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’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 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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

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.

Headstone symbol reveals convict past

Convict 51158 lies buried in Australia’s southern-most cemetery, with an indication of his crime etched on his headstone. The 1882 grave of Richard Mott is the earliest in the remote Cockle Creek cemetery, 150km south of Hobart.

Richard Mott’s grave (which includes a footstone) is in Cockle Creek cemetery, now part of Southwest National Park in Tasmania. His daughter Ellen’s grave sits beside his.

Convicted of breaking into a warehouse and committing larceny in 1844, he was sentenced to 10 years transportation. Richard had previous convictions for stealing three fletches of bacon and breaking a machine for which he had served twelve months.

On his headstone, there is a machinery cog and an emblem of the French Royal Family (the fleur-de-lis). The cog could have something to do with the broken machinery. The headstone was paid for by his French son-in-law which could be the reason behind the fleur-de-lis.

A machinery cog and the fleur-de-lis are symbols on Richard Mott’s headstone.

Richard was sent to Australia to serve his 10 year sentence on board the Maria Somes. The 1844 sea journey to Hobart took almost three months! There were 263 other convicts on board.

Convict records give a detailed description of Richard:

  • “Height [without shoes]: 5’8
  • Complexion: Ruddy
  • Head: Long
  • Hair: Light brown
  • Whiskers: none
  • Eyebrows: brown
  • Eyes: hazel
  • Nose: long
  • Mouth: medium
  • Chin: medium double
  • Protestant
  • Can read a little
  • Farm labourer who can plough
  • Stout made
  • scars on 3rd and 4th fingers of left hand.

Upon arrival he spent the first eighteen months on Maria Island on Tasmania’s west coast. According to government records he committed numerous minor offences, including being “drunk” on October 15, 1852, fine 5/-.

He had been married when he left England’s shores, leaving behind a wife and six children. Even though his sentence was ten years, convicts weren’t given return passage so they were stuck in Australia after they’d served their time. Some might call that a life sentence.

 The practice of remarrying was common among convicts who were unlikely ever to return to the United Kingdom, even though they were still married to another wife.  He was “certified free” on January 6, 1854, having previously made application to marry Rosanna Murphy, which was approved the year prior.  They married in St Joseph’s Church, Macquarie Street, Hobart on June 28, 1855 and had five children.

They were among the first settlers in the Cockle Creek area where Richard worked as a timber worker (a sawyer).

Mott Murder?

On 15 May 1882 Richard was found dead under mysterious circumstances. He was 74.

The following appeared in The Mercury on May 19, 1882:
“SUSPECTED MURDER.- A man named Mott died suddenly a few days ago at Recherche Bay. At first foul play was suspected, and the police went to the length of arresting a man on suspicion of murder; but by a telegram received yesterday, we learn that now  Superintendent Lambert is of opinion that death was caused by heart disease or apoplexy.
An inquest will, of course, be held.

The man arrested and then released was in fact his son-in-law.

Richard was one of the earliest burials in the Cockle Creek cemetery.  Wife Rosanna is also buried there as are two of their children – Ellen who died at age 19 years in a house fire, and Richard Jr. who lived in Catamaran with his wife Alice Doherty, and worked in a local mill.

It was about 8 degrees and dreary in the middle of the day when I visited Richard Mott’s grave. Imagine living and raising a large family in such a cold, remote place?!

Other cemetery residents

Bridget Strong and her husband William and their nine children. She was in her 50s when she died in the 1920s. Her grave at Cockle Creek is surrounded by an iron fence but there is no headstone.
Glimpses of Cockle Creek itself behind two unmarked graves in the Cockle Creek cemetery.
Thomas and Alice Field had four children but only William is also buried alongside Alice, but his grave is not marked. He was cutting timber for the coal mine and was killed when tree fell on him.
The Cockle Creek cemetery contains 12 marked graves and at least 10 others which are no longer marked. The earliest burials date from the early 1880s and the latest from the 1930s. Imagine raising children in such a remote, cold location?

