nineties, the only thing that kept me in class during the week was knowing on Saturday morning I would see them rock out on TV during the music countdown. Hip hop stars, pop princesses and rock gods graced our airwaves, and it wasn’t unless we turned on the radio, bought their albums or watched them on Saturday morning TV that we, well… saw them.

You waited months for album release. Saved your pennies and rode your bike or skateboard to the CD store and there it was gleaming on the shelf. You paid $35 for the plastic cover, sparkling disc and booklet of lyrics and photographs. This little bundle of joy became your life. You replayed that beautiful CD until it skipped with scratches. By that time, the concert tour had almost arrived and the week leading up to the performance you couldn’t sleep. The electricity in the air was inspiring. You wanted to hang out with your mates more, even back chat your parents. You were a rock star yourself because before too long you would see them on stage.

You sometimes waited years for this.

Today, you can follow your favourite singer online, kept up to date with their daily routine from the shower to the hair dryer that shapes their hair. Why bother going to their concert? You already know them like a friend, right?

When Dolores from the Cranberries was found dead last month, the film clip for Zombie shot to 666 million views on YouTube. Prior to her death, it was thousands and thousands less. It took her death for much of the world to remember her, yet she was one of the best female rock stars of our time. True music artists are fading from memories until headlines pronounce their death.

I know I sound like a prude stuck in a musical past, but this isn’t the case. I’m the first to bounce at photo opportunities to share with family and friends on Instagram and Facebook. I don’t mind a good filter or two either. I just feel people have forgotten the deliverers of earth rattling art.

The Bee Gees once drove over a rickety bridge and the sound of the car rolling over the boards gave birth to the beat of one of their most famous songs. Kurt Cobain titled one of our favourite tracks after a deodorant scent. He had discovered “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” spray painted on his bedroom wall. It was etched in paint by a mate, and six months later the graffiti culprit received a phone call from Cobain asking if he could use what she wrote on the wall for a lyric.

Where have all the rock stars gone?

To their graves.

And it’s commonly the passion for their art that killed them far too early because no one really gets it anymore.

Today’s music is great. Nothing quite like a bit of RiRi (see? I’m still hip, right!?) to start the daily commute with coffee in tow. But, let’s face it. Radio announcers aren’t talking about the singer’s artwork anymore. In fact, it’s almost like the music break is an inconvenience to their chatter. And I’m not saying the work we hear today is no good. I just really miss Dolores as if I have lost a friend and I encourage you to revisit your own memory bank of favourite artists. Add a few more views to their iconic clips available on YouTube before they leave this world. A little less RIP messages, and more of “your music is timeless. Miss you!”

 

Gut Health

When I mention “Gut health” I’m not talking probiotics and a nutritious diet.

It’s that gut feeling when you first meet someone, or when you’re in a situation and it’s telling you to run or embrace the moment. The ability to understand and follow this inituition is what I mean when I say “Gut health”.

Gut health is essential to following your path in life. In almost everything you do from applying for that new job to going on a first date, you almost can’t ignore that little voice inside putting their two cents in. And if you do ignore it, in time you realize your sidekick was right all along and if you had just followed the advice in the first place, you wouldn’t be living on two-minute noodles or crying into a box of tissues when you found out your new love was cheating on you.

So, ask yourself. Kale, beets and chia seeds aside, how is your Gut Health? Do you follow your intuition? Are you able to feel the energy zapping between you when you meet someone new? Are you able to read messages from others without them saying a word?

As funeral directors, I believe good Gut Health is important to fulfill our duties successfully. A wise old funeral director gave me the best advice when I was training to become a conductor. “The key is to let the family know you’re there, but don’t be in their face. Be present, but out of the way.”

I had been his assistant for some time, offering cold water to the mourners, polishing the hearse and helping guests locate the rest rooms. When I was able, I would watch the conductor and how he interacted with the family, and I noticed that all conductors had their own way of doing things.

Patricia* took the gentle touch approach. She would gently touch the “Applicant” on the arm when she spoke, the priest, the vocalist, everyone. Just a gentle touch to let them know she was there for them. She nodded a lot, but kept out of their way unless they gave her the look and she was right there, by their side.

(The Applicant is the main person the funeral conductor is to liaise with on the day of the service and isn’t always the executor. It is usually a child of the deceased or spouse, or whoever is strong enough to plan the funeral at the initial arrangement).

