Discrimination in death: Why are there so few headstones in Derby?

Unidentified and unmarked graves are everywhere in Australia. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, many of the unmarked graves in cemeteries are those of Aborigines. Buried in a strange custom and a strange country, their relatives were unable to fill their traditional mortuary rights.

“… When people were buried in the ground in a strange place it caused much more upset then the death itself.

“It was the white person’s way. Old people used to be buried in a cave. It was strange … new culture. Strange to the old people. Our people …”

Just last week saw the burial of 70 sets of indigenous remains recovered from the crumbling pioneer cemetery at Fitzroy Crossing. The whites had long been removed to safer ground, but the blacks were left to wash into the mighty Fitzroy River as the rivers banks eroded away.

fitzroy
70 sets of Indigenous remains were laid to rest in an emotional ceremony in Fitzroy Crossing WA last week. Photo: Facebook ABC Kimberley

Northwest of Fitzroy Crossing is the town of Derby. Like so many Australian cemeteries, Derby Cemetery tells a story of segregation. There are some fantastic information boards at the cemetery that aim to preserve the area’s dark history. I’ve summed them up here:

DIVIDED BY RACE AND RELIGION

The area of the old Derby Cemetery nearest the road is generally called the Pioneer Cemetery, while the bush at the back is referred to as the Aboriginal or Old Native Cemetery. Under the WA Aborigines Act 1905, anybody coming within five chains (20 metres) of a group of two or more Aboriginals could be fined 200 pound or imprisoned or both. Some people think that this segregation is the reason Aboriginals were buried separately.

Aboriginal burials were not recorded. That’s why many Aboriginal people in Derby don’t know where their relatives were laid to rest.

After the ‘yes’ vote of the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal people were counted in the national census. Not surprisingly, more Aboriginal names began to appear in the burial register. Following the 1965 Equal Wages determination many station owners were unable or unwilling to pay equal wages to their Aboriginal workers. Up until this point, they’d been unpaid, working for just food, clothing and tobacco rations. Redundant workers sought shelter in towns like Derby, and the cemetery became more important to them, although graves continued to be unmarked.

It doesn’t look like a cemetery, does it? These Aboriginal graves at the back of the Derby Cemetery remain unidentified.

BURIALS – NO TIME TO WASTE

It’s hot in the Kimberley. A lack of mortuary refrigeration meant that burials usually happened on the same day as death. Digging a grave by hand was hard work in the hard soil. There was no on-site water supply. The oil drums that still lie in the Aboriginal cemetery were probably used to cart water to soften the ground.

Coffins were ordered from Perth and sent by steamship in sections and then assembled when they got to Derby. The Police Department held the coffins for Aboriginal burials, however Aboriginal people who died in the local ‘native hospital’ were buried in blankets.

WHERE ARE THE HEADSTONES?

The Derby Pioneer and Aboriginal Cemetery was in use for nearly 90 years, but the headstones represent only a handful of the people buried there. There are only 73 headstones but more than 500 burials recorded in the existing burial registers. There are many other graves whose names were not recorded. Most belong to Aboriginal people. A fantastic 2007 community project researched all this information and its appears on information boards at the cemetery itself. Its aim was ensure the area’s history was preserved and to make sure the Aboriginal people buried in Derby were properly commemorated. In consultation with the Aboriginal community including Nyikina Elders and Mowanjum Aboriginal community, they’ve done a wonderful job:

Project coordinator: Mandy Gadsdon.
Oral history collection: Colleen Hattersley
Historical Research: Colleen Hattersley, Kath Mills.
You’ll see clearly marked ‘white fella’ graves in Derby Cemetery, but no marked Indigenous graves.
The Derby Cemetery lacks defined graves and headstones.

 

Derby cemetery information board.
Burials were a white fella practice. The information boards at the Derby Cemetery offer a great insight into days gone by.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage.

 

Who should you call when someone dies at home? Funeral director Rick White discusses the practicalities of death.

Rick White is a former funeral director from Tamworth in north west New South Wales. He retired after decades in the funeral business but still dabbles in funerals occasionally, lending a shoulder and his expertise to family and long-time friends when needed.

