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Ashes to ashes and dust to dust

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust
by Jenny Hume

Death and funerals are something we all confront at some stage of our life, but most of us try not to think about it all, let alone write or read about it. Books about such and dealing with grief are not usually ones we go in search of for general reading matter. So when death comes visiting many of us are left unprepared for it and can find ourselves in some rather strange and unpleasant territory. This piece is an attempt to step gently over some of the stones in that territory. I know the stones are there because I, like many, have at some stage tripped over them all.

As you get older funerals inevitably become a more frequent event in life and we are forced to accept the truth that immortality is just a word. Youth is long gone before some of us wake up to the fact that it has at some stage in life slipped out the door. Nothing will bring that home quicker than the realization that those you always thought were somehow above you on the ladder of life, have left you staring at a footless rung just above your head.

Death in a family or of a friend can be unexpected and sudden, bringing with it shock and anguish, or it can be long and slow, causing other kinds of heartache for those left behind. Sometimes it takes a child and the grief is paralyzing, and long lasting. Sometimes the death is violent or intentional and such will define and condition every experience from that day forward. Joy will never feel like true joy again. It is muted and less free, while the troubled mind can be burdened for years with useless phrases and questions – the if onlys and the whys that have no resolution, and no answer.

So the only certain thing about death it is that when it happens, there is always pain for the ones left behind and the manner of the dying can dictate the depth of that pain.

How long that pain lasts however can depend on other things as well, and I have found that the events and the decisions made in the first hours and days after death can be a major influencing factor. So this is about those hours and days and that last good-bye, the funeral.

For the truly bereft the funeral is at least an end in itself. All the painful decisions have been made. It is only later that you realise that some of those decisions were the wrong ones, making the road to recovery harder to travel.

The big one is the first one. The body has to be formally identified and someone has to do it. In most cases that should be a simple matter but not for the person who is asked, or who bravely elects to step up to the task. You volunteered once and regretted it as you were led down a cold dark back alley of the hospital to the morgue. Bodies of the just dead are not always a pretty sight depending on how and when they died. Dark splotches on the face where the blood congealed can make the dead look grotesque and point to a painful end, even though that may have been far from the truth. You register that in shocked silence, but if you are lucky someone who knows will step forward to comfort you, telling you that will be go away. You find that hard to believe, at the time. But it does, provided you have the courage to go back later to see.

Then there is rigor mortis. If that has set in before the loved one was found, then the body can be contorted into a shape that will not reverse for many hours. So it is best not to send in the inexperienced to carry out this task, and it is best not to volunteer in that situation if you can avoid it.

There is no escaping the formalities if the death has been accidental or sudden and unexpected. You get a shock when police appear with a job to be done. You can get an even bigger shock when they mention that word, autopsy, causing all those crime scene images to spring to mind. They try to do their job without undue haste, but their unease with their duty is patent. They have forms, they always do, and they need them to be filled out, and they have questions to ask. They wait patiently, but you know they want to be out of there, and you want them to be out of there too, so you have to do your best to control your shaking hands to sign where asked, trying not to splodge their forms with your tears. You are glad when they leave, yet sorry too. Somehow their presence helped you hold it all together, but then you are alone. A deserted waiting room at 3am in the morning in a hospital is not a place to be at such a time. A stranger, if only a policeman can make it seem less cold.

You go home to bed and hope that the next day you will cope better, but you didn’t count on the grapevine, or the telephone. You soon learn that when one of the family dies, it becomes both your comfort and your greatest enemy. It is the ones who are going to miss the dead most who always phone. They’ll be amongst those who sit about five rows back in the church – not family, but somehow the dead was very special to them. “I was only speaking to him last week, he seemed so well. I can’t believe it, I am so sorry.” They fall apart, and they take you with them, just when you thought you were holding up a bit better.

The next time round you do it differently for the first day or so – you appoint a phone call handler. It is best to pick the strongest person in the family, not one who will burst into tears at the first word of condolence forcing you to rescue them both. Better still, call in a friend and ask them to take the calls. It is surprising how useful friends can be at this time. They can handle the tearful calls and they can ring all those people you would otherwise have forgotten to ring, and who will later be offended when they find they missed the notice in the paper, and also then the funeral. It is best to give your address book to someone and tell them to start at the beginning and work their way through to Z. Offended would be mourners are not something you want to be dealing with down the track, believe me.