Then there was Albert* who I adored. Albert was the most beautiful funeral conductor I had ever met. While he had the lunchroom back at base in stitches with jokes, when conducting a funeral you have never seen such a professional. He bowed profusely, to family, friends, Father and even the catering ladies as they raced around laying out sandwich triangles on the plastic tables to the side of the church. Albert was there for not only the Applicant but for everyone. You could never locate him for yourself as he was always helping someone. An old lady with a walker, a child who dropped their cup of water and the larger man who needed assistance climbing the stairs. He truly was wonderful to watch.

Then there was Tony*. Tony was in his late sixties and new to the funeral industry. He had been a bus driver most of his life and even spent time in the military, so there wasn’t too much…softness there. A former beauty therapist, I longed to give that man a facial massage and relax some of those stern expression lines. He always looked serious, not empathetic at all and didn’t seem to know when to approach the family. I watched with my gut in knots but not able to stop him as he constantly approached the grieving family, at one point in his nervousness even dropping a precious photo frame that was to be placed by the coffin. I wanted to help him, but I was only the assistant. I could see his face burn red as he continued to make errors that affected the funeral service. Tony was a lovely man, but just didn’t know how to read the guests, their energy and listen to his Gut. Perhaps it didn’t even know how to speak to him as he had not given it any nurturing over the years.

During my conductor training, I soon learnt that the good Gut Health that helped me through everyday life was soon to become my best friend on a funeral service.

Not all family want a stranger in a suit running up to them and bombarding them with questions and information on seating arrangements. They sometimes don’t want to talk at all and quite often, the Applicant and close family will arrive only moments before the funeral commences to avoid the interrogation and conversation. Standing at the front of the church or chapel watching guests arrive, some sobbing into tissues, others dripping with jewels that jangle as they sign the guest book, I can tell almost instantly if they want to engage in conversation or not, and this is crucial in making the family and guests at a funeral feel comfortable and safe.

I will introduce myself to family of course, and let them know that I am there for them if they need, but if I can sense that they do not want to say one word, I nod and it’s amazing at how this one little movement can tell them everything.

“I’m right here if you need me. Any time for anything. Just look my way and I’ll be there.”

From displaying the flowers at the front of the church to approaching the elderly, my Gut Health is in full swing as the funeral begins. And at the cemetery, as the Applicant and close family arrive, sobbing graveside to watch their loved one lowered into the earth, my Gut lets me know whether I should go over and hug them or stay clear until it’s all over.

Yes, good Gut Health is our “go to” on a funeral, but it’s also there for you in your profession and personal life! Whether you’re a teacher or a chimney sweeper, if you listen to your intuition, I assure you that you’ll excel, meet the right people who belong on your path and avoid spending copious amounts of money on a date with someone who isn’t going to call you back.

In a world where computer screens have taken over the printed word, where “likes” mean more than a phone call and a stranger’s comment justifies your existence more than a posted letter in the mail in a real life envelope (Yes! They still exist!), how about spending some time focusing on your Gut Health. Nutrition yes, but while you blend the rainbow of goodness to care for your physical self, just remember your spirit and mental health is equally important and this health is going to bring you nothing but success. Funeral director or grave digger, florist or plumber. Your intuition knows the answer. Listen to it…always. No exceptions.

We Are The Flowers

Last night I was walking my Maltese around our quiet neighbourhood. This is my favourite time to walk as you get a glimpse of the other lives around you. I love watching the stories that take place in the homes lining the streets with sleepy glows. (In a non-creepy way. I don’t peer into people’s windows from their gardens bushes, I promise).

I passed a house with a young father clapping as his toddler fumbled but made it on two feet to the front picket gate. In the next house, a family from India was preparing a mouth-watering curry. My tummy grumbled. A few houses down I saw a bedroom with a ceiling of fairy lights and a girl count a mathematic quiz on her fingers at her desk. My dog growled at the cat purring on the manicured lawn proudly, and I tugged on the leash. We passed the next home, where the grand entrance was framed with LED lights. The manufactured garden suggested a peaceful ambience yet it was anything but inside. A man and woman were screaming, arguing over who was meant to collect the kids from school.

The air was sweet with the scent of Jasmine and Snowflake. My Maltese stopped by a flower bush that looked similar to one we had in our garden as kids. I picked a flower and sniffed, but inhaling Spring time too deeply, the petals were sucked into my nostril. Spluttering and laughing to myself I pictured my headstone:

Here lies Emma Jane. Killed by a flower.