I sat down with him and asked him basic questions about what we should do when someone dies.

Who should we call when someone dies in the home?

Call the police or your local doctor.

“You can be with your loved one for a few hours if that’s what you’d like. If you’re not sure about what to do, the police are very good and very understanding and they’ll ring the doctor and the funeral director.

“The first thing we need, as a funeral director, is a death certificate.” If the deceased is known to the local doctor and the doctor knows there’s a illness that has likely caused death then it’s likely they’ll supply the death certificate.

However, if the cause of death isn’t obvious, the deceased will go to the coroner.

What does the coroner do?

The coroner identifies the cause of death and if often done at the mortuary at the local hospital.

(Ed: The coroner doesn’t necessarily require a post mortem. Here’s some info from NSW but it’s similar around the country.)  

If I decide I need a funeral director, how do I find one that’s right for my family?

“Shop around and get a quote over the phone, get an idea of and a feeling for who you’re dealing with,” says Rick

“Or ask someone who may have had a funeral recently and get a recommendation.”

(Ed: I wrote a blog last year that looks further into the cost of funerals and whether you actually need to use a funeral director. Start reading from Section 3 here.)

Are funeral directors open to price negotiations?

“Let them know if you have money problems or you can’t afford anything over the top. They’re very understanding. One of the biggest costs is the coffin. The next biggest cost is the funeral director’s service fee.

“Included in that fee is the hearse, looking after the deceased person, certificate costs such as death certificates and cremation certificates if they’re going to be cremated.”

Certifying a cremation: two certificates needed

“You need a doctor to say that the person is not still alive and you need one from a general practitioner or the coroner (giving permission to cremate). And you need the closest person to the deceased or spouse to sign that (permit to cremate).” The reason for needing two certificates is because there’s obviously no going back.

(Here some more information about that. These are WA’s approvals but the paperwork is pretty similar around the country.)

Have you got any questions?

You’re welcome to leave any comments and questions on this blog and if I can’t answer them I’ll get Rick to. The answers will appear in another blog in a few weeks.

 

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan cover
The Bottom Drawer Book is your after death action plan. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit in its pages until they’re needed.

The life lessons of dying children

A South African paediatrician’s insights have attracted much attention on Twitter this weekend. Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of his terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life, and what gave it meaning. As listed on his Twitter page, here are some of the responses:

South African paediatrician Dr Alastair McAlpine (photo via Twitter)
Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of his terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life. (Photo via Twitter)

First: NONE said they wished they’d watched more TV. None said they should’ve spent more time on Facebook. None said they enjoyed fighting with others. None enjoyed hospital.

Many mentioned their pets: ‘I love Rufus, his funny bark makes me laugh.’

‘I love when Ginny snuggles up to me at night and purrs’.

‘I was happiest riding Jake on the beach.’

Many mentioned their parents, often expressing worry or concern: ‘Hope mum will be ok. She seems sad.’

‘Dad mustn’t worry. He’ll see me again soon.’

‘God will take care of my mum and dad when I’m gone’.

All of them loved ice-cream.

All of them loved books or being told stories, especially by their parents: ‘Harry Potter made me feel brave.’

‘I love stories in space!’

‘I want to be a great detective like Sherlock Holmes when I’m better!’

“Folks, read to your kids! They love it,” said Dr Alastair.

Many of Dr Alastair’s young patients wished they had spent less time worrying about what others thought of them, and valued people who just treated them ‘normally’.

‘My real friends didn’t care when my hair fell out.’

‘Jane came to visit after the surgery and didn’t even notice the scar!’

Many of them loved swimming, and the beach. ‘I made big sandcastles!’

‘Being in the sea with the waves was so exciting! My eyes didn’t even hurt!’

Almost ALL of them valued kindness above most other virtues: ‘My granny is so kind to me. She always makes me smile.’

‘Jonny gave me half his sandwich when I didn’t eat mine. That was nice.’

‘I like it when that kind nurse is here. She’s gentle. And it hurts less’.

Almost ALL of them loved people who made them laugh: ‘That magician is so silly! His pants fell down and I couldn’t stop laughing!’

‘My daddy pulls funny faces which I just love!’

