I hold his lower legs up so his daughter can gently wash under the knee. Then she does the same for me. We kneel on either side of her father’s body, which we brought home from the hospital where he died last night.
“You make his face,” I say, moving back to the bottom of the bed, where I wring my cloth into the warm water. My colleague comes with a heat sink. His daughter and I have finished washing him and drying him, then we dress him in his best suit and put him on a sheet over the plate. The plate allows his daughter to keep him at home until it’s time for the cremation.
We pull another sheet up to his chest. I light candles and place them in every corner of the bed while his daughter spreads rose petals around him. Tomorrow we put him in a wicker coffin. 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 testify when her father’s body is laid in the fire.
It’s been seven years since my sister Allison died. She lived most of her life with various degenerative conditions due to brain cancer. My family gave her a beautiful farewell. Her adult nieces and nephews, whom she had cared for as a baby, brought her special memories, prepared a slide show, decorated the coffin.
I brought ink so we could write last messages on her eco-coffin. My daughter, then three years old, drew “potato people” on the side of the coffin to keep Aunt Allison company on her last trip. Friends and family bath. Me, my brother and our oldest sister gave a memorial service.
After Allison’s funeral, I took a break from writing the script, which would eventually become my new novel, The Eulogy. I needed some time away from our history. But instead of a vacation, I found myself enrolled in a master’s in theology. Two years later, I was an ordained interfaith priest, a trained deathwalker, a celebrant, and an independent undertaker.
Interfaith priests offer pastoral care outside of religious institutions and create spiritual services for non-religious. Many of my peers became pastors in hospitals and prisons, social workers, university counselors. 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 to be healed.
But not everything at my sister’s funeral was perfect. I had gnawed under the transactional gaze of the undertakers. The exorbitant price of the eco-coffin infuriated me along with the attempts to sell my grieving mother on urns, nameplates, coffin decorations.
I later found out that the funeral home we had hired was not a local family business as I had thought, but was in fact 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 series of inquiries in an effort to make the funeral industry more transparent, recognizing that consumers are particularly vulnerable at these times of their lives.
But I want more than competition in the funeral industry. I wish there was no “industry”. When my sister died, I was not a consumer; I was a mourning pool of emotions. I wanted someone I could trust to go with me.
My book takes the form of a fictional guide on how to write a eulogy while the protagonist prepares for his own sister’s funeral.
In fact, I have never been able to find a good guide to writing praise. They all seem to assume that you are telling the story of a wealthy businessman who has lived to a mature age. But what about people like my sister Allison who had no career, no children, no value in this calculation, even though she was the crucial person in my life, the person who taught me to love?
Eventually, I wrote an entire book to say goodbye to my sister. But if you only have one time in a funeral, here’s my advice: it does not have to be perfect. It does not have to be long. And it’s perfectly OK to cry, laugh or do both at the same time.
In 2017, I made my first funeral. It was for a nonprofit funeral home in my local area, a charity that believes that someone’s death should not be an opportunity to make a business public.
I was nervous before the service began, but when it first started, the anxiety just floated away. It was so obvious that this event was not about me. I was there to give people permission to feel what might arise: sorrow, relief, despair, joy. I was there to go with them.