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. Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is the author of The Bottom Drawer Book.

Funeral trains: All aboard at Sydney’s Mortuary Station

No, it’s not something out of a Harry Potter novel. It’s actually something very close to home… especially if you live in Sydney. Mortuary Station is a reminder of how funerals used to be. It serves as an example of the role of Government in the provision of burial services to the expanding nineteenth century city of Sydney.

Coffins and mourners got on the “funeral train” at Mortuary Station and were transported to cemeteries such as Rookwood further down the line.

The former Mortuary Station building is “aesthetically significant as a fine example of Gothic inspired design attributed to James Barnet, a style adopted for its religious associations in the construction of a funeral station”. Photo: John Wall.

Opened in 1869, the ornate Gothic Mortuary Station is heritage listed. It was renamed Regent Station at some stage and still stands at Chippendale, not far from Central Station, which was once the site of Sydney’s second cemetery. (Central Station was once the Devonshire Street Cemetery, the final resting place of 30,000 people. It closed in 1890.)

Historical significance

Mortuary Station 1872.
Pickering, Charles Percy (NSW Government Printing Office) , State Library of NSW

“The Mortuary Station demonstrates the removal of burial grounds to the outer suburbs of the city and the commitment of the government of the time to allow access to those cemeteries and a greater vision of providing a modern necropolis for the Sydney region. It is associated with attitudes to disposal of the dead during Victorian times in Australia, and in particular with the funeral trains which ran regularly between the city and Rookwood. It remains as the only substantial building structure associated with the operational workings of the original Sydney rail yard. “(NSW Department of Environment)

Not often open to the public, Mortuary Station is a hidden time capsule in the heart of Sydney. Photo: John Wall

According to the NSW Department of Environment, “The building was used as the terminus for funeral trains only until 1938. When the rail funeral business gave way to road corteges and motor hearses, rail services were restricted to weekends and finally curtailed. On April 3 1948, trains were withdrawn and the cemetery line closed. Trains left from the main terminus platforms over the final ten years of the funeral rail service. There being no call for the rail hearse, the Mortuary Station ceased to function in the capacity of its original purpose. 

In 1981 the former State Rail Authority decided to restore the Mortuary Station.
Photo: John Wall

“From 14 March 1938, Mortuary Station was used for the consignment of horses and dogs, and its name was changed to Regent Street Station. From February 1950 it was used as a parcels dispatch, at which time catenary wires were placed inside the rail pavilion and (apparently at this same time) the easternmost arches at either end were removed of ornament on the inner face to allow for the passage of larger rail vehicles.”

Crowds flocked to the Mortuary Station. Transport Heritage Expo 2019 this long weekend, including a former colleague of mine, John Wall. He was nice enough to allow us to see his photos.

Ornate symbolism

There is much symbolism at Mortuary Station. This sandstone ornamental etching depicts an hourglass and metaphorical wings, a symbol that human existence is fleeting, and that the “sands of time” will run out for all of us.

The ‘winged hourglass’ is a common eighteenth century symbol overseas. It’s not often seen here in Australia so I’m thrilled to see one preserved on the walls of Mortuary Station.
Photo: John Wall
It looks like something you’d see when taking the Hogwarts Express on platform 9 3/4, doesn’t it? Photo: John Wall
Mortuary Station is only remaining example of a Victorian railway funerary station in Australia. She’s gorgeous! Photo: John Wall

Mortuary Station is open this long weekend in Sydney (10/6/19)as part of the Transport Heritage Expo.

The old and the new. Photo: John Hall

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

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.

More Aussie deaths this winter to boost Invocare’s profits

Australia’s largest funeral provider has today told shareholders that things are looking up in 2019. Yes, death numbers are on the rise!

Yay, the flu!

Yay, a cold winter!

In a performance update to the Australian stock exchange, Invocare, says “the soft market conditions had started to improve, with the number of deaths beginning to revert to the long-term trend”.