Only my gravestone could read that. Because every time I see a flower I like, I inhale the heck out of it.

Some years ago I spent three months living on the South Pacific Islands Samoa. While roaming the country with sea salt mattered hair, I met a world traveller called Bernard. He hadn’t been home to his country, North America, in over a decade. One day, while sipping from a coconut on a wobbly bus that rattled over every stone in the road, he said to me: “A flower blooms to be looked at, smelt and loved. When you pick a flower all the life it has will be given to you. It does not die, it simply turns brown as you now hold all of its colourful life.”

As I trotted home, I could have been back on the island. The air was warm, smelt of barbeque and there was a tropical touch in the breeze. I continued smelling the flower and pondered a little. Metaphorically, we could be the flowers. We get plucked from a garden (when we are born) we get married (looked at and smelt) we turn brown and wither up (End Of Life) and then The Universe holds our colourful life. (The After life).

I have been fulfilling work placement at a hospice facility to support my End Of Life Care studies, and I decided to take a bunch of fresh flowers into work for the front reception desk. When I walked through the sliding front doors, I discovered one of my favourite patients had passed away during the day. We lit a candle and cried a little as the funeral directors arrived to take her away, and I placed one of the flowers on her pillow. For this blog post, I will call her Daisy.

Her grey hair was always pulled back and fastened at the nape of her neck with a silver clip. Even in her final days, she always loved to look pretty. Daisy had said to me over many cups of tea that her fondest memories were spent in her garden. She confessed to me that since her husband had passed away ten years earlier, she had become quiet and content with her flowers. She busied herself with her plants, her Better Homes and Gardens subscriptions and making wind chimes. His funeral was quaint; she recalls behind her teacup. She remembers her young grandchild drawing smiley faces on the service flyers. It was a muddy day, the burial in the small cemetery by the local church with the steeple spooky against the backdrop of rainy clouds.

Daisy and I were friends. We laughed, we cried, I helped her with Find-A-Word quizzes and often brought flowers for her room as I knew she dearly missed her garden.

I find it ironic that my Flower Friend passed away that day. When the flower was sucked into my nostril, Daisy had already passed away. Maybe she was accompanying us on our walk last night. Who ever knows?

 

 

xo

For My Dad xo

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 as  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, memories locked away tickled my tear ducts. I watched his walk, his smile – he hadn’t adopted a single wrinkle since the day he splashed Holy Water on my Nan’s coffin all those years ago.

Since that day, 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…

“Hello, Sir’…

‘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.

Mum would wave farewell as I climbed onto the stairs of the bus. I lived on a farm in rural New South Wales and 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.

The Modern Day Grave Robber

Tyres screeching as a thief takes off with a funeral home vehicle is probably the last thing you would expect during a service. But this is exactly what happened at the Bearden Funeral Home in the United States earlier this month.

As mourners gathered inside to farewell their loved one, it is reported that the custom extended Chevrolet van used to transport flowers to the cemetery was stolen from behind the funeral home. The community is reeling that such an act could take place during such an important and sensitive moment, some calling it sad and desperate. The Funeral Home owner who is also the county’s coroner isn’t so shocked, saying he has also had porcelain ornaments stolen from the business, but the vehicle theft is certainly the first robbery of that caliber in his time.

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The van Bearden Funeral Home used to transport flowers to the cemetery following a service. Image courtesy of wsbtvnews.com

Also using death as a way to benefit their own situation was a woman caught stealing bouquets of flowers from a grave in Adelaide on Mother’s Day. Caught red handed on camera with an armful of colourful blooms, she insisted she had bought them from the nearby train station.

As funeral directors, it’s nothing new to be accused of profiting from other people’s grief. I’ve even been trolled online condemning me for using death as a platform for my stories saying I am disrespectful, heartless and dense. What these people don’t realize is yes, while the Death biz certainly is a flourishing business, we wake each and every day to serve others and help the grieving through the darkest time of their lives. Many of us have tried other jobs but we always find our way back to the funeral home. It’s in our blood and there is no other job on earth we would rather do. These guys (and gals) thieving from the dead and their families are the ones disrespecting the deceased, and it’s sad to say that this is actually a very common occurrence.