You do take the call from the funeral parlour. They want the family to choose the coffin. This time you let someone else do the volunteering but they can’t make a decision, so they ring you up. There are the cheap ones, the dearer ones and the top of the range. You thought a coffin was a coffin. You opt out, tell them you don’t mind but you tell them all the same to choose a nice one.

You take another phone call from the funeral parlour. They want to know if any of the family wants to view the body one last time. You struggle with that. Will it help, or will it make it worse? You are undecided. You ask others what they think. Some say no, some say yes, so you are no further ahead. But you don’t want to have that frantic scene in the hospital to trouble you for the rest of your life, that tube down the throat in the effort to revive – the feeling of a body warm that speaks of life, yet with the unquestionable stillness of death. Nor do you want that cold walk to the morgue to be the last memory. Yet you’ve never had to make this decision before and you don’t know if what they told you at the morgue is really true or not. You feel scared that you won’t cope, that it will make it worse. You don’t go, and you regret it for years – and you have nightmares for years as well as those last scenes become permanent stills in your mind.

You remember that the second time round, if you are unfortunate enough to have such. So you don’t make that mistake again either. You go, and you are glad you did. There is nothing so peaceful as that quiet room in the funeral parlour, the caring people of the place, the soft light, the gentle music, your loved friend or relative lying there in a silence and stillness and peace you never imagined possible after what you had been through in the days before. How the lines of worried life gradually fade away in death. You sit there for awhile and find it hard to leave, but you must and you are grateful for the box of kleenex thoughtfully left nearby. It is time to go. You kiss the cold brow and quietly put all those little mementos you brought with you in the coffin, tucking them in lovingly – the picture of her cat, the flower from your garden, her favourite tea bag, and pictures of the family.

You go away feeling stronger. The edge has been taken off your pain and you know now you will be able to cope at the funeral for you have said your last good-bye.

The Funeral:

I’ve always had a certain admiration for those folk who run funeral parlours. It seemed to me a macabre way to make a living and I still don’t feel very comfortable when I see those white lady funeral advertisements flashed on the screen in the family room over supper, or a hearse pass by. I do not want to be reminded any more than is necessary of my mortality. To make a living out of the dead would not be my choice.

Sometimes the Funeral is over before you even hear about it. Some families like to do it that way, get it over with and hide their loss and grief as much as possible in order to cope. Some mourners feel cheated by that but it is not their call. Others like to have a private affair and a service later, but a funeral without the dead present never feels quite right to me.

This raises the question as to whether funerals are for the dead or the still living. A good family friend who is also an Anglican minister explained it to me this way:

A Catholic funeral is for the dead, a Presbyterian one is for the living, and as usual, we Anglicans choose to sit on the fence.

It is rather hard to decide as one sits in the front pew looking at that shiny box decked in the biggest bunch of flowers most of us are ever likely to receive.

The long faces of those all around, the ‘hush hush’ to the restless wriggling child whom it would have been better to have left at home, the muffled coughs and sniffles, the just loud enough Abide with Me being pumped out by an organ that has seen better days, that shiny box, that big bunch of flowers - all somehow combine to bring you, the living, undone, just when you thought you were holding it all together rather well.

You don’t know half the people who turn up, and those relatives you have not seen for years, have you stumped, and you know you are going to be embarrassed. They know you, if for no other reason than that it is your show so they have the edge. You know however they will understand, for one day it will likely be their show.

There’s always that hierarchy of mourners at any funeral. You can tell them by where they sit. The stiff upright backs of those in the front pews of the church tell their own story – the black suits, the ties around young necks clearly not used to such, and the arm of one around the slumped figure of another. If you are not one of them you try not to look. You are grateful for that little booklet the family handed out; the deceased’s life story and you already know the Order of Service backwards.

Those in the middle pews are different. Their grief is more distant, equal to the distance they had from the deceased in life. They are the ones you know you should know. Maybe it is the hats and the suits and ties that do it, but all you know is that you should know them, and you don’t. They are the ones you are going to be embarrassed over.

At the back are those who are there just out of respect, either for the contribution the dead had made to the community, or because they knew a member of the family. So they position themselves at a distance. They were not close to the deceased and they don’t want to intrude too much on the raw grief of those who were. They are the last to leave the church, they stand at the back of the crowd and they are the first to drift away when the time is right, again out of respect. You won’t see them at the wake.

