Food Forever

Open casket during the first part of the service, the chapel walls trembled with song and prayer. Oil was anointed on the deceased’s face, incense burned and food placed in and around the coffin like a flashy picnic. By the media controls at the back of the chapel, I watched the monitor intently. The camera allowed us to watch what was taking place and I bit at my shellac manicure nervously. Is the poor dead guy going to catch on fire? Look at all that amazing food! Would the guests mind if I popped up to the lectern and grabbed a buttered roll? I had skipped breakfast. Suddenly the family opened the deceased’s mouth and I cringed…loudly. “The mouth suture! They’ll see the thread” I panicked, turning to my colleague.

“It’s okay. They’ve seen it all before,” he assured me, polishing his specs as if this was totally normal. Well, to the Hindu family it was. And the more I watched the more I wished the western world could embrace death the way this beautiful culture did. In Australia and many other countries, death is commonly ushered out the door quickly, taken care of by the funeral directors. At viewings I’ve had family shudder when I suggest they partake in the viewing as if I had just advised they eat a can of worms.“Ugh, no. Not for me,” they quiver. And here was a family feeding the dead so they had food to take with them to the next life. Food forever. Now that’s love.

The second part of the Hindu ‘celebration’ took place behind the chapel by the cremator. Next to the retort four family members continued to chant and pray. The area usually reserved for staff had been tidied and trays of bones covered. My heart started racing when I noticed someone was being cremated beside us. Would they notice?

The family draped in colourful satin and dripping with jewels poured a whole bottle of what appeared to be vegetable oil over the deceased, and again I cringed. The beautiful makeup the mortician had spent time perfecting is ruined! Fire starters were placed in the coffin, set alight and the retort doors lifted revealing the sleepy glow. Embers scattered on the cremator floor, the coffin was pushed in and engulfed in flames as the family watched, howling and holding onto one another for support. I stood in my polished shoes in shock. When the door lowered they shook our hands, thanked us and returned to the rest of the family waiting in the chapel.

I was shaken but so grateful for being apart of such a rich cultural experience. That night I immersed myself in research, reading all I could on Hindu practises and discovered the Western world really could take a page from the Hindu way of life. Believing Braham, the God of all things is everywhere and in everything. Death, (Samsara) is a blessing and the ultimate life goal to meet with the God and to be reincarnated. Food forever! Colour, karma and Peace! I think I may be a Hindu.

 

pooja
http://www.hindubrahminservice.com

DVDs and Legacies

 

‘One day we won’t need to do this!’ my Daddy chuckled as he popped the rented VCR into the player to rewind. Adhering to the video rental store policies, he had a pile of tapes to spin back to the opening scene for the next person who chose to hire them. ‘One day movies will be on discs just like a CD!’

I had just finished a phone call with grandma interstate, using a giant telephone with a long coiled chord. ‘I miss grandma, I sighed, gazing into my scrambled eggs for dinner. ‘I wish we could see faces through the phone when we talk to them.’

Decades later, I am “Face –timing” my sister in North Queensland and Dad is dusting his DVD collection.

One balmy Brisbane evening, I find myself sipping wine and redecorating my living room. Blowing dust off book covers and fluffing my cushions, I remember the well-known sayings: “You can’t take it with you!” and “You don’t want to be the richest one in the cemetery!”

You want to know somethin’? I don’t know a funeral director who doesn’t collect something, from coins to books. We are house -proud and love our guests to visit beautiful, comfortable surroundings. We can’t pop our ceiling-high book collection into our coffin but what we can do is leave them behind as legacy for our loved ones. Our nephews, nieces, children and grandchildren can polish our DVDs when we are gone and remember when movies were played on disc rather than streamed online. They can trace their fingers across ageing book pages and remember us as they dust the mementos from the home we once cared for.

So, no. We can’t take our material belongings with us. But we certainly leave them behind for others to cherish, and if we are blessed to have that eternal love, we will be the richest one in the cemetery after all.

Pedicures and Bucket Lists

Last Saturday I was faced with my own death.

Now that I have your attention, that’s not entirely true.

There was plenty of blood, (warm blood freaks me out) screaming, morphine, (that part was fun) and an ambulance ride to a country hospital in the middle of nowhere. (It was actually a township of over twelve thousand, but for a city girl like me, we may as well have been in Willawarrin).*

It was meant to be a relaxing weekend camping with the family in bushland that resembled the woods in The Blair Witch Project. The trees were tall and slender, unlike common thick gum trees and wild horses slurped from the pretty lake lined with daffodils. It didn’t feel like we were only two hours inland from the city.  I could have been lost somewhere in the majestic American wilderness we see on our movie screens.