‘The boy in the next bed farted! Hahaha!’

Laughter relieves pain.

Kids love their toys, and their superheroes.

‘My Princess Sophia doll is my favourite!’ ‘I love Batman!’ (All the boys love Batman).

‘I like cuddling my teddy.’

Finally, they ALL valued time with their family. Nothing was more important.

‘Mum and dad are the best!’

‘My sister always hugs me tight’

‘No one loves me like mummy loves me!’

“Take home message: Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them. These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details. Oh… and eat ice-cream,” writes Dr Alastair.

The doctor later tweeted why terminal or very sick kids like ice-cream so much.

A few reasons, he says.

a) the cold helps with the mucositis (inflammation of the mouth and gut from chemo)

b) sugar raises the pain threshold

c) ice cream is just awesome.

🍦

 

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

 

 

 

‘Coffin swapping’ discussion highlights changing views on funerals.  

Meet Maree Bolding. She’s a funeral celebrant and a passionate volunteer at the Central Victoria crematorium. Yes,  while many of her friends may volunteer at the local hospital,  Maree spends her free time at the crematorium in Bendigo, doing her bit to give the deceased a respectful and loved farewell. 

Maree Bolding stands in front of Remembrance Parks Central Victoria's cremator.
Maree Bolding stands in front of one of two cremators at Central Victoria’s crematorium. A passionate volunteer at the Bendigo facility, she says it’s a privilege to be trusted with a loved one’s final journey.

I use the term ‘loved’ because, as Maree gave me a tour of the cremation facilities, it was obvious she loves what she does and is committed to treating the deceased like they would be treated if they were still alive.

“I call them by name. I talk to them.

“I’ve been given a big responsibility to care for these people on behalf of their families,” she said.

And care for them she does. Upon leaving the crematorium there was little doubt that I wanted someone like Maree to attend to someone I cared about. She offered great care to people who could no longer speak for themselves.

Unfortunately it seems not all in the funeral industry share the same ethics.

There’s a damning allegation that has thrust Queensland’s funeral industry and lack of regulation into the spotlight and has reaffirmed the general population’s scepticism about an industry often thought of, rightly or wrongly, as deceitful and manipulative.

The Courier Mail broke the story of a coffin swap by a Qld funeral director on Jan 11.

Rockhampton funeral director is accused of ‘coffin swapping’ – taking the deceased out of the $1,700 coffin her family purchased for the funeral and then putting her in a cheap coffin for the cremation. Let me be clear here: Not only is this appalling, it is also illegal. The funeral company involved has denied any wrong doing

The story of this alleged dodgy behaviour by a small funeral business has received widespread coverage and has seen thousands of people taking to social media to voice their disgust. I’ve been following those online conversations and this is where is gets interesting.

1.      People are appalled

Overwhelmingly, people are saying how atrocious allegations of coffin-swapping are. No surprise here.

Many are saying they had always suspected such a practice was common-place. I’m not convinced of that. However, my chats with funeral directors have made it obvious that some of them believe it does happen. Interestingly on ABC Radio today, Darren Eddy from the Australian Funeral Directors Association said he’d never heard of “coffin swapping”.

2.      Distrust of the industry

Without a doubt, Facebook comments reveal a widespread and deep distrust of the funeral industry. No real surprise there either. It’s unfortunate because the industry as a whole is trying harder than ever before to be more transparent. But it only takes the odd rogue operator to render those efforts null and void.

3.      People have NO idea about the price of coffins.

Much of the online discussion revolved around the price of the coffin and why anyone would want to burn such an expensive, $1,700  coffin.  Well,  $1,700 is actually not an expensive coffin. To be honest, it’s on the cheaper side.  Many people said they don’t want to be wasteful and they’re happy to be buried in a cheap pine box. Great! Let’s just hope they tell their families their wishes for a cheaper and more environmentally conscious option.  (I’ve written The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan for that very reason.)

Hardwood coffins can easily reach the $10,000 mark. Sure, they’re beautiful but is it practical to burn or bury such expensive bits of wood that took decades to grow? Many people think it is and that’s why funeral directors offer these high-end coffins as options.