There are of course those other places where the dead are farewelled. They have a different atmosphere, a somewhat lacking one you find, but of what it is hard to define. Somehow they seem to be over almost before they start, and it is hard not to feel you should hurry away yourself when you see the next lot arriving to farewell their loved one. It pays however not to be too hasty, not to arrive too early. You want to make sure you are in the right place at the right time. There is nothing worse than to sit amongst a whole bunch of strangers only to realize that the person in that box up the front, waiting to be consigned to the final fire, has nothing to do with you. It is rather difficult to leave once you are boxed in yourself. You wish you had checked the time, then you would have known it was eleven, not ten. It is the stuff of comedy.

There are of course those awkward moments – the gathering outside the church when the whole congregation wants to express their sorrow and you are collared by the elderly aunt whom you haven’t seen for years but who now wants to relate all her memories of the deceased. The only alternative is to stand like the preacher at the door of the church so that the pressure from behind moves the mass on, allowing all to get to shake your hand. It can save you and it can save them.

When it is all over you will feel good that you did not rush things, that you took more than the usual time to plan the farewell. The church was full with its hierarchy of mourners, the hymns were just right, the eulogy was memorable, the church ladies did a marvelous job with the tea and cakes – it did not matter that one pall bearer got lost and never turned up at the graveside, or that another, not used to such a role in his young life stumbled and nearly fell in.

You go back a week later and tidy up the dead flowers and that is your time to sit for awhile, listen to the birds in the bush, see the wind gently blowing those colourful windmill things, read some of the other names of those who now lie near your loved one, check out the plaques and get some ideas and start to come to terms with your loss.

Are funerals for the living or the dead? I am still not sure but I tend to think they are for the living, except one’s own of course. That is most certainly for the dead.

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Death? Just another part of life

You describe traumatic events at the morgue, Jenny, and this is something I've never had to encounter. Presumably you are writing about events whereby an accident has happened or an awful murder. I should think this can be heavy . Viewing a former loved one who has died under dramatic circumstances must be traumatic.

Then again, viewing a body can have different effects upon people. As you say, the older one gets it seems the more funerals one attends but in my life I seem to have been attending them from an early age having had so many friends from my youth die sudenly from auto or motor bike accidents, one a hit and run, and natural causes and suicide.

I guess it does depend upon what your personal beliefs are, mine being that we simply drop this shell and move onto a different plane and that we shall meet again.

Funerals can be odd affairs and I agree that funeral directors become experts in dealing with the bereaved but they don't always get it right. We had an open coffin after my father died and upon viewing, my mother was furious because whoever does this thing had combed his eyebrows the wrong way, completely changing his look. I even wondered if he was really my dad!

I remember the funeral of a favourite uncle. Attending were his old RSL mates (incidently, that uncle had been posted in Darwin when the Japanese attacked and always said the deaths were in the thousands which was deliberately covered up by the government to avoid panic so I await the film Australia to see their take on it). I love all those old RSL diggers and the highpoint at this funeral was during the sermon when the priest was extolling my Uncle Les's virtues, someone's mobile phone went off whereupon one of his Digger mates piped up "Good heavens he's there already and trying to get in contact!".

The oddest was the Buddhist funeral of a friend who died of Aids who wished to be cremated in Bali. We all chipped in and travelled there and the funeral pyre was erected. This was something I never expected - the shroud burnt off in seconds and we were confronted with my friend's emaciated body from which flames soared from every orifice - his mouth , eyes and so on. It was spectacular and I'm pleased I had fortified myself with 6 gin & tonics beforehand.

Personally, I want mine to be a very practical afair and would like my shell to be placed out in the wildernes for the buzzards to dine upon and at least serve a practical use and save all those bloated funeral parlour expenses.

Not necessarily Michael

No Michael, it does not take a violent death to make the scene in the morgue distressing. Sudden death can give images that are very disturbing too, which is why I have found viewing the body later when all is peaceful again helps. Three of my immediate family have died suddenly, one a child. All were very traumatic. Two others died more slowly, and that was worse.

I just know from experience, good and bad, that what the last images are can be very influential in the extent to which one is traumatised or not. Unfortunately one often only finds out much later that the trauma has become embedded and is then harder to deal with.

Children when I was young tended to be shielded from death and funerals though it is not always possible. I still can see the dark stain in the road where the kids pushed so hard in the primary school at the bus stop that one little girl was pushed under the bus and crushed. There was no counselling for any of us, just silence. I can still see that stain on the road in front of the school - it was there for months.