Years ago as rain pelted down upon the cemetery, I found myself huddling beneath a small sheltered area with the operations manager awaiting the family to arrive for the burial of their loved one. The coffin hovered on the lowering device above the grave, the flower arrangement pretty against the backdrop of stormy sky. ‘They’ll be knocked off for sure,’ the cemetery grounds manager sighed.        ‘The flowers?’ I felt my brow furrow, looking up at him. ‘Sure,’ he shrugged. ‘It happens all the time. That’s one of the reasons we have closing hours and the big gates at front, but it never deters the thieves.’ New to the industry I stood there in shock, shaking my head as he continued… ‘The porcelain vases, toys, even alcohol. Some family members may leave a bottle of wine or beer on a grave, but it won’t stay there long. I’ve worked at a cemetery were almost a hundred grand worth of materials were stolen, the bronze plaques mostly. They resell the metal.’ I watched as the family began to arrive, the headlights streaming through the gravestones, pondering how awful it would be to pay respects to your loved one to find the headstone plaque or vase gone. Fast forward some time and nothing really shocks me anymore.

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Thieves tend to target bronze plaques and vases to resell the metal.

In January this year a Cairns cemetery was targeted by the chilled hands of grave robbers, not only stealing expensive ornaments and vases but heartlessly vandalizing graves. One woman was devastated when she visited her father’s resting place to find a sentimental cross she had purchased overseas had been torn from the headstone. ‘The thing is, the cross was superglued there. They had to actually rip it off..’ she said. It was the second time thieves had damaged the grave. Another Cairns lady was horrified to find her late mother’s grave had been targeted. Everything was gone, including two butterflies the family’s children had put there. As well as stealing precious items, the culprits had gone through the grounds making a mess, dumping ornaments from one grave to another and throwing shrubs and branches about to make their mark. The neighbouring funeral home also had a trailer stolen and gardens damaged. They are currently updating their survellience system with improved lighting so these callous offenders can finally be caught.

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Senior Sergeant inspects the scene at a Cairns cemetery where someone has driven over graves. Photo courtesy Stewart McLean and cairns.com.au

It’s saddening also that some cemetery websites have included ‘How to stay safe when visiting’  precautions, warning visitors of potential theft from their vehicles while they are paying their respects to their deceased loved ones.

“While most people would think that others would respect the cemetery environment, unfortunately, some offenders see a cemetery as an ideal place to prey on distracted visitors” one cemetery writes. “Incidents or break-ins and the theft of property from vehicles are unfortunately not an isolated issue.”

The cemetery grounds then go on to provide a list of safety measures in order to keep belongings safe, including locking vehicles and reporting suspicious behavior.

To add to the growing list of reports, a distraught mother in the United States posted online that she lost her beautiful son only days after birth. He had been buried with her grandparents and the woman finds solace in handcrafting silk flowers for the graves. Following countless losses, the heartbroken mother laminates a note to include in the flowers, begging thieves to stop stealing her artwork. Her plead ignored, robbers continue to help themselves maliciously leaving behind the note.

So in conclusion, the next time you feel like lashing out at your lovely funeral director for charging too much for a casket, perhaps redirect your anger to the real villains. (Or pour a whiskey and meditate instead. Anger is bad for you).

We are here for you. We want to help you in any way we can. You can call upon us 24/7. And adhering to this, I would like to offer you one word of advice. Your loved one is forever alive with you in your heart. While placing symbolic items on their resting place may bring you solace and some sort of relief from the pain you are feeling, maybe create a place in your home for these items. Build a shrine of photos, flowers, candles and that bottle of wine. Visit their grave often most certainly, but it’s a sad fact in today’s society, nothing is safe even in the places you thought was reserved for peace and respect.

The Birds & the Bees & a Murder

The wind whistled through the soaring gum trees and birds swooped and chirped, pecking at the blooms that fluttered in the breeze. A splinter pierced my skin through my thick stockings as I sat waiting on the log. But I didn’t mind, as I inhaled the fresh air like I had just stepped into a bakery first thing in the morning and closed my eyes taking in the peaceful moment. It reminded me of the farm I grew up on when I was a kid. Living on forty acres my siblings and I were forever on adventures in the bush land, playing with farm animals and napping in long grass. I opened my eyes and gazed towards the gaping hole in the ground before me, the roots of life underground swirling in and out of the soil. The dirt was rich and tickled my nostrils. It was one of the most sobering moments in my life as I sat there peering into the grave, all alone deep in the bush.

‘I think it’s going to make it!’ Tony’s voice echoed, breaking my trance. I stood to my feet and peered up the hill, trying not to laugh as I watched the tubby funeral director bouncing about in the hearse driver’s seat as it crunched over stones in the uneven dirt driveway.

