A memorial party? What will I wear?

My guest blogger is Ken Roberts, a retired nurse, artist, writer and renovator. A country town nurse for many decades, he’s seen his fair share of death and small town funerals. But a recent invitation to a ‘memorial party’ left him bemused. What is it? What do I wear?

This is Ken’s memorial party experience:

After the recent passing of a dear friend I was very grateful to be included in her farewell in these times of limited numbers of mourners. This was held in the city and was something that I had never experienced before: a memorial party.

Looking back, my experience with funerals was ordinary for me but maybe not for others. I attended a catholic primary school and hymn singing and going to Mass during the school week was common. It was usual that at the regular requiem masses for funerals, we would all march over, very orderly in double file, climb the stairs to the choir and merrily sing the hymns with a watchful Nun on guard to stop any shenanigans. Depending on where you were sitting you would glimpse the coffin and sometimes hear people crying. It was all very matter of fact.

Growing up in a small country town in those days, practices took a long time to change. As I grew, and coming from a large extended family, there were infrequent funerals to attend of relatives. They were always at a Church and usually followed by a boozy wake at some family member’s home.

Changing times: a non-church funeral

Nothing much changed until the local funeral director set up a new office which included a chapel. Some locals slowly began to use that option. It seemed very “modern” to be out of a church and in a building that had once housed the local video shop. I must be quite traditional because I wasn’t sure how I felt about this change. I think the fact that the funeral directors were locals and they understood people’s needs and they catered for what they wanted so very well made it an easier and more accepting transition.

When my mother died and I was helping to organise the funeral, we went the traditional route-church, cemetery and wake in the church hall. My parents were the only practising Catholics on either side of the family and so we honoured that but, keeping it in mind, we tried to make it as simple and less religious as possible. Unfortunately the local Priest had other ideas and he proceeded to include lots of scriptures, incense and holy water blessings! We were not happy.

The turning point: a short and sweet funeral for Dad, away from the church

As a result of this when a few years later my father passed away, we took a stand and bravely by-passed the church and held his service in the funeral director’s chapel with our much loved female funeral director celebrant reading the eulogy and running the no-nonsense down to earth service. Dad was a plain and simple man and wouldn’t have wanted a fuss. He had a plain raw pine coffin with rope handles. (It was good enough for the last Pope!) My sister, a former florist, made the flowers for the top of the coffin with natives from her garden intertwined with rusty barbed wire. (Dad used to make things from barbed wire.)

Somebody noted that it was one of the shortest funerals they had been to, 20 minutes tops. It was still a touching send-off but it was edited down to the essentials that we wanted. We went to another church hall for various reasons and had a simple traditional wake catered by the local church ladies.

I think that sparked a turning point for me in opening up my former conservative ideas about how to farewell people. I could see that as time progressed and people were less religious and less church-going, they wanted something more reflective of who they were in their former lives as an appropriate send off.

The Memorial Party

This was yet again another “new” step that I was interested to see. I wasn’t sure if you had to dress up or go casual, I didn’t know. I ended up doing nice casual, slacks rather than jeans with a jacket and coloured shirt. I needn’t have worried, it was a very casual no-fuss affair, which suited my friend’s former lifestyle. It was held in a function room at a suburban city hotel and, because of Covid restrictions, there were under 50 attending.

The family had farewelled her body at a private cremation a few days before. There was a guest book and a photo display and a brochure. I wondered if there would be speeches but apart from when a relative thanked everyone for attending and said some brief words, that was it.

I was glad that her adult children didn’t force themselves to speak because we all knew how upset they were. I was speaking to the three of them at one point and we all ended up both laughing and crying together. There was plenty of food and drink and time to reflect and chat.

I was amazed that three hours passed so very quickly. I thought it was a lovely, relaxed and genuine way to honour her life. It was loose, unstructured and free of any formality at all. She would have even said that was too much fuss. Her spirit was there in the words spoken between those who loved her.

It was a party, not a funeral

I think that this type of farewell was a very suitable “new” alternative and one that will be surely adapted in the future to suit each individual. It’s even gone beyond calling it a “funeral” because it actually was more of a party. I have no idea how traditions will develop but there is no closing of the floodgates and returning to days of yesteryear, times of mourning clothes and certain “standards” being kept.

Nowadays word of somebody’s passing is usually announced and spread via social media. As a child I remember mum used to listen to the wireless at 10 past 8 every morning when they would announce the local deaths and funerals. That was the social media of that day. Times and traditions will continue to change to suit the times we live in, there is no going back….