My life had been busy lately, so I stretched out my limbs on the chair by the campfire, cracked open a beer and breathed in the fresh air with what I am sure was a fat smile stretched across my face. The adventure was panning out nicely. We ate scones that mum baked over the embers and played games my siblings and I loved as kids, from Truth or Dare to Spotlight, a game of hide and seek in the dark where the seeker can use only the beam of a torchlight.

Best camping trip ever.

Until the next morning.

Of course, Emma Jane (that’s me – clumsy, blonde, unsteady me) stepped on an ancient, rusty drill part that had clearly been in the ground for months, even years. Yep, that piece of nasty, corroded metal was probably untouched for a long time and of course I came along and impaled myself right on top of it. I went into shock, something I had never experienced before. I couldn’t stop trembling, my vision was blurry and I don’t remember much, except dad lifted me to a tent and lied me down where we waited for the ambulance.

Ambulance? No! I was just about to drive into town and retrieve fresh coffee! No! No! NO! I Waaant coffee!

‘Relax,’ my brother instructed, squeezing my hand. ‘You’re turning blue.’

Right. This may have been one of those times that I listened to someone when they told me to relax. I could die here.

Well, at the time it certainly felt like it. My niece was crying at the top of her lungs, holding me and promising me she would never leave me. ‘You’re my only Aunty!’ ‘You can find another one,’ my four year old nephew rolled his eyes and headed to the Esky to help himself to a drink. Aunties could be replaced was his philosophy as he sucked on his juice, clearly bored.

But, as I lied there awaiting the ambulance with my niece sobbing on my enhanced chest and my dad holding my leg in the air so the foreign rod in the sole of my foot didn’t touch the ground, I wondered, What if I did die?  What if this led to a life threatening infection? Or worse! What if my foot and leg was amputated?

Most people I know have a bucket list. They have considered all of the things they want to do before they die. I am forever going on about how the western world dismiss death and prefer to ignore its existence. I am drumming into brains that we need to acknowledge our mortality in order to live full and prosperous lives. But, here I was, on my metaphoric death bed and I have never even thought about a bucket list. And everyone else has! Was I the one who needed my head checked after all? (Don’t answer that).

I hadn’t thought about my funeral, what colour lipstick to wear during my open casket or how I would like my hair set by the mortician. (You know, the important stuff). I am faced with death every day as a funeral director and believe it or not, I have never even considered the things I would like to do before I die.                         I’m sure you’re thinking I’m a crazy hypocrite, continuously reminding the world to live life to the fullest! Achieve your dreams! Live everyday as if it’s your last! Love whole heartedly and tell your family you love them each day! And there I was with not even a bucket list.

But, then as I nuzzled into my niece’s strawberry scented hair as she sobbed, I realised, I didn’t need one. I am no hypocrite. I am the total opposite. I subconsciously live my life to the fullest every waking moment and I live my life so wonderfully, that really, (I mean this as un-morbidly as possible) it’s quite safe to say I would have died happy then and there. Mark Twain once said, A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. As the ambulance arrived and pain relief was pumped into my veins, I looked around at my wonderful loved ones and I was grateful for them. Then, as I was assessed and put to sleep, I revisited the years I spent travelling the world, hiking mountains, camping around New Zealand on my own and pitching a tent anywhere I liked. I made global friends, ate unusual foods and bathed in freshwater springs naked. And then, I thought about all of the souls I have buried and cremated. I thought about all of the families I have helped over the years, the hands I have held through grief, the hugs, the affirmations, the privilege. I was ridiculously blessed.

I don’t need a list to remind me to live fully, and not for one moment do I think it’s a bad idea if it works for you. Lists just aren’t for me. Gosh, I don’t even write a shopping list. All I am trying to say, maybe we don’t need to be so serious about it all, crossing off activities on wish lists. If you simply live in the moment, you will be pleasantly surprised at how many things you achieve and accomplish without even realising it. Of course, if swimming with Orcas in Iceland is on your bucket list it will require conscious effort and a travel agent, but I’m talking about inner peace. Love. Living each day as if it’s your last, just incase.

Lovey dovey stuff aside. I did learn one thing. You know how your grandma used to say ‘always wear fresh undies incase you’re in a car accident,’ or something along those lines? She was right.

On the Thursday before the camping trip, I was booked in for a pedicure. I missed the appointment but it didn’t matter. I was only going camping anyway, right? No one would notice my toes. The whole time I was lying on the ground with the drill part hanging out of my foot, I was so embarrassed at my rough feet, unclipped toenails and chipped varnish. Everyone laughed at the state of my feet and when the cute doctor assessed my wound, I cringed. Would he take a snap shot of my disgusting feet while I was sleeping and share it with his mates? ‘Hey Guys! Check out the ogre I have in emergency right now!’

