Stages

From newborn flesh to “skin slip,” fresh lipstick to smudged mascara; life really is just a scramble of events compiling a timeline we spend our lives trying to make sense of.

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Celebrity Bones

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When we hear the name Judy Garland, most think of sparkling red slippers and rainbows, the tin man and a scarecrow skipping about made of straw. Not skeletal remains and graves.

Writing a book, I have been distracted from posting on my blog but, last night with cheesy macaroni dropping into my cleavage, I stopped the spoon feeding when I saw Judy Garland’s face flash upon my plasma.

Judy Garland’s remains have been exhumed… the news reporter announced. Seated upright, I raced to my office. I absolutely had to write about my love for celebrity deaths and exhumations. If you’re not entirely sure what an exhumation entails, put simply; it’s digging up a dead body from its resting place. This is done to retrieve further evidence or to transport the remains to a new grave. In some cultures an exhumation is a celebration! Digging up the bones and dressing them in silk parading the skeleton around like a piñata to celebrate the dead. I could write about the exhumation for days! (Another book perhaps?)

I will never forget assisting my very first exhumation. The grass twinkled with frost and with opening hours between 6AM and 5PM, the headstones were shadows in the thick fog of dawn. In our high-vi’s glowing like the sunrise we jumped out of the van with our shovels and began attacking the grave like grave diggers in search of jewels. It wasn’t riches we were sifting through soil for – we were in search of remains of a man buried thirty years ago. When Robert was buried, this particular cemetery did not offer “double plots.” This is when loved ones request to be buried together in the same grave, commonly on top of one another.  Three decades later, Simon had passed, and his dying wish was that his brother could join him in his resting place. So shovel to soil, we were instructed to retrieve Robert so he could be layed to rest with his sibling.

The burial, again, is a whole other story! What happens to the body once it’s lowered six feet, the underground water currents swishing bodies about like a Caeser salad and the fees and regulations involved with purchasing a grave!

Back to the story of raising the dead…

By law, when exhuming a dead body, we must retrieve all remnants of the corpse which is sometimes piles and piles of soil! Bone fragments are all over the place like a jigsaw puzzle which results in a very stinky funeral home! The morning of my first exhumation the funeral home smelt like a fart in a car. There was no escaping it. The stench from the remains was far worse than any decomposed case I had been called to! And here I was, thinking burial was beautiful! More like rotten compost! Heaving into the sleeve of my funeral director suit, I gathered the bits and pieces and wrapped them in thick plastic we call Bio Seal.

I could smell the corpse on me for days. The stench weeped from my pores and hair follicles but when I laid down to sleep that night, I felt at peace that I had reunited the siblings. I had helped the world in some small way.

So, when I discovered that Judy Garland had been exhumed, I dropped my bowl of macaroni and dived into my desk chair, flicking on my computer to find out why!

And it seems, the beauty who once clapped her heels together in hopes of heading back to Kansas, was finally (no pun intended) heading home.

The Wizard of Oz actress had been buried in a mausoleum in Hartsdale, New York following her death at age forty-seven. But Garland’s body had now been exhumed – forty eight years after her death – and transferred to Los Angeles, California.

The decision came at the request of her daughter. Garland’s daughter is understood to have wanted her mother moved to another plot where there would be room for plots for her children. The daughter of the Wizard of Oz Princess in twinkling heels  wanted to be buried with her mum – but the plot in New York had no extra space.

So the decision was taken to move her remains to the famous “Hollywood Forever” Cemetery.

I found some comfort in this news report. I realised, as my fluffy Maltese licked macaroni from my Peter Alexanders, that we truly are, all the same. Yes, some may sparkle in diamonte studded heels and soak in golden bathtubs but at the end of the day, we will all end up as a rotting corpse in the ground or bone fragments in an urn.

Hey! Don’t let me stop you from being glamorous! I just hope that when you click those sparkly heels and sip that Espresso Martini, you remember, that you really are no different to Anna Nicole, Michael Jackson or the Beauty of Wizard of Oz.

Which could be, if you think about for it a moment, a pretty awesome thought.

89 cents

My skin itched in my thick black stockings and sweat gathered at my top lip as Molly took her place behind the lectern. A long time friend of Lynn who laid peacefully in her coffin at the front of the chapel, Molly was proud to deliver the Eulogy on behalf of the family who whimpered  in the front row.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and the air became stickier by the minute. My suit stuck to me like a jellyfish to a leg. A Summer storm was brewing and the hearse driver looked concerned.

‘It is my honour to speak today,’  Molly’s voice trembled. Her kind blue eyes met mine and I nodded in encouragement. As Molly had arrived to the chapel at the beginning of the service she grabbed my arm and cried: ‘Im scared I won’t make it through the speech without breaking down!’ I squeezed her wrinkled hand and assured her that Lynn would be watching over and be grateful for the delivery since her husband of fifty five years would have troubles speaking on such an emotional day.

Side by side, my colleague and I stood at the back of the chapel listening to the stories that created the life of Lynn. The years at Christmas Carols at the church, wrapping and packing christmas hampers for the community as she sweated into her top, just like we were in that moment.

 

‘We are all sweating here,’ Molly giggled, ‘just like Lynn when she slogged it out giving to the less fortunate at Christmas time.’

I was grateful that I had spent some time with Lynn back at the funeral home while preparing her body for the service today. I bathed her, washed her hair and dressed her in her best, applied her coral coloured lipstick and polished her shoes. I felt there was something special about this woman as I placed her gently in her final resting place and closed the lid of the coffin.

I had been right.

Molly was determined to make it through the story she had written about her friend, looking up at me occasionally with tears in her eyes beckoning to spill over and streak her blush.