Ken Roberts (Central Gippsland artist, writer, renovator)

Some people plan themed funerals where there is a dress code, often bright colours. Illustration by Phil Judd for The Bottom Drawer Book.
Funerals are changing, often becoming a celebration of life. Illustration by Phil Judd for The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan.

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, 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. It is available in Australia for $29.95. The eBook version is available for AU$15.99 on Kobo, Apple book, Google Books and Booktopia.

The Bottom Drawer Book is now available as an eBook on Google Play, Kobo, Booktopia and Apple Books for $15.99
The Bottom Drawer Book is now available as an eBook on Google Play, Kobo, Booktopia and Apple Books for $15.99

Four sons killed in war and a pull-down blind to hide their names

There are six Whitelaws on the ‘Honor Roll’ in the community hall in Briagolong, a small town in Victoria’s central Gippsland. The roll lists 62 local men who fought in the Great War.

The Whitelaws were brothers. Sadly, three didn’t come home from the war; another was wounded and died from ongoing complications a few years after returning to Australia. Two survived.

Honour rolls are found in every country hall in Australia; a reminder of the huge contribution rural men made to the war effort. But this honour roll in Briagolong is different. Above it is a frame for a pull-down blind. I noticed it as I was taking part in the local ukulele strum session. My mind soon wandered from Bad Moon Rising to the six Whitelaw brothers.

I noticed the Honor Roll during a ukulele class in the Briagolong Hall.

I wanted to find out more about the Whitelaws and why the blind frame was above the honour roll so I met with Dennis Browne from the Briagolong RSL. Dennis’ grandfather, Lionel Whitelaw was one of six brothers who served in the Great War.

Lionel married Martha (Mattie) Eyre Hood in 1917. (Dennis tells me Martha was the first white woman born at Lake Eyre.) Lionel and Martha had twin sons who they named after two of their uncles killed in action, Ivan and Robert. Sadly the twins died in infancy. Martha died of tuberculosis in 1933. Lionel died a few months later (According to the Gippsland Heritage Journal, number 30.)

Dennis Browne is the grandson of Lionel and Martha Whitelaw.

The Whitelaws on the Honour Roll

There are six Whitelaws honoured in Briagolong. Four of the eight Whitelaw brothers, Angus, Ken, Bob, and Ivan, made the supreme sacrifice during World War I. Lionel and Donald were wounded. There are no known graves for Bob, Angus and Ivan.

Left to right: Bob, Ivan and Ken Whitelaw
  • Angus (24th Battalion, killed in action in 1916 at Mouquet Farm at Pozieres in France, aged 17).
  • Robert (21st Battalion, killed in 1917 at Bullecourt aged 32),
  • Ivan (12th Battalion, killed near Meteren in 1918, aged 24),
  • Kenneth was wounded in 1918, returned to Australia, but died of his wounds in 1922.
  • Lionel was wounded and returned to Australia in 1916. He died in 1933 – his family believe his death was due to his war service.
  • Don was wounded and gassed at Messines in 1918 and returned to Australia. (Sadly, his toddler daughter Pearl, and Annie’s first granddaughter, died after drinking petrol.)
Don, Rob, Ivan, Lionel, Angus and Ken via: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242674264

A pull-down blind was used to protect a grieving mother from the sight of the names of her four sons who made the supreme sacrifice.

Dennis Browne confirmed local folklore that a blind was fixed above the honour board to hide the names of his grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers. The blind was pulled down when Annie Whitelaw, the boys’ mother, was near the building. It was to protect her from the sight of the names of her sons who never came home. Dennis told me the original, dusty blind has recently been found in a store room.

It’s reported that “every year Annie would sit crying in her horse and jinker watching the Anzac Day march from a distance, because she could not bear to go any closer”.

Annie Whitelaw, the mother of nine children, six of which served in the Great War, rests in the Briagolong Cemetery. Despite losing five brothers, Annie and husband Bob’s youngest son Kelvin enlisted in the RAAF in 1941. According to the Gippsland Heritage Journal, it looks like he didn’t serve overseas. Annie died in 1927. He husband died in 1945, aged 91, and is apparently buried in Annie’s grave.

On her headstone is a quote by Conan Doyle: “Happy is she who can die with the thought that in the hour of her country’s greatest need she gave her utmost.”

I felt uncomfortable when reading that on her gravestone. It will take a lot to convince me that Annie Whitelaw was happy about the sacrifice her sons made in the Great War.