‘You sure we won’t get bogged?’ I ran, meeting him at the driver’s window. The aging service conductor wiped his specs, breathing heavily. ‘I’ll try get down a little closer, then we will carry him the rest of the way.’ He popped his specs back on his nose and I stood back and watched the hearse hobble down closer to the grave. At a regular cemetery, there are smooth roads paved through the headstones for hearses and visitor cars to glide through, to allow processions take place and even the grave digger can drive his tractor about the grounds effortlessly. At the Bushland Cemetery there were no roads. There weren’t even headstones. Just trees, long grass and plenty of wildlife. A kangaroo took off amongst the trees as the hearse came to a halt close to the grave. The Bushland Cemetery was one of the first green burial sites in Australia. Here, bodies are laid to rest wrapped in a shroud or timber coffin, which is why we were trying to get the hearse as close to the grave as possible. Mr. Anderson was wrapped in cotton so we had no handles to hold onto as we carried him from the back of the hearse. Mr. Anderson was also victim to a brutal murder- limbs detached violently in order to fit into a storage unit and was not found for some time. So it wouldn’t be an easy feat, carrying his decomposed remains that leaked through the material. The hearse stank, but we would sort that out later. For now, we had to focus on getting the poor soul into the grave nicely before the family arrived. Tony jumped out and we lifted the back of the death car.

‘Ready?’

I nodded. I took Mr. Anderson’s feet, the sweet and sour stench of decay scratched at the back of my throat and my eyes watered. Stones crunching underfoot we carried our dear deceased and gently placed him into his final resting place, only the shroud separating his rotting corpse from the soil.

‘Right,’ I’ll take the hearse back up top.’ Tony wiped his hands on his suit and reversed the gleaming hearse up towards the office at the top of the hill.

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Natural Burial is becoming increasingly popular in Australia with “green burial” grounds now available in the Gold coast Hinterland, Northern NSW and Sydney.

For ten minutes or so it was just me and Mr. Anderson, the birds and the bees and whistling of the wind. I felt so blessed, at one with the Earth. I’m regularly alone at cemeteries with the deceased as the Funeral Conductor checks in to the office. But with a grand flower arrangement on the pretty coffin and plenty of movement all around, from tractors to visitors attending to graves, you sometimes forget there is actually a dead person lying only inches from you. This day, I could see the shape of dismembered Mr. Anderson, I could definitely smell him, but with the richness of the soil and the freshness of the gum trees around us, it was one of the most beautiful moments in my career as a funeral director.

Adjoined to the grounds with native wildlife and flora, there is the regular lawn cemetery. Many who wander there reading stories etched in the headstones may have no idea what takes place down the hill. The Bushland Cemetery looks more like an overgrown paddock and as you explore looking for others who have been buried here, you really do have to keep an eye out for a snake or two. The burials are located using a GPS tracking service and all is used to signify that someone is sleeping forever is a stone. As you enter the grounds, there is a giant pile of rocks you can choose from to use as a headstone. As you search through the grass and trees you discover a stone here and there but presently there aren’t many. However people are catching on to the “Green Burial,” also known as “Natural Burial.”

If you are buried here, it is asked you use a timber coffin or shroud. No metals or laminates and bodies cannot be prepared with chemical preservatives. You are left to decompose naturally feeding the flora and allowing the wildlife to live comfortably as you decay below.

From my rotting corpse flowers shall grow. I remember seeing this quote on a headstone in a historic cemetery once. This is what happens here at the Bushland Cemetery and other natural burial sites around the world. There are over two hundred natural burial grounds in the U.K and approximately eight percent of the population are buried in this fashion. The United States are literally running out of room to bury their dead the traditional way and the natural burial is catching on here in Australia to minimize carbon footprint. It is also cost effective with the price much less than a well known burial with all the trimmings.

After the Priest and the family said their farewell to Mr. Anderson and discussing the horrendous way he died, I wiped a tear and hopped back into the hearse ready for the lengthy drive back to Brisbane. I took a mental note of where our friend was laid to rest, and that weekend I drove to Northern New South Wales to visit him on my own. For an hour I sat by the mound of dirt yet to settle, again watching the birds and listening to…nothing. So peaceful.

You can visit the Bushland Cemetery in Lismore for yourself. Pack a picnic, it truly is a peaceful part of the world.

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