What’s the long-term trend? This chart taken from today’s presentation to shareholders shows it clearly. Look at the solid orange line. They were last year’s deaths. The doted line is the five year average which is what Invocare shareholders will be pleased to know is returning.

More deaths = more revenue. Yay!

Invocare (IVC) owns many, many, many funeral businesses, cemeteries and crematoria across Australia, Singapore and New Zealand. The best known funeral brands are owned by this huge company – Simplicity Funerals, White Lady, Guardian. Here’s a list but this is growing all the time. Here are the company’s most recent acquisitions. You’ll note many of these were small town, family businesses:

What does this tell us?

Invocare’s statement to the ASX and its presentation to its shareholders tells us there’s money in funerals. BIG MONEY. While Invocare’s profits were down last year because of fewer deaths (damn that warm winter!) and some business acquisitions and renovations, the company made more than $41 MILLION profit. These are the highlights provided to shareholders today:

Be prepared. Do your homework now.

Funeral directors have a very important job. They provide a great service to us when we’re at our most vulnerable, when we’re confused and when we’re grieving. No-one can deny the significance of their role.

But funerals are big business too. Do your homework, be prepared, shop around. Perhaps even visit your local funeral director and ask questions before you need their services. Get to know them. Get to know what services they provide and for what cost. Understand what services you need and don’t need. Demand transparency. For example, do you really need the funeral director to print the order of proceedings for $250? I’m pretty sure one of your family can whip it up on their laptop and print 50 copies at home for $30.

With a little knowledge and understanding, when the time does finally come, you and your loved ones will be prepared and the process of organising a funeral (and paying for it!) won’t be so confronting.

Tell your family what you want

Give permission for your family to buy a cheap coffin and spend the money they save on a holiday or lots of booze for the wake. Let them know you don’t want a big fuss. Or tell them that you do! It’s your funeral. Have it your way. The key is simply communication.

Books like The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan can help with this conversation. It’s a colourful and informative workbook that lets you write down what kind of a funeral you want, if you want to be cremated or buried, what music you’d like played, whether you want the church involved, and even what you’d like to wear at your own funeral. (Personally, I will come back and haunt anyone who buries me wearing heels!)

The book is an Australian publication and sells online for $18.95 delivered. More information are thebottomdrawerbook.com.au.

The Bottom Drawer Book author Lisa Herbert.

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

What a visit to my local mosque taught me about Muslim funeral rituals.

It wasn’t what I was expected when I arrived at my local mosque. Beside the entrance to the mosque was what looked like a mortuary. A regular visitor to funeral homes and mortuaries, it wasn’t a new sight for me. But what was a mortuary doing at a mosque?

The cleansing room at the Oxley Mosque.

During an open day at my local mosque yesterday (30 March), hundreds of visitors were shown all aspects of the mosque and had all their questions about Islam answered. Yes, we were even shown what I thought was a mortuary. It was described to me as “the cleansing room”. I’ve since learned it’s proper name is the Ghusl room.

When a Muslim dies, his or her own community is responsible for the funeral process. It is their duty. Cremation isn’t allowed in Islam. And time is of the essence as Muslims are buried as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24 hours.

The process involves three steps: washing and shrouding the body (Ghusl and Kaffan), the Funeral prayer (Janazah Salah), and the burial itself (Al Daffan).

Washing of the body takes place on a stainless steel table of sorts. Not all mosques have a ‘cleansing room’, but many do.

Just as the living cleanse themselves physically before entering a mosque to pray (washing their extremities, their face, their mouth), the cleansing ritual of the deceased (called Janaza) is an intrinsic part of Islamic tradition.

Ghusl procedure

Only people who are adult Muslims can wash the deceased. And it’s stipulated that they must be an honest and trustworthy person. The person doing the washing must be of the same gender as the deceased. For a child, either men or women can carry out the Ghusl.

The washing ritual has many components but I’ll just stick to the basics here.