4.    People are open to the idea of rental coffins. 

Not many funeral directors offer this option but rental coffins are actually a thing.  Tobin Brothers,  for example,  offer a “chipboard inner capsule encased in a solid timber outer shell,  which is removed prior to cremation”. You might think a rental coffin might be an inexpensive option.  Wrong.  Tobin Brothers offer the option for $1,700. 

5.      Would Government regulation stop “coffin swapping”?

No. I’ve written about the confusing state of the Qld funeral regulations in a recent blog. The legislation is a quagmire and the hands-on operations of funeral directors and crematorium operators are widely unseen. We simply don’t know what happens behind closed doors.

Cemetery and crematoria infrastructure in Qld is either run by Local Government or private enterprise. There’s no consistent or over-arching regulation that keeps an eye on these. In Victoria however, crematoria are run by Trusts, with the trustees appointed by the State Government. This means there’s no real incentive or opportunity to operative unscrupulously to make a quick buck.

Does the Qld community want more State Government regulation when it comes to cremations? In this case, the online response seems to indicate that the answer is YES.

Remembrance Parks Central Victoria.
Unlike Qld, Victorian cemeteries and crematoria, like this facility in Bendigo, are run by Trusts set up by the State Government.

6. The discussion: people are talking!!

If nothing else,  this claim of coffin swapping certainly has people talking, and that’s a good thing.  Thousands of people have taken to social media and given the issue measured thought and are openly taking about what they want for their funeral and sharing their own experiences of the funeral industry. It’s revealing that the discussion about the inevitable isn’t necessarily seen as morbid these days. Times are changing and people want to be better informed. 

Where to now?

With dark stories like coffin swapping around, how can you ensure your beloved family member gets the farewell you want for them?

Start by doing your homework. Meet your funeral directors. Ask for a tour of their facilities. Do this with some mates now, instead of at a time when you’ve lost a loved one, are grieving and not making clear decisions.

Just like you’d research a bathroom renovation and get quotes, do the same with several funeral directors.  I’ve not met a funeral director yet who wouldn’t welcome a potential client’s questions.

 In Queensland there’s a voluntary Code of Conduct that aims to ensure funeral directors are transparent and ethical. Ask if they’re signatories to that Code. Also, are they members of the Australian or their state Funeral Directors Association?

While this alleged “coffin swapping” incident is horrifying, don’t let it dictate your entire view of the funeral industry. There are passionate people like Maree Bolding who consider it a privilege to care for your loved one on their final journey. I’m positive she’s not the only one.

There are many coffin and casket options to suit a wide range of budgets. Discuss with your loved ones what type of coffin you want before the time comes. That way, they won’t feel like they have to spend 10K on your casket.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

No fowl play at Mackay toy shop offering life lessons ahead of Dying To Know Day on August 8

I’m stoked to see a popular Queensland toy shop bringing the difficult subject of death to life ahead of Dying To Know Day, an annual day of action aimed at encouraging discussion of death, dying and bereavement.

Catering for people whose lives and interests aren’t all fun and games, former school teacher and owner of Let The Children Play in Mackay, Ally Blines, said dealing with grief and death is something that’s often not talked about, with devastating consequences.

“It’s dealt with behind closed doors and it needn’t be the case. We need to be open and supportive of one another during difficult times,” said Ally.

Not far from shelves stocked with colourful toys, educational games and children’s books sits a range of reference books on subjects such as dealing with grief, parenting, autism, Asperger’s and even funeral planning.

Ally thinks Dying to Know Day on August 8 is the perfect opportunity to broach the subject with family.

Launched in 2013, the D2KDay initiative by the Groundswell Project encourages people to improve their death literacy and to get informed about end of life and death care options such as dying at home, and to be better equipped to support family and friends experiencing death, dying and bereavement.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care reports that Australia has been characterised as “a death denying society where many people are reluctant to consider their own mortality and talk with their families about what their wishes are for the end of life”.

Ally was awesome when approached to stock my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.  She jumped at the chance, calling it “a fantastic resource and workbook for those keen to be organised ahead of the inevitable”.

Ally Blines at Let the Children Play toy shop in Mackay
There’s more than just toys at this Mackay toy shop. Ally Blines stocks books on grief, funeral planning, parenting, autism and Asperger’s etc.