And when a kid in the class was washed away when I was 8 in the Kempsey floods, all we got to see was the empty seat in eh class room, and from the teachers there was just silence in our presence.  But we knew he was gone. The only memory I have of him is his eyes, for mine had met with his for one strong but fleeting moment in the week before, as he jumped over the high jump on the school sports day. I was standing near the jump and as he was airborne our eyes met. Sixty years on I can still see them so clearly.

In the same year I got to my first funeral, that of my grandmother. All I can remember is my mother  taking me by the hand outside the church to walk over to the hearse, saying: I just want to touch her one last time and she placed her hand on the coffin for a moment. Apart from that I remember nothing except a long drive along a hot dusty road to a hill where whe was buried. I don't remember the grave, just the heat and the dust.  Instinctively I did exactly the same when she died 43 years later. I said to Ian, I just want to touch her one last time, and I walked over to the hearse and touched her coffin. So powerful can be some images in the mind of a child that they never fade.

I don't think I could have coped with that Buddhist funeral. That would have freaked me out totally.

Yes funerals are expensive but no, I don't think I would like me or one of mine to be left for the buzzards to dine on.

Now on that cheerful note, I'll leave you to it.


"Correct":  the appeal to some amorphous external authority as guidance.   Poor old dears, who didn't have the confidence of their own decisions, or own taste.

Mind you, I'm not free of such; and those parts of me have been quite shocked to read of your bare footed status and taste.  Not in MY house, Jenny Hume.  We know the kind of people who go barefoot, don't we?  I had never been barefoot, except at the beach, until I was about 14 or so.  And never at home.  And my children don't go barefoot, or indeed wear rubber thongs, in this otherwise laissez-faire household.

If you say that this is nonsense:  of course it is.

Off with those shoes, and off thread, but my thread so what?

OK F Kendall, this is off thread but since it is my thread I am not going to complain.

I suspect cucumbers were the go because they were cheap as opposed to correct with the great aunts. Small dairy farmers selecting in the scrub in the hills of the north coast were more concerned with serving God, which they did abundantly. Wonderful people - I regret their passing. My mother had 84 first cousins in those hills, and a few are still alive though very very old now. It's their story I am writing.

Now as for bare feet in the house. You mean you let your kids come in from walking in things unmentionable in the street and carry all those germs onto your carpet? Tut Tut. The Japanese require you to remove your shoes and put on house slippers. I never for one moment tried to wear my shoes into the house of the Japanese who rented my brother's house for many years. Not done.

Bare feet pick up far less sticky stuff, my dear. And anyway, we never had to wear shoes to primary school. The girls tended to, but the boys rarely. As for me, I shed them and all my clothes as well in the street given the opportunity, my mother told me.

It must run in the family. I was once in the bank manager's office arguing yet again for an overdraft extension in the big 80s drought and I had my little niece with me. When I turned round she was stark naked. She also thought shoes were for other things. When she wanted to go to the toilet in a big shop she simply took a riding boot off the rack and started to pee into it. I gathered her up and bolted.

Put some shoes on Lucy and come outside and give me a hand. If I get that once a day I get it fifty times from the Scot, to which I reply: I don't wear shoes. Slow learners some Scots.

But since I am half civilised my dear, I do concede that some people cannot abide bare feet, so I keep one pair of shoes for all occasions.

BTW: I did once buy (at the Scot's insistence) a pair of sneakers to walk in the Warrumbungles. I set out in them on a 14 mile climb up stony steep paths to the top and back of the Split Rock. After 100 metres I had a big blister on each heel, so the Scot had to carry the shoes in his backpack all the way up and back, and I continued happily on barefoot returning without a scratch or snake bite. I gave the things away a week later. So there. I did try.

cakes and casseroles

You omitted this step of the proceeding, Jenny Hume: the bearing of food.

I'm always aware of the late Norman Lindsay, who, according to his family, always greeted the news of a death with something like: "What! The old fellow's gone? Got out of this place? Well, that's the best news that I've heard all day. Lucky fellow!"

Should we all react like this?

The hymn comparison reminds me a little of the headline, reputedly in The Catholic Weekly: Catholic Cow is Grand Champion of Melbourne Show.