The washer cleans the body with water and soap, starting with the head (hair, face and beard in men), then the upper right side of the body and then the left side. After that, the lower right side is washed before washing the lower left.

The hair of a deceased woman is washed and braided in three braids and placed behind her back.

The washing of the body is done at least three times. If needed, more washes are carried out in odd numbers eg. five, seven. The final wash uses camphor or perfumed water.

The body is then towel dried and the shrouding begins.

The Kaffan (shrouding)

The deceased is then wrapped in several sheets of material (three for males, five for females), most often cotton. Just like the washing process contains ritual, so does the process of shrouding. Each of the sheets has a special name and use.

Once the bodies have been wrapped, the sheets are then tied with pieces of cloth or rope. There’s one tied above the head, one under the feet and two after the body.

The Funeral Prayer

As a non-Muslim I’m not even going to pretend I know enough about Salatul Janazah to write about it. All I know is that the deceased is prayed for after the body has been washed and shrouded. No praying takes place during cleansing process itself.

The body or bodies are placed in front of the person leading the prayer.

It’s preferable that this is done outside the Mosque or the Musallah (prayer room). The prayer is said silently by the congregation and there are certain times of the day that the prayer should not be said (eg. from sunrise until the sun is fully risen).

Muslims aren’t buried in coffins

So why are there coffins in the Ghusl room?

In Australia, all bodies are required to enter cemetery grounds in a coffin of sorts. A body in a coffin is also easier to handle and transport than just a shrouded body. So the coffins I saw have been re-used countless times to take the deceased to a cemetery where the body is then removed from the casket for burial.

Burial.

This is where things get hands on. The body is put into the grave by the deceased’s male relatives.

According to Queensland’s Muslim Funeral Services the body should enter the grave from the direction of where the feet will be (ie. from the rear of the grave). And the body should rest on its right hand side (supported by sand, for example) so the deceased’s face will face towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia (technically it faces the Qiblah – the direction of the sacred shrine of the Ka’bah in Mecca). Once in the grave, the ties or ropes around the head and feet can be untied.

The body is then covered with wood or big stones so that soil will not be directly put onto the body when the grave is filled in.

In the photo below you’ll note the ladder and the aluminium grave boards that are placed around a freshly dug grave to provide a safe and secure foundation for graveside services. I took this photo in the new Muslim section in Brisbane’s Mt Gravatt Cemetery. The ladder is obviously used to get the men out of the 1.7 metre grave after they’ve laid their relative in the grave.

According to Islamic teachings, Muslim graves are not to be extravagant. It is permissible to put up a small headstone of sign on the grave to identify it.

While Christian graves often point east to west, Muslim graves run north to south to allow the deceased to face Qiblah – the direction of the Kaaba (the sacred building at Mecca).

Muslim graves running north to south in the foreground, Christian graves facing east in the background. Mt Gravatt cemetery, Brisbane.
One of two Muslim sections in the Mt Gravatt Cemetery in Brisbane.

A WORD OF THANKS

I’d like to thank those who welcomed me so enthusiastically to the Oxley Mosque yesterday and answered my questions. Two weeks ago, the day after the Christchurch shootings, I had laid flowers at this same mosque. Subsequently the mosque opened its doors to the community as a way of saying thank you for its support during such a terrible time, and to teach people about Islam.

Just like death, the more we learn about it, the more accepting of it we become.


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$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Author and journalist Lisa Herbert wants to make death and dying less confronting for all.

Cemetery symbolism: what do the shapes, engravings, and symbols on headstones mean?

Branches, flowers, animals, urns, hands, letters, crosses and a myriad of symbols decorate graves across the world. But what are they and what do they mean?

Let’s look at some I’ve seen on my cemetery wanderings.

Angel dropping flowers – Menindee, NSW

The grave of a young boy and girl who drowned in Menindee in 1835.