Bereavement is another potentially difficult subject catered for at the Ally’s toy shop In Mackay.

The work of Mackay widow Deb Rae is popular. She has penned ‘Getting there – grief to peace for young widows’ when her young husband passed away. It’s a book that Ally believes resonates with so many aspects of life.

“We have elderly men who lost a wife 20 years ago turning to her words.

“And one of my own children was quite ill during their key teenage years and it was only when I read Deb’s book that I realised I had been grieving for the loss of those years and my expectations for that time, even though my child was fine and had moved on.”

“Deb’s book is mainly bought by people who are buying it either directly for a friend who has lost a partner or for themselves to help them understand that friend’s experience.”

Ally said she hopes people who walk through the doors of Let the Children Play leave not only with their children’s needs catered for, but also their own.

“It’s important we all address these kind of subjects, even though it may be a little confronting,” she said.

Dying to Know Day is a good excuse to bring up the subjects of death, dying or bereavement up with people in your life. There are lots of activities planned in many parts of the country. Check out www.dyingtoknow.org for events.

I’m speaking in Bendigo as part of a jam-packed morning of activities, including a crematorium tour. Details here.  Would love to see you there.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative, practical and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Nancy’s advice and tale of loss: a first-hand account of being left behind to sort ‘things’ out without a will.

As author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, I am privileged to have people share their real, extraordinary, and sometimes confronting and sad stories with me. With permission, here is Nancy’s:

 

“Nothing says love like making sure your end is as happy as your beginning,” says Nancy Walker.

 

In 2013 my beloved husband, Bob, succumbed to oesophageal cancer. While this did not particularly surprise either of us (he had smoked since he was 17 years of age and we received the diagnosis when he was age 72 years), it was the swiftness of his death after diagnosis – one month.

Really, one month is not nearly enough time to get one’s head wrapped around the idea of dying and certainly not the time to be making any decisions.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Each year, as I updated my Will, I would mention to Bob that it might be a good idea for him to get a Will in order.

And each year, dear Bob would say, “I don’t like to think about that, it makes me sad.”

“Do you want to know what sad is,  dear Bob?”

I will tell you what sad is. It is dying intestate (i.e. without a Will), with property in three states, four daughters from a previous marriage who want lots of money, numerous cars (some in his name, some in both our names), and two inconsolable dogs – a Corgi and a Cocker Spaniel, both of whom can look sad even at the best of times and this was nowhere close to a good time.

It is leaving your wife, or your children, or any relative, holding the bag when you die without any directives, without a Will, and without an idea of what you wanted to have happen in the event you go ahead. That, dear man, is sad.

“My life was literally a bad country western song in the making.”

Fortunately Bob had said all along that he wanted to be cremated. That was literally the only thing that went right.  Relatives called asking to come clean out Bob’s things (the day after he died!) and reporting that Bob wanted them to have this or that. A list from Bob would have been ever so handy.

Shortly after Bob died, the Corgi passed away from “broken heart syndrome”, to be followed in short order by the Cocker Spaniel, who in all fairness was 16 years old and had embraced dementia with open paws. My life was literally a bad country western song in the making.

Bob’s estate

It took nine months and more paper than I could ever conceive of to put Bob’s estate to rest, as it were. The four daughters from the previous marriage were shocked not to receive the big payout they had all envisioned, properties were sold, cars re-titled (for enormous sums of money and paper), and boxes of memories shipped off to relatives. By the time it was all done, I was exhausted and everyone in the engineering firm where I work was convinced or at least entertaining the idea that they should have a Will from my mournful whining each day.

 

Nancy and her second husband Matt. Her first husband Bob died in 2013.
Nancy Walker hopes her story can encourage others to prepare a will and communicate their wishes to their family. Her first husband Bob died aged 72 in 2013, leaving behind the difficult job of sorting his estate. Nancy has since remarried to Matt (pictured), a farmer in Oregon. It’s great to see their smiles.

Married again, will preparation, and who gets the stuffed fish?

