“Ashes?” gasped the new receptionist, slowly backing out of the room. “You mean… of dead people?”
“Well, yes. We’re just across the road from the crematorium.”
Really, if you’re taking on a temp job at a Sydney cemetery, death is going to feature quite prominently.
It didn't take long for one observant friend to note: “I see you’re in a dead end job.”
As I was on the reception desk and responsible for answering the phones, people asked me all kinds of questions:
- How much does a cremation cost?
- Where can I get a headstone?
- I’m here for the chapel service for…
- I’m looking for my grandfather’s grave
- What happens to the titanium pin when someone’s cremated?
- My father/mother just passed away, how can we buy a burial/garden plot?
- I’m here to collect my wife’s ashes
Three things I've learnt about life & death
I don’t fear death - I’ve been at peace with it for many years now, although it’s still a taboo subject and many people just won’t talk about it.
We all eagerly embrace life, but we don’t want to embrace death.
It’s a natural part of our life cycle, but we still find it difficult to accept the loss of our loved ones. I guess it's part of our human nature.
And we especially don’t want to face our own mortality: I’ve always thought I’d live forever - well at least till 100.
Here are three things I started thinking about during my short temp role at the Memorial Park in early 2004:
1. Burial vs cremation
I’d only ever been to (Greek) church services, where everyone dressed in black, was very solemn and the dearly departed were laid to rest in the ground.
However, I soon realized that death is an expensive business: Burial plots are prime real estate, and that doesn’t include the added trimmings of coffins, headstones, services, flowers and funeral directors.
Recent TV advertisements about insurance plans indicate a basic funeral costs around $6000. I’m guessing that’s at the budget end.
Have you ever considered an eco-friendly burial or cremation, using a cardboard coffin made from recycled paper and non-toxic chemicals?
How about planting a tree instead of a headstone?
Did I just hear you gasp in horror?
I’ve decided on the carbon-neutral option: cremation in a cardboard coffin, with my ashes scattered to the four winds.
I don’t need any plaques or monuments; it’s enough that my memory will live on in your hearts and my online blogs.
2. An audio-visual presentation
“Here’s the song list,” said the Celebrant, handing me three CDs. “I’ll cue you with a nod when it’s time to play each one.”
I inserted the CDs into the console, selected the required song and pressed the ‘pause’ button while waiting for the Celebrant’s nod.
It was the first time I’d heard music played at a funeral service. And not just funeral music; these were popular songs which exemplified that person’s life, such as ABBA’s Dancing Queen for a former ballerina, or Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
I found myself being the DJ at funeral services at the Crematorium’s newly-renovated chapels, soon after I’d put together a PowerPoint presentation for their official opening.
The audio-visual equipment were a unique feature and the Memorial Park was one of the first in Sydney to introduce these facilities back in 2004.
As I had a knack for electronic equipment, I was asked to fill in for the manager one day and subsequently helped out whenever she wasn’t available.
Audio-visual presentations at funerals were new to me; and it got me thinking about what photos and songs I’d want played at my funeral. It’s already a long list.
What song best sums up your life?
3. Celebrating life vs the fear of God
I attended more funeral services in those two months than I’ve had in my entire life.
Up until then, I’d only been to funerals delivered almost entirely in Byzantine Greek (no direct correlation to the Modern Greek language) and were therefore meaningless and impersonal.
Mourning the loss of a loved one is always a sad occasion, no matter how prepared we think we are.
During those services at the on site chapels, I noticed a distinct difference between the way priests conducted the ceremony (back then) compared to celebrants or families:
I was particularly dismayed by the dry, unemotional rituals of a particular priest who adamantly refused to allow any music during his services. He droned on about God and in particular, our sins, only mentioning the deceased person’s name fleetingly.
What a fearful and lonely way to be farewelled from this life.
In contrast, I was touched by those services where family members shared stories about their loved one, openly laughed, cried and played uplifting music. They honoured the person and their life.
We celebrate the birth of a baby; isn’t it just as important to celebrate a person’s life and their death?
Bringing death to life
A few years ago I discovered a book called “Dying to know” published by Pilotlight Australia.
Its aim is to stimulate discussion around death and dying, including support for loved ones, grief, facts about burials and cremations, as well as useful web links.
It also offers two unique ideas which I hadn’t considered previously:
1. Throw your own wake
The invitation would read: “Please come to my wake. No, I’m not dead yet. I just want to see all my friends and loved ones before I am. Come and enjoy my favourite food, a celebratory drink and some bangin’ beats.”
2. Leave an emotional will
In addition to a legal will, this allows you to leave personal thoughts and messages for your loved ones, such as:
“This is my favourite family recipe. It was grandma’s. Now you’re its guardian.
This is a book I’m going to really miss. Think of me if you ever read it.
There is something I’ve learned that I’d like you to know.
If you watch this film, think of me. It was my favourite.”
Aren't these ideas more meaningful than being left with an inheritance?
How will you celebrate your life and death?