In Menindee, a town on the Darling River in NSW, an angel drop flowers onto the grave of young siblings Patricia and Edward (Ted) Power. The 9 and 7-years-olds were taken to the river by their mother and governess to paddle but quickly got out of their depth and encountered a quick current and 18 inches of weeds. Their bodies were found almost six hours later. They were the only children of Mr and Mrs Pierce Power of Haythorpe Station.

The angel is a symbol of spirituality and it’s said the hand pointing downward symbolises sudden death or mortality. Perhaps the flowers are blessings being spread. Angels with wings symbolise the ascent of souls into heaven.

Obelisk – Bundarra, NSW

An obelisk in Bundarra cemetery, NSW.

Sadly there are eight children between the ages of 6 weeks and 10 years and 22 year old Laura Baker memorialised on this Anglican monument. The children were the sons and daughter of George and Mary Baker. The died over a 19 year period between 1868 and 1887. Originally seen at Egyptian temples, the obelisk is a common monument all over the world. When erected in cemeteries, they signify eternal life.

Broken chain, finger pointing down – Coolgardie WA

Robert Foweraker’s headstone (left) includes a hand pointing downwards and a broken chain, Coolgardie Cemetery, WA Goldfields.

Robert Foweraker died of typhoid fever aged 24 in 1896, a common cause of the death among gold prospectors at the time. The broken chain symbolises the death of a family member. The finger pointing down is said to represent mortality or sudden death and is the hand of God reaching down for the soul. The pointing hand and the chain are often used separately.

The Calvary Cross – Toowong Qld

The Calvary Cross – Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane.

The Calvary or Latin Cross is the plainest of the crosses you’ll see in a cemetery. You’ll notice there are three blocks on the base. These represent the climb Christ made to Calvary where he was crucified. The three steps are said to be a reminder of faith, hope and charity. Some say the also represent the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.

The Celtic Cross – Toowong, Qld

The Celtic Cross after sunset at Toowong cemtery, Brisbane.

Celtic crosses have their arms enclosed in a circle. They were most often used by those of Irish heritage. The circle (ring or nimbus) symbolises eternity. Many believe St Patrick devised the first Celtic Cross, combining a Christian cross and the symbol of the sun which was worshiped by pagans. There are two theories behind the inclusion of the sun. One is that it was used by St Patrick to encourage pagans to Christianity. The other is that cross envelopes the sun to show that Christ is superior to the pagan sun gods.

The Eastern Cross – Toowong, Qld

Several Eastern Crosses – Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane.

This cross is the symbol of the Eastern Orthodox religion. Orthodox crosses have three bars. is that They symbolise the cross Christ was crucified on.
The most popular theory about its meaning is that the top bar is the title board – the sign above Jesus’ head, the middle bar is the bar on which Christ’s hands were nailed, and the bottom, sloping bar is the footrest.

The Greek Cross – Menzies, WA

This headstone in the WA Goldfield’s town of Menzies depicts the Greek Cross and clasped hands.

There are two obvious symbols on this headstone. The cross’ arms are of equal length in what’s called a Greek Cross. It’s connected to eastern European cultures.

Clasped hands.

In the middle of this cross is the ‘clasped hands’ symbol. This can appear in a few forms. If you look at the cuffs, you’ll note the hand on the left has a frilled blouse cuff so that represent a woman. The right cuff is a male and the male is holding the woman’s hand. It represents a marriage or relationship and the person who died holds the hand of the other. The headstone’s inscription explains the relationship between the husband and wife.

The Fleuree Cross – Wilcannia, NSW

Several Fleuree crosses and two Calvary crosses at Wilcannia Cemetery, east of Broken Hill, NSW. (Note the cross with what looks like a dollar sign. See I.H.S below)

Also known as the Gothic cross, the Fleuree cross has three arms with floral or flared ends depicting three petals (the fleur-de-lis), said to resemble the French lily. The petals are said to represent the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity.

The Rock of Ages – Karrakatta, WA

The Rock of Ages, Karrakatta Cemetery, Perth.