Fast forward a bit and I have remarried a non-smoking surveyor who farms at night. Whereas Bob could no more talk about death (because that that awful “Will” thing would come up again), Matt can. We have new Wills being drafted and what’s more we have discussed what is in the Wills with his grown children, because no one needs the surprise of being named Executor when dear old Dad expires. And there are lists, attached to the Wills! Yes, that awful stuffed fish with the pine cone in its mouth really is going to the eldest grandchild to remember their dearly departed Gran, and no give backs.

Mum wrote her own obituary

My mother passed away on March 23rd of this year after 93 glorious years. I knew before she went that I would be the Executor and what she wanted to see happen. We wrote her obituary together. The only thing she did not plan for was a remembrance card I sent to her friends and family with a shortened obit and some lovely pictures of mother. She did not want a church service or memorial since she didn’t believe in God and so that ‘closure’ moment was lacking. But for those who remain, the card is a lovely way to keep her close.

She had her death organized down to the last period. Bless her.

Nancy’s plea: “Never assume your loved ones know what you want to happen.”

The gist of this is — if you can be organised enough to get your materials together to do your taxes, you should at least do the same for your death. And especially if it will take a Will to ensure your wishes are carried out. The stress of leaving your grieving partner or child the full-time job of moving your estate through the legal system is a horrible gift. And you certainly do not want to be remembered as that derelict relative who didn’t leave a Will or instructions and the government took half the assets and left the rest to any relatives they could find.

With that in mind, I have purchased six of your books to send to my brothers, my niece, my nephew, as well as my step-son and step-daughter. Nothing says love like making sure your end is as happy as your beginning.

 

Nancy Walker.

 

Nancy and her second husband Matt live on a 30 acre cropping farm in Oregon with 15 cows, 4 cats, 3 dogs and the chickens from across the road. She wrote to me and shared her story after reading an earlier blog of mine (the one about me showing up at the wrong funeral). I am grateful to Nancy for allowing me to share her story in the hope it may help others.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative, practical and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here. (The book can be posted overseas for an additional $6 – contact me for details) 

 

A burial shroud is laid out a Death Doula workshop in Brisbane.

Listening to the dying and giving them a voice too: The emerging role of the Death Doula

There are two types of people in this world: Those who accept they and the people they love will die, and those who don’t.

It’s the latter who don’t want to talk about the inevitable and who label any such discussion as morbid.

But, like it or not, death happens, sometimes too soon, sometimes not soon enough.

Selling my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan at the local market soon after its release, I had a woman look me in the eye, scowl and matter-of-factly tell me it was a “stupid idea”. And off she went.

I felt sad that anyone in her life who wanted to have a discussion about death or their terminal illness or their funeral plans wouldn’t be able to. They would be abruptly and rudely shot down in flames.

Thankfully there are people very open to the idea of talking about death and dying. These are the death doulas.

I recently attended a death doula workshop where, for two days, 15 like-minded people learned about the role of a death doula, death mid-wife or end-of-life consultant.

Some were planning to become death doulas while others, like me, just wanted to learn about the emerging service being offered to the dying and/or their families. Death doulas have been around for years, but they’re only now becoming known in more conventional circles.

So, what is a death doula?

First and foremost, it’s someone comfortable talking about death and dying.

It’s someone who bridges the gap between the dying and their families or partners. Sometimes it’s someone who simply helps the dying person to die – holding their hand, explaining things, offering assurances, or simply being there if there is no-one else is.

You see, it’s a challenging and confronting time when someone is close to death. It’s an emotional time that can sometimes see common sense go out the window. Grief fuels sometimes unhelpful emotions and actions, family arguments and confusion. And it’s not uncommon for the wants and needs of the patient to become secondary to the wants and fears of family members.

How often does a mother try to please her children? Let’s face it – when people are nearing death they don’t feel like eating or drinking. They don’t necessarily want their family sitting beside them either, staring and waiting for the next breath to come. Yet the loving daughter pleads for their mum to eat so as to stay strong, hoping for a miracle. But when is enough? When is it time to let go? There comes a time when it simply “is time to die” and the circle of life ends. A death doula can remind family of this. A death doula can offer a balanced eye and hand during these times, offering spiritual care, psychological and social support. They can be someone to talk with.

