I His daughter gently grips his lower leg to gently rub his knee. Then she does the same for me. We kneel on each side of her father’s body as we brought her home from the hospital where she died last night.
“You make his face,” I say, and head back to the bed where I squeeze my clothes in warm water. My colleague comes up with a cooling plate. His daughter and I finish washing and drying him, then we put him in his best suit and lay him on a plate. The tray means his daughter can keep him at home until the time for the funeral.
We draw another sheet to his chest. I light the candles and put them in every corner of the bed, as his daughter spreads the rose petals around him. Tomorrow we will put him in a wicker box. We surround him with garlands and greenery and take him to the coffin. His daughter goes to the cemetery with him, where she witnesses her father’s body being set on fire.
It’s been seven years since my sister Allison died. As a result of brain cancer, she has lived with various degenerative conditions for most of her life. My family gave her a lovely send off. She brought her special souvenirs, a slideshow, and decorated the box.
I brought the felt-tip pens to write the final messages on her environmental coffin. My daughter, then three years old, drew “potato people” on the side of the casket to keep the company on her final journey. Friends and family offered prayers. I, my brother and our older sister congratulated us.
After Allison’s funeral I took a break from writing the manuscript, which eventually became my new novel, The Eulogy. I needed some time from our story. But instead of vacationing, I enrolled in a theology masters degree. Two years later I was an ordained interfaith minister, a trained Deathwalker, a famous and independent funeral director.
Interfaith ministers provide pastoral care outside religious institutions, creating spiritual services for non-religious. Many of my friends became clergy, social workers, university consultants in hospitals and prisons. But for me it’s always about death. I want to give to others what my sister’s funeral has given me: a clean wound, ready to heal.
But not everything about my sister’s funeral was perfect. I was irritated under the watchful eye of the funeral directors. The inflated price of the eco-coffin provoked me, as well as attempts to sell my grieving mother over ashes, nameplates, casket decorations.
I later found out that the funeral company we hired was not a local family firm as I thought, but was actually owned by the multinational company Invocare, which controls more than a third of the Australian funeral market.
The state and federal governments have held several hearings, trying to make the funeral industry more transparent, recognizing that consumers are particularly vulnerable at this time of their lives.
But in the funeral industry I want more than competition. I wish there was no “industry”. When my sister died, I was not a customer; I was a sad puddle of emotions. I want a person I can trust to walk with me.
My book takes the form of a fictional guide to how to write a hymn, while the heroine is preparing for her own sister’s funeral.
In reality I could not find a better guide to hymn writing. They all think you are telling the story of a wealthy businessman who lived to a ripe old age. But what about people like my sister Allison, who has no profession, no children, no value in this calculus, the person who taught me how to love, even though she was a critical figure in my life?
In the end I wrote an entire book to say goodbye to my sister. But if you only have a time slot at a funeral service, here’s my advice: it doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be long. And it is absolutely okay to cry, laugh or do both at once.
In 2017 I held my first funeral. This is for a nonprofit funeral provider in my local area, a charity that believes someone’s death should not be an opportunity to take the company public.
I was terrified before the service started, but after it started, the anxiety floated. It was clear that this incident was not about me. I was there to give people permission to experience what could happen: sadness, relief, frustration, happiness. I was there to walk with them.