Lest We Forget.

Anzac Day 2021: If you’d like to pay your respects to the Whitelaw brothers and others who served, the dawn service gets underway at 6am at Briagolong’s Anzac Park, followed by a free gunfire breakfast at the RSL Log Cabin. The main service is at 0930 at Anzac Park, followed by morning tea at the RSL Log Cabin. Two-up starts at 2.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a death literacy advocate, 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. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). 

The photo that changed it all: a funeral, a pact and an outlandish dress.

At the start of most books there’s a dedication page. It includes the name or names of people or things who have inspired the author.

Here’s what appears on The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan‘s dedication page. These names, the people and their work, hold a special significance for me.

The dedications at the front of The Bottom Drawer Book include Scottish soldier Private Kevin Elliott.

It’s been 10 years since Private Kevin Elliott was killed in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. He was on foot patrol when he was killed in an explosion caused by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Babaji district, Helmand province. He was 24 when he died on 31 August 2009.

Private Kevin Elliott of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

I learned about Pte Elliott’s death when I saw a photograph in an online media article. The image stopped me and my tracks and I found myself staring at it for ages. I clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it. The incredible photograph by Jeff J Mitchell said so much but left me wanting to know more.

Sobbing in a Scottish cemetery was Barry Delaney, a mate of Pte Elliott. The grief in the photo is palpable and the dress is hard to miss. You see, the year before the friends had made a pact. One would wear an outlandish dress to the funeral of the other. It was a novel but effective way those two friends approached a really tough subject. They had a conversation about their mortality, they expressed their fears, THEY TALKED ABOUT IT, and they drank vodka. And this really resonated with me (the conversation, not so much the vodka).

Inspired by the strength and friendship between these two mates, I delved deeper into the story and eventually contacted Pte Elliott’s family.

In subsequent correspondence with his grandmother, I learned Pte Elliott had also told his family what he wanted if he was killed on active service. He told them he wanted to be buried wearing the jersey of his favourite football team and white socks. His wishes were followed.

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND – SEPTEMBER 15: Barry Delaney kneels weeping as mourners gather at Barnhill Cemetery in Dundee, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Best mates

“Kev was like my brother – we would have done anything for each other,” Barry Delaney told the Daily Record newspaper.

We said that whoever died first, the other one had to wear a pink dress with green spots to the funeral – and we shook on it. It was mainly his idea and the more I think about it, I’m sure Kevin knew something was going to happen.

Barry couldn’t find a pink dress with green spots so he chose a green one and added pink socks to make the outfit look sillier.

He told the newspaper: “It’s what Kev would have wanted.”

Barry Delaney as the coffin of Private Elliott arrives at Barnhill Cemetery.
(Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

Who was Private Kevin Elliott?

By all accounts he was full of mischief, a bit of a lad. His commanding officer called him a “lovable rogue”.

He didn’t really want to do that tour of Afghanistan and was due to quit the army. He’d already served in Iraq and Northern Ireland, but he didn’t want to let his mates down so he agreed to do one more tour.

Captain Harry Gladstone said, “I remember talking to him shortly before we left Inverness to deploy to Afghanistan in March. He was dressed in civilian clothes, having been de-kitted, and about to walk out of Fort George back to civilian life when he decided to sign back on. “

“When asked why he signed up again he simply said, ‘I didn’t want to miss the boys’.”

A video made by Pte Elliott’s family after his death.
Via Youtube theSandy2005

Full of cheek

Private Peter Fenton, Fire Support Group gunner called him cheeky:

But you couldn’t get annoyed with him. He was always able to get a laugh in any situation. He would bend over backwards to make sure everyone was all right. “He was hilarious, confident, loyal, and above all charming.

Private Kyle Russell, Fire Support Group gunner, said:

A story typical of Kev was on having a room inspection in Fort George, the Platoon Sergeant opened the fridge to see it full of beer. He told Kev to get rid of it; Kev proceeded to drink the contents of the fridge in front of him and continued for the rest of the night.

“Kev was kind and generous – he lived for the moment. If you asked for a fag, he threw you a packet of twenty. He was a terrible singer but my fondest memory of him was sitting in the back of a vehicle screaming out the words to ‘I got you babe’ at the top of his voice.”

Lance Corporal Ian Bruce, Fire Support Group gunner, said that Kev would stir people up:

Kev was a poser – he loved his body – but underneath he cared deeply about the other people in the platoon. He would try and wind people up but you couldn’t get annoyed with him, he was too nice. He wanted to be active the entire time.