It’s a paid role. Death doulas are usually hired by the family of the person who is nearing their end of life, but the doula’s responsibility remains with the dying. They’re paid an hourly rate, or can be hired on daily or weekly terms.

A doulas after-death role

If they haven’t already, when the time comes death doulas an also help organise home vigils and home funerals. (Yes, you don’t have to use a funeral director, and the body can be taken home from the hospital.) Doulas can help facilitate discussions with funeral directors and they can ensure that grief-stricken partners aren’t taken advantage of when making funeral decisions.

Awareness of end-of-life consultants or death doulas isn’t widespread and some in the medical profession are yet to be convinced of their worth. But as our population continues to age at an ever-increasing rate, hospitals and nursing homes come under more pressure, and medical staff become busier, the role of those death doulas willing to sit with and reassure the dying, to listen to and speak for the dying will become even more important.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author. The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan is available online in Australia for $18.95. Order here.

I shared my death doula training experience with these amazing people. (I’m 4th from the right) 

The entrance to Centenary Memorial Gardens and Crematorium

Funeral faux pas: I showed up to the wrong funeral yesterday

Thankfully I realised I was at the wrong funeral before entering the chapel on the outskirts of Brisbane. I quickly checked my diary and saw Alan’s funeral was at 2pm. It was midday. I jumped in my car and made my getaway, thanking my lucky stars that A. I didn’t have to sit through the wrong funeral (I would have felt like a funeral fraud!), and B. I hadn’t missed Alan’s funeral.

It seems I’m not alone in attending the wrong funeral. Sharing my embarrassment on social media, friends and Twitter followers shared their experiences too.

Twitter replies to my confession that I showed up at the wrong funeral
People shared their funeral tales wth me on Twitter.

A friend wrote: “When my brother died, following the official service, he was taken to the cemetery to be buried with our dad. One of our cousins was running late to the graveside and bolted in and took his place, just as they were carrying the coffin from the car to the grave. Except it was the wrong funeral!!! He’d stop at the first one as there were two that day and he was in haste. Our brother used to do funny things like that so it was actually extremely hilarious to us. The other family were quite confused!”

On Twitter, Damon says he was backpacking in rural Ireland when he found it odd that the town he was in was very quiet and pubs empty,  except for one.  “Pub was buzzing, free food too.” It was an hour before he realised he’d crashed a wake.

“😧 Locals very understanding,” he writes. 

Raelene from WA tells me one of her relatives went to the wrong funeral:  “My aunt did same re my father. Funerals 300kms apart. She said she ‘didn’t know anyone’! Wonder why!”

Rachel responded from Geelong: “I drove 2.5 hours a day early for one once.”

And my friend’s dad said (*warning – Dad joke): “I once went to my funeral and, in shock, I woke up. Realising I was still here, I decided to go back to sleep.”

BTW – While Alan’s funeral was very sad (they always are when people die relatively young and unexpectedly), I found myself chuckling a couple of times. The Priest was from Brisbane Boys College (BBC) so he was obviously used to engaging with youth using a bit of wit. Alan liked a party and the Priest reminded the gathering there were no hangovers in heaven. There was a downside though. He said there was no drunkeness either – you can drink as much as you like, enjoying the great taste, but not feel the alcoholic effects. Hmmm. I enjoy the tipsy feeling from a couple of champagnes in the sun as much as anybody so I figure I’m not ready for heaven just yet, but just in case, I have a copy of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan”.

Advance care plans and Facebook legacy contacts: new additions to The Bottom Drawer Book’s second edition

It’s become increasingly obvious there are many people who are keen to be a prepared for the inevitable, even though that may not be any time soon. They also want to take the pressure off their loved ones when the time comes. Western society typically labels any  talk about death and funerals ‘morbid’ but, thankfully, that antiquated idea is slowly changing.  You see, the first edition of The Bottom Drawer Book has sold out and I get emails from people telling me how it has helped them.

“Our 22 year old son is dying and while we have generally discussed his wishes, this book will make things easier. I have ordered 4 books for all the family so we can all sit down and fill in our books together so that our beautifully amazing son won’t be the only one making the hard decisions and we can make it light-hearted and fun. Thank you for making a difficult discussion so much easier.”

