I hold his lower leg up so his daughter can gently wash underneath his knee. Then she does the same for me. We kneel on each side of her father’s body, which we brought home from the hospital where he died last night.
“You do his face,” I say and move back to the base of the bed where I wring out my cloth in the warm water. My colleague arrives with a cooling plate. His daughter and I finish washing him and drying him, then we dress him in his best suit and place him on a sheet over the plate. The plate means that his daughter can keep him at home until it’s time for the cremation.
We draw another sheet up to his chest. I light candles and place them at each corner of the bed as his daughter scatters rose petals around him. Tomorrow we will place him in a wicker casket. We will surround him with garlands and greenery and carry him out to the hearse. His daughter will accompany him to the crematorium where she will bear witness as her father’s body is placed in the fire.
It’s seven years since my sister Allison died. She lived for most of her life with various degenerative conditions as the result of brain cancer. My family gave her a beautiful send-off. Her adult nieces and nephews, whom she had babysat when little, brought her special mementoes, prepared a slideshow, decorated the casket.
I brought felt-tipped pens so we could write final messages on her eco-coffin. My daughter, then three years old, drew “potato people” on the side of the casket to keep Aunty Allison company on her final journey. Friends and family said prayers. I, my brother and our eldest sister gave the eulogy.
After Allison’s funeral I took a break from writing the manuscript which would eventually become my new novel The Eulogy. I needed some time away from our story. But instead of a holiday, I found myself enrolled in a masters of theology. Two years later I was an ordained interfaith minister, a trained deathwalker, a celebrant and independent funeral director.
Interfaith ministers offer pastoral care outside of religious institutions, creating spiritual services for the nonreligious. Many of my peers became chaplains in hospitals and prisons, social workers, university counsellors. But for me it was always about death. I wanted to give others what my sister’s funeral had given me: a clean wound, ready for healing.
But not everything about my sister’s funeral was perfect. I had chafed under the transactional gaze of the funeral directors. The inflated price of the eco-coffin outraged me, along with the attempts to upsell my grieving mother on urns, nameplates, casket decorations.
I later found out that the funeral company we had hired was not a local family firm as I had thought, but was actually owned by the multinational company InvoCare, which controls more than a third of the funeral market in Australia.
State and federal governments have held a number of inquiries, attempting to make the funeral industry more transparent, recognising that consumers are particularly vulnerable at these times of their lives.
But I want more than competition in the funeral industry. I want there to be no “industry”. When my sister died, I was not a consumer; I was a grieving puddle of emotions. I wanted a human I could trust to walk with me.
My book takes the form of a fictional guide for how to write a eulogy, as the protagonist prepares for her own sister’s funeral.
In reality I have never been able to find a good guide to eulogy writing. They all seem to assume you are telling the story of a prosperous businessman who has lived to a ripe old age. But what about people like my sister Allison, who had no career, no children, no value in this calculus, even though she was the defining person in my life, the person who taught me how to love?
In the end I wrote an entire book to say goodbye to my sister. But if you only have a time slot in a funeral service, here is my advice: it does not have to be perfect. It does not have to be long. And it is completely OK to cry, laugh or do both simultaneously.
In 2017 I conducted my first funeral. It was for a nonprofit funeral provider in my local area, a charity that believes someone’s death should not be an opportunity to take a company public.
I was nervous before the service began, but once it started, the anxiety just floated away. It was so clear that this event was not about me. I was there to give permission to people to feel whatever might arise: sadness, relief, despair, gladness. I was there to walk with them.