Lindsay and cucumber sandwiches

Ah yes F Kendall, Lindsay. I remember him well from the old Bully days - there was Lionel too of course. My late father rather fancied the former Lindsay's art and in the fifties bought a lmited edition signed print of one of his nudes. My mother thought it a bit much but allowed him to have it provided it was not displayed in the main part of the house for her guests to see. So he hung it their bedroom.  My brother has it now. Probably worth quite a bit I would think. It was not my cup of tea so he's welcome to it.  The Prado never did much for me either with all those naked Goyas. Give me a landscape at dawn any day.

Back in my great aunt's day the favourite food for the wake was cucumber sandwiches and they are still considered to be the correct thing in some quarters. Me, I'll go for the passionfruit and cream sponge cake thank you. Very comforting.

Never mind hymn comparisons. The Catholics it seems go in for cows while the Uniting go in for battery chooks. A good reason to remain with the continuing Pressies - those dissidents who would not unite with the Weslyans and the Congregationalists.  (God would be impressed with that - 18 letters - nothing wrong with my spelling dear Lord).  

How dare a church run a battery hen house.

These dreams...

"...you have nightmares for years as well as those last scenes become permanent stills in your mind."

Indeed they do. Not because of my not viewing the body - I prefer to remember the "living version". Conversations replay at odd times and for seemingly no reason. Clearly recalled conversations.

Most affecting are the conversations that can no longer be had. That was a gradual process with Jack (my dad) who suffered a severe vascular demetia over his last seven to eight years. Rather less gradual with "The Old Girl".

I have dreams - that are frighteningly logical - where my parents and I go over current happenings as well as past.

It gets "better" but never goes, and odd things spark a return of stronger feelings. I found a photo of myself and Jack, from '91, about to tuck into Ray Phoon's excellent Chinese tucker and a beer. Jack had seven years before the stroke that signalled the sharp decline. Wouldn't know it from the photo.

I've been to and organised far too many funerals lately. I think you are right Jenny: if done properly, as the celebration of a life,  they should be for the living

Father Park


Michael, I really feel for those who see their loved ones lose their minds through dementia - a kind of living death. That loss of emotional connect would be heartbreaking. I do not think I could bear it. Both my parents had their faculties to almost the day they died.

The smallest things can trigger the revisiting of loss and trauma. Sometimes they trigger negative thoughts and dreams, other times better ones.

Sometime you have to get rid of the former sort. I had a tree cut down because the last image I had of a little boy was him mowing the lawn under it. I found that tree precipitated me into deep depression after he died, suddenly, so I had it cut down. It helped a little.

Yes I do think funerals, done properly help one to overlay the trauma of the previous days into something beautiful and memorable.

Death is only the beginning

Very poignant piece Jenny. I am writing this with tears in my eyes as I remember it must be nearly a year since your dear sister Ingrid passed away.(Requiescat In Pace)

We tend not to speak of such things, mainly I suppose because one doesnt' wish to be reminded of one's mortality.

For me as a Catholic,  death marks the the beginning of eternal life.

When my Grandfather died many years ago, I remember the church service as a joyful one. He had been estranged from the Church for most of his life, yet a few weeks before his death he requested a priest and was reconciled to his God.

I will never forget that feeling of comfort and peace at his funeral. Whilst it was sad for we  loved ones who mourned him, he was no longer in pain, and united forever with the Lord he embraced just before he died.

"Dei Gratia."

Thank you Kathy

Thank you Kathy, yes it is exactly a year this week and still hard to accept. We talked on the telephone every day twice a day and I used to go and stay with her frequently. Her birthday was just a week before and six days after mine, and she gave me the most beautiful card which was headed, a sister's love is something you never outgrow, with an image of two little girls holding hands, and lovely words inside about what you share with sisters.

I keep it on top of the piano alongside her photo. She always put thought into the cards she chose and for hers I did an album of her life, a sort of this is your life, as it was her 70th and then the big party just three days before she went. Sudden death is hard to accept but for her, no doubt wonderful, spared the trauma of old age you see in those nursing homes. 

I don't know why I wrote this piece, it just fell out of my mind really onto paper. It was not meant to be too heavy. I had just finished writing it when the phone rang to tell me the wife of the Anglican minister I referred to in the piece had died suddenly - an old and much loved family friend, to all my family over so many years. So I was at her funeral last week - there were over 600 hundred there. It was the full Anglican service, something I've never been to before, and I thought of F Kendall - there was the most beautiful piece at the end which I wish I knew what it was. So maybe the Pressies do not have the edge as I thought when it comes to great hymns.

And yes, of course, it is not the end. We believers believe that. How wonderful your grandfather was reconciled with his God.

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