I’m not going to lie. I cried when I got that email. Humbled almost beyond comprehension, it made me so glad I followed through on a crazy idea to write an after death action plan.

Three years later and the second edition is out. There are only a couple of changes.

Advance care plans

I’ve included a section on Living Wills. In other words, these are simply your plans for your future medical care.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners estimates one in four of us will not be able to make medical care decisions as we near our end of life. That’s where what’s called ‘advance care plans’ come in. It’s a list of your wishes, including who you want to talk to your doctors on your behalf, if you’re too out of it to make any sense. Your plan can outline what procedures you want or don’t want eg. do you want to be resuscitated? Do you want feeding tubes removed? It can outline where you’d prefer to die and even if you want your dog or cat with you.

While advance care plans aren’t necessarily legally binding they will help your doctors and family make health care decisions if you can’t. Each Australian state and territory have different regulations and terminology when it comes to care plans and health directives so ask your GP or local health care about them. There’s also some good information online. This website HERE has links to each state’s documents. There’s also info about appointing an enduring power of attorney or enduring guardian. The person or people you nominate for this job can make financial, lifestyle and health decisions on your behalf if you’re not well enough too.

Facebook legacy contacts

The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book also includes some updated information from Facebook about what happens to your Facebook page if you die. As mentioned in the first edition, you can choose to have your page deleted or memorialised. Having your page memorialised means your page becomes somewhere your friends can share memories and leave comment. Facebook has now also introduced the ability for you to nominate a legacy contact who takes control of parts of your Facebook page. That person won’t be able to see your messages or delete any of your content or friends, but they can post updates (such as funeral information), change your profile picture and accept friend requests.

We live so much of our life online these days that when we die there’s an awful lot of information, photos, blogs, videos etc that will be left orbiting cyber space. You have the ability to manage what happens to all that stuff. All it takes is a little preparation, and that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan comes in. It costs $18.95 which includes delivery within Australia.

Boxes containing The Bottom Drawer Book

Hanging coffins of Sagoda, Phillipines

Umbrellas over graves and coffins hanging from cliffs.

Two of my friends visited cemeteries during their recent overseas Christmas holidays.

In the Phillipines, the Hanging Coffins of Sagoda caught Steve’s interest.

Nobody really knows the reason these coffins hang from the side of limestone cliffs in Echo Valley within the Mountain Province. There’s speculation that it either gets them closer to heaven/paradise, protects them from animals and floods or even that it saves space so as not to use up valuable agricultural land.

It’s thought the local Igorot, the local tribe, have been laying their loved ones to rest this way for 2,000 years. It’s a practice that has been done in China too, for well over 2,000 years.

This burial custom still takes place these days, though it’s only some of the elderly who choose this method of burial. Visitors to the area walk through a more conventional cemetery on the hike to the cliffs.

The coffins are in a range of sizes, with the small ones said to be filled with bodies that are in the foetal position; the theory being that those people leave the world as they entered it. Hanging next to some of the coffins are wooden chairs. It’s on those chairs the deceased sat as they were prepared for burial.

It’s hard to fathom just how those heavy coffins are put in place. Some are also laid in nearby caves. Eventually the coffins disintegrate. People visiting the site are encouraged not to stand under the cliffs, just in case some bits and pieces fall from the cliffs.

Umbrellas shade graves at Nusa Lembongan
Graves are shaded at Nusa Lembongan, south east of Bali
The graves my friend Charlotte visited on Nusa Lembongan are more conventional but just as peaceful. They’re also an example of the way ancestors are cared for and tradition upheld. The island is south east of Bali and is fast-becoming a popular tourist destination because of its stunning beaches and bays, snorkelling and great natural attractions.

Many of the headstones there are shaded by colourful parasols. This is to keep the hot, tropical sun off the dead. Protecting graves from the elements is not uncommon. I have seen graves in Botswana, Africa shaded with iron and cloth covers and decorated covers over Aboriginal graves in some of Australia’s more remote communities.

You can always tell a lot about a culture, a town or a community by the way they treat their dead, can’t you?