‘Lynn had a very dry sense of humour,’ little Molly continued. ‘I would like to take this moment to tell you about one particular story that I will never forget about my Lynn. My husband, Jim was in palliative care. He had announced to everybody that he did not want flowers at his funeral, only money to go to his widow. Which of course is me’

The chapel broke out in laughter.

‘Well, when my Jim died, Lynn sent me a letter and I would like to read some to you…’ Her bony fingers unfolded the letter.

‘Dear Molly. Well, Jim said he did not want flowers…he wanted money to go to you to help you through the tough times. Well, my dear, here is 89 cents…’

The chapel once again loud with claps and laughs…

‘…A cent for each year he was alive. Don’t go too crazy with this money. Spend it wisely.’

Molly then held up a string of shiny silver coins, 89 cents.

‘I am yet to spend this,’ Molly grinned. ‘I will keep it as her legacy, as I am sure when she meets with Jim they will have a good laugh about it.’

And with that, she winked my way and stepped down from the mic.

She made it! I felt so proud.

It was time for my colleague and I to walk down the aisle to meet with the coffin.

A beautiful version of Amazing Grace sang from the speakers as together, in sync we walked towards the front, bowed and turned the coffin so Lynn would exit the chapel feet first.

‘Pall bearers, please,’ I called out and on cue, six men in dark suits appeared from the crowd and took their place, each grasping a handle. Suddenly, Lynn’s husband appeared at my side and slipped his arm in mine. His lips were quivering, his eyes red with tears.

‘Let me walk with you dear,’ he whispered.

‘Of course,’ I held him tightly and together, we led the coffin down the aisle and towards the hearse.

Heart thumping, I walked with him, the man who had spent more than half of his life with the woman lying in her coffin whom I had prepared for her final ride. Once at the hearse, the coffin was placed inside and locked in. I hugged John and Molly and slipped into the driver’s seat of the shiny black hearse. A guard of honour was formed either side of the driveway. I took a deep breath and slowly began to drive Lynn past her loved ones who cried and waved as if Lynn was sitting in the passenger seat next to me.

She may very well have been.

Still sweating, a storm broke open the skies and rain pelted down upon the hearse as I drove Lynn towards the crematorium.

Death Sugar Coated

My colourful Sugar Skull candle holder casts a ‘happy’ skull face across the ceiling. I snuggle into my Sugar Skull cushions and take a sip of coffee from my colourful Sugar Skull mug.

When I first came across this pretty take on what is known to be a morbid symbol, I was delighted that some artist had finally discovered that skulls don’t always need to depict poison; (the skull and crossbones on chemical bottles), darkness; (the gothic skulls with black eyes and an evil grin) and horror; (skulls dropping off bodies, rolling across floors, blood, guts, you get the idea).

Skulls to me also mean life. We all have them, no matter how pretty or long your hair is, underneath that shiny mane we all look the same.

I have cut them open with a saw to retrieve a brain, screwed them together and cleaned them.

Far away from the mortuary, lies the history of the colourful sugar skull. West of Mexico City, in fact. It all takes place in the city of Patzcuaro. Known as a holy place it is the backdrop for a one it’s kind festival held in early November. The event doesn’t celebrate heroes or saints, royalty or the wealthy, but something that no other country on the planet honours: Death.

This makes Mexico a special place to live and die.

The children of Patzcuaro decorate skulls made of sugar to eat, just like we do with eggs during Easter. (Hence the name Sugar Skull).  They are taught here that the skull is a symbol of Life.

Once a year, the women bake ‘Day Of The Dead’ bread and specially grown flowers are harvested and brilliant arches of colour are created. Offerings are attached to the arches; fruits and gifts, to entice the dead to return to their loved ones who are still living.All night during the festival, candles are lit, stories shared, dancing and chanting, parades of breathtaking colour, costumes and floats of you guessed it…Sugar skulls.

I am so humbled by this stunning memorial of the dead. When I am conducting funerals I always feel so happy when bright balloons are let go to symbolise life, or dove releases, with the beautiful white birds swooping amongst the gravestones. I wish more of the world could understand death. Live their lives aware of their mortality and that death should be celebrated. Its presence enriches life!  My favourite home decor has led me to discover there is somewhere in the world that not only ‘gets’ it…but celebrates it!!!

Who’s coming???

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Day Of The Dead Festival
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The REAL Sugar Skulls…to eat!!!

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Beyond the grave

The Eulogy follows a common structure.

‘Mum was born in 1941 and lived in Newcastle until she met my dad in 1960…’

‘Dad grew up on a cattle station until he got a job promotion in Sydney and moved us to the big smoke…and along came our youngest sibling…’

Mum worked as a nurse until she retired and spent her days camping and fishing with dad…’

Not many speeches  shake us in our polished shoes. I want to know the guts of their life!  Their favourite dinner dishes and greatest passions in life. What gave them goosebumps? What made them smile with sparkles in their eyes? What made them slip into bed each night fulfilled and happy to be alive?

I guess we don’t hear of these details too often because sometimes the only person who knows these special stories is the person themselves, so how fricking cool would it be if the deceased could pop up for a couple of minutes to tell us!

Well that’s exactly what happened today.

No, the casket lid didn’t spring open.

Twelve months ago, Robin, our deceased had a conversation with her daughter on the back porch. Unbeknown to Robin, her daughter was recording the entire conversation.

In charge of the media, I pressed play and you could hear a pin drop. It truly was incredible to hear the voice of the person in their coffin. The chapel was silent as Robin told stories of her adolescence, her boyfriends and left out no juicy bits! Robin’s daughter stood at the lectern, tears creeping down her flushed cheeks as her mother’s voice echoed throughout the four walls.

The recording finished, I pressed Stop, and Robin was gone forever.