So. I don’t have a bucket list. But I do have a new list. A list of grooming essentials before I go camping, just incase I end up going into emergency surgery, because let’s face it, when I’m around, there’ll always be be some sort of dilemma.

 

 

*Willawarrin is a tiny, remote country town with 304 residents. Consisting of a pub, a town hall and post office, you’ll miss it if you blink. I grew up here.

The Cabinet maker (A history lesson) in the midst of Dying to Know Day

A few years ago, I giggled over my coffee cup listening to the ageing funeral directors deliver a history lesson in the lunch room. I found it unusual when they said our funeral home was once set in a furniture warehouse! That sounded so weird! A student of the death care industry, I listened attentively as they reminisced about the ‘Good Ol’ days,’ when they built the coffins themselves and the industry was run mainly by men.

‘Oh! Women have ruined it!” Bob, a-close-to-retiring funeral director scoffed, wiping his spectacles. He had been an undertaker for almost  thirty years. ‘Ever since women took charge, it’s been a bloody party! Balloons and bloody mints. I miss the days it was simple – a funeral was a bloody funeral. No bells and whistles!’

Recently, I was researching the history of funerals during the Victorian Era for a piece I was writing, and I discovered most funeral homes in fact, were part of a cabinet making or furniture business!

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Photo courtesy of ‘The Facts of Death.’ 1993
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Photo courtesy of ‘The Facts of Death.’ 1993

In the late 19th century, there were no funeral homes like we see today. Instead, there were “Undertaking Establishments.” These were an office used only for the transactions and paperwork and were usually attached to a livery barn or cabinet making factory. Many of the early undertakers were furniture makers and building caskets was an extension of their business. For them, undertaking was a second business rather than a primary profession – they built the coffins as well as their usual products. The farewell took place in the home where the family kept the body from decomposing by using large bags of ice, no fancy mortuaries or body holding fridges! The family often washed and dressed their loved one themselves and if they did not feel comfortable bathing the deceased, they would call a professional “Layer out of the dead.”

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Photo courtesy of ‘The Facts of Death.’ 1993

In fact, if you died in a hospital, it meant you had no family to take care of you. If you were apart of a family and fell ill, medical operations were carried out in the home and if you died, well, you stayed there.

Today, death is ushered out the door pretty quickly, and some family (not all) shy away from the corpse as if it was contaminated. They leave the deceased alone in the room where they died until we, the professionals, swoop in with our gloves and stretchers to whisk them away to a place of mystery. I wish the western world were not so closed off to death and embraced the inevitable. Only days short of Dying to Know Day, I would like to announce: acknowledging death is healthy and kissing your deceased loved one on the hand or forehead is not going to harm you! Planning end of life is not morbid or macabre- accepting our final destination can actually help you lead a full and prosperous life!

I think we can all learn a thing or two from the history lesson of the Funeral. Bring back the days were families pitch in and help prep their loved ones, embracing their death and getting involved.

Want to join the conversation?

Visit http://www.dyingtoknowday.org

 

 

 

 

Look at you!

 

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People ask: ‘Why Heels and Hearses?’

We can thank TV for the misconceptions of the death care industry – the mortuary often in dark basements with a greying man and a hunchback working in dim, flickering light. Warts on long noses mixing body parts in jars of bubbling liquid, hearse drivers resting their bellies on the steering wheels and ghoulish late night grave diggers.

SURPRISE!!!

The death care industry is nothing like this image many have created in their minds (okay, SOME hearse drivers have beer bellies), but the majority of us are young, fit and go to the beach on weekends. We have bright and fun hobbies and fantastic family and friends. I came up with Heels and Hearses to show you it’s not all gloomy cemeteries and blood splattered mortuary floors.

I love heels, fashion and combining my two passions – shoes and death care!

I looove driving the hearse, and often giggle to myself when guys gawk at the lights as if to say; ‘What is SHE doing driving a hearse?’

The funeral industry is alive (pun not intended) with bubbly young men and women who genuinely love and care for your loved one once they have taken their final breath. We live to serve you and ensure the deceased are well cared for, arriving at the cemetery or crematory safe and sound. It shouldn’t matter what we look like.

Young, blonde (except for in this picture, but I posted this pink monstrosity to make a point) and busty, I have often been victim to unusual glances by the public and even in the workplace by the older female funeral directors. They do not take me seriously and often ask; ‘Why are you working in a funeral home? Look at you!’

Look at me?

Why does my appearance matter when I am polishing a coffin or brushing a deceased’s hair for the final time?

It’s time young funeral professionals were celebrated! Glossy lips, cute heels and all!

 

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.