real life

'I spend my days handling dead people. This is what it's taught me about living.'

I’ve swept a few things from the mortuary floor. Remnants of body bags, fluids, and pieces of surgical thread we use to suture a mouth closed. But nothing quite like the locks of hair from a 35* year old cancer victim, still lying on the preparation table hugging her childhood doll.

I had just finished styling her hair with a curling rod and with each successful coil, there was one that slipped from her scalp and into my hand. Her cancer medication had her hair all over me — on my gloves, on my protective disposable apron, in my nostrils. And I didn’t care. All that mattered was she looked beautiful for her final farewell.

Will you plan your own funeral?

Video by Mamamia

Sarah* wasn’t the first, or last, cancer patient I would prepare for a funeral. Most decedents I prepare sadly died of some sort of cancer. What made this moment with Sarah different to most was that she was seemingly healthy only a year ago. A mum of two and netball* trainer at the weekend, this beautiful young woman had no idea she wouldn’t see Christmas. It may never have occurred to her only months ago that one day she would wake up sick and never get better. And now here she was, lying in the mortuary of a funeral home.

That afternoon in traffic I peered around at the drivers around me. Some chatting away on their Bluetooth devices, some cursing the red light. Children snacking on a cheeseburger on their way home from school; mum looking exhausted in the driver’s seat, staring blankly through the windscreen. I too felt exhausted, as I had been on call for seven nights straight with very little sleep. Yet I was grateful. I was alive to feel tired. The mascara smeared down my cheek meant I opened my eyes that morning to apply the cosmetic to my lashes.

Not everyone is lucky to be reminded of death on a daily basis.

Yes, you read right. Lucky.

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In this busy, noisy world, I’m blessed to be reminded every single day that life is temporary and the phone bill really doesn’t matter. (Well, it kinda does, but not worth stressing too much over.) There’s nothing quite like staring into an open grave to make you want to call your grandma and tell her, ‘I Love You.’

Oh crap! I notice in the rear vision mirror that my regrowth looks terrible and I don’t have a rostered day off coming up to visit a salon. Oh well. At least I have hair. I thought back to Sarah in the mortuary, her hair I swept from the floor.

Image: Supplied.

As special as our role in the community is, death care is extremely tiring. And just when you feel you want to tuck away the suit and swap it all for a job in a bakery, death appears with a gift, teaching us another lesson and reminding our exhausted brain why we do what we do.

Recently I was having an especially hard day at work. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I had been called out to collect the dead most of the night before and my arms trembled when I lifted bodies and tried to dress them. I misspelled a name when carving a nameplate for a coffin. I forgot to duck up to the florist to grab the flower display for the midday funeral. I was grumpy. I wanted to go home. I needed bed.

My boss was yelling at me for everything - from leaving a speck of dust on the hearse window, to the heels I wore on my feet. Little does he know I could run a kilometre in a pair of Louboutins.

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Later that evening I was falling into a much-needed sleep, when death had other plans for me.

My eyes snapped open, staring into the blackness as the work phone rang loudly.

It was a home removal. Into the suit, out in the chilly night.

Firstly, I met my removal partner at the funeral home so we could attend together in one vehicle. After chatting about what we had for dinner (I had eaten garlic and he could smell it) turning down three wrong streets and almost knocking over a letterbox, we arrived at the house. The porch light exuded a sleepy glow.

Someone had just died in that house and they relied on us to take care of them.

I slapped on some lip gloss, adjusted my tie and jumped out of the van and jumped out into the night.

The man who had exhaled his final breath was only a young man, around my age.

He had passed away in a hospital bed provided by palliative care, in his childhood bedroom. There was a poster of INXS above the chest of drawers decorated with photos of his smiling face in better times. If it wasn’t for the wrist tags I secured around his wrists to identify him, I wouldn’t have believed he was the same man in the happy snaps. He was thin now, jaundice, his eyes looking past us and I wondered where he was now.

While we went about the motions, snapping on gloves, preparing the collapsible stretcher with a body bag, I couldn’t ignore the pang in my chest. The walls were baby blue, his collection of baseball caps lined the walls on shelving. His parents sobbed in the living room down the hall.

I held his cooling hand tightly a moment, then in one gentle movement, my partner and I transferred the young man from the bed to the stretcher.

During the journey back to the funeral home I peered out the window at the twinkling stars, pondering...

Image: Supplied.
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You see, I’m a bit of a Bridget Jones mess in my personal life. I haven’t dated in years, I can’t roast a carrot and don’t yet own my own home. A night off is spent with mac’n’cheese and romcoms, a bottle of red, when I could be out on the town trying to score a hsuband and turning the spare room into a baby’s room.

I feel a bit behind everyone else, especially when I’m scrolling the socials. Everyone seems to have it all together, except for me.

But in times like these, when we take care of someone who wasn’t even blessed with a fortieth birthday, I'm reminded shiny appliances and an impressive house don’t even matter.

I have loved ones, a beautiful family. I have a passion, writing. I can’t cook a roast, but I make the best banana pancakes.

I'm lucky to be alive, even at my age. I’ve taken care of babies, toddlers, teenagers who never even got to experience a first kiss.

And just like Sarah, the young cancer victim, and now this young man, I'm reminded we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to these silly timelines.

Who knows how long your timeline is going to be, anyhow? We may not even make Christmas ourselves.

How do we ever know?

So take it from a funeral director: Live each and every day as if it is your last. Buy the Louboutins. Drink champagne.

Cliché and corny I know.

But acknowledging your mortality isn’t morbid or macabre. It’s healthy. It’s even beautiful.

*All names and identifying details have been changed.

Emma Jane is a former death care professional who worked for a number of funeral homes as Funeral Director’s Assistant. She aspires to squash the myths surrounding the profession and loves teaching others about death and dying through her writing.

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