He loved being in Afghanistan and had booked a holiday to Australia for our return. He also wanted a pair of white socks to walk down Dundee High Street pulling the birds! We will all miss him badly.

As part of the incredible Fallen Heroes Project, this hand drawn portrait of Pte Kevin Elliott was given to his family by artist Michael G. Reagan. Michael has drawn thousands and thousands of portraits of soldiers, free of charge.  He says, “Each portrait is intended to show our love and respect for these Heroes and their families”.

The legacy

The photo of Barry Delaney in that lime green dress planted a seed in me that, several years later, sprouted The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan. I wanted others to be like Pte Elliott and Barry Delaney. I wanted people to have that tough conversation about their mortality and funeral plans, in whatever form that may take.

With the fantastic help of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, I was able to get in touch with Pte Elliott’s family. I wanted them to know that their son, grandson, brother, uncle and nephew had inspired something positive and I wanted them to know that, even though I was a complete stranger on the other side of the world, I was thinking of him.

Five years after Pte Elliott’s death, I sent the family my book. Written on the dedication page was “Private Kevin Elliott”. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do so I asked the advice of the army’s bereavement officer. He gave a positive response.

The response

I foolishly opened the card and read it on the steps of the Tamworth Post Office. It was so beautiful, I openly cried.

The card sent to me in 2014 by Pte Elliott’s grandmother is one of my most treasured possessions.

I didn’t really expect a reply but Pte Elliott’s grandmother, Joan T Humphreys, sent me a delightful thank you card.

An anti-war campaigner, Joan has been a vocal member of the Stop the War campaign.

While I will keep most of the contents of that card to myself, including the list of novel things that Pte Elliott wanted put in his coffin, I was so glad to know his family appreciated what I’d done.

Mrs Humphreys wrote, “Your book is delightful. Although it is a sombre subject, myself and many of my family and friends laughed many times during reading it.

“Thank you for sending the book and thank you for honouring Kevin by your dedication to him,” she wrote.

One of many

Private Kevin Elliott wasn’t the only soldier killed in that ambush on 31 August 2009. Fellow Black Watchman Sergeant Stuart Millar also died. Newly married and with a young daughter, he was 40 years old.

As you know, thousands upon thousands of people have been killed at war and their families live with their loss every single day.

Let’s not forget them. Lest we forget.

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 quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $29.95,and as an eBook for $15.99 (Apple Books, Google Books, Booktopia and Kobo).

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

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.

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. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.

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 $24.95, including postage. You can buy it here. (The book can be posted overseas for an additional AU$9 – 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.

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. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.

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

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 $24.95 which includes delivery within Australia.

Boxes containing The Bottom Drawer Book

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the 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 $24.95, including postage. You can buy it here.

Lisa Herbert is an author and journalist.

Christmas can suck sometimes

When the sun comes up tomorrow it’ll be Christmas. And Christmas can suck. And not just because you’re forced to spend time with your judgemental and bossy sister-in-law, spend days in the kitchen, or spend money on unneeded presents you’ve bought simply because you’re ‘supposed’ to.

Christmas sucks when there is someone missing.

Cemeteries around the country are preparing for their busiest days of the year. For many, a church service and a present-giving morning are soon followed by a trip to a cemetery to visit the person they’re missing most this Christmas.

Then the afternoon may be spent visiting friends and having to don a Christmas hat and be merry, even though it’s the last thing you feel like being. But you put on your brave face because you don’t want to put a dampener on the day for your friends or your children.

Even though you’re surrounded by wonderful people who are great company, there’s still a piece of your Christmas spirit that has long left the building. You smile and nod, feign amusement at the dodgy Christmas cracker jokes, make small talk, and stare at the clock hoping it will all be over soon.

If you’re hosting a Christmas gathering and there’s someone like that in your house or backyard, let them be. Don’t be the one who says, in front of the crowd, “You’re quiet today! What’s wrong? C’mon, lighten up. It’s Christmas!”

For heaven’s sake, don’t be that person. Instead, give your quietly-grieving guest a big welcoming hug, an acknowledging smile, a hand squeeze and a chair in the corner next to the person they’re most comfortable with.  While they may not be the life of the party, your party may be offering them a reminder that, while missing a loved one sucks at Christmas, life goes on and spending time with caring family and friends isn’t all bad. It just takes getting used to.

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 $24.95, including postage. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$9 postage.)

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.