This is based on the original drawing that accompanied a hymn called ‘Rock of Ages’ written by Anglican Reverend Augustus Toplady in 1763. A couple of variations include a woman hanging to an anchor or pillar.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

Ivy – Bundarra, NSW

Ivy bordering the headstone of Daniel and Mary Ann Baker, Bundarra Cemetery, NSW northern tablelands.

I had to look twice at the border of Daniel and Mary Ann Baker’s grave. Is this a grapevine or ivy? Grapes and vines are an obvious reference to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist or when wine is sipped during communion. I think this headstone however is bordered by ivy, symbolising undying affection and fidelity.

Doves and olive branch – Bundarra, NSW

A dove and olive branch on 1888 grave of 41yo Mary Darby at Bundarra on the NSW northern tablelands.

The dove and olive branch aren’t necessarily always seen together. Doves are a well known symbol of love and peace. It also symbolises purity, resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Olive branches are representative of peace and hope. It’s said a dove carried an olive branch to Noah’s Ark as a sign of hope and to show the water level was falling.

Clothed urn – Wallabadah, NSW

Anything draped indicates sorrow or mourning. Wallabadah Cemetery, NSW.

An urn usually represents the soul or mortality. The cloth draped over it symbolises mourning.

I.H.S – Laidley, NSW

These three letters from the Greek alphabet spell out the first half of ‘Jesus’.
Picture by Taniah McMillan. Laidley Cemetery, Queensland.

Letters from the Greek alphabet are not uncommon on headstones. Here Iota, Eta and Sigma spell out the first three letters for ‘Jesus’. In some cases, the letters are overlaid (see earlier photo of several crosses in Wilcannia).

Sea shells – Lombadina, WA

Graves in the remote Dampier Peninsula community of Lombadina are littered with shells.

Shells are often used to decorate the graves of Aboriginals and Islanders.
I took this photo at the cemetery in the remote Lombadina community, north of Broome. The local Bardi people are ‘salt water people’, people who have a great affinity for the sea. For thousands of years the ocean has been a source of food and spiritual significance for the Bardi people.

Shells also appear on non-indigenous graves, Gum Flat cemetery, NSW.

One of the popular theories about sea shells on graves originates in Greek mythology where Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was born from sea foam and then was carried to shore in a sea shell. Regarded by some as a source of life, the hard shell protects a soft, living being. This can be an analogy for someone who’s died: While a human body may be devoid of life, the soul continues to live.

“Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and fertility her counterpart, the Roman goddess Venus. The myths say she was born from sea foam and then reached the shores of the earth in a sea shell. The shell was regarded by pagans as a source of life. Though the outside of a shell is hard and inanimate, the inside is soft and alive which can be an analogy for a human who passes away. The body’s dead shell is only a covering for the soul that is alive within.”

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$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Author and journalist Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer and blogger.

Digital death: Facebook takes memorial accounts a step further if you die.

Facebook remains ahead of the pack when it comes to managing the social media accounts of those who have died.

With well over 30 million dead people still on Facebook (and predictions there will soon be more dead people on Facebook than those alive), Facebook has today added an extra layer to its memorial pages. I’ll get to that soon.

First, let’s go back to basics.

What happens to your Facebook page if you die?

When you die a family member or your executor can request your Facebook page be either deleted or memorialised. They will have to provide proof to Facebook that you have died, most likely with a death certificate.

Having your page memorialised means your friends can still post on your wall and the page can then become a place of mourning or remembrance. (But that’s only possible if your privacy settings allowed them to post on your wall in the first place.) Your page will look similar to what it always has, though the word ‘remembering’ will be displayed next to your name.

A memorialised page offers Facebook friends a place of remembrance.

No-one will be able to log into your memorialised account and, importantly, your memorial Facebook page won’t show up in the ‘people you may know’ section, nor will your friends get a reminder about your birthday.  

Legacy contacts: Giving a trusted friend a bit of control

Four years ago Facebook introduced what’s called Legacy Contacts. This is when you nominate a friend to manage parts of your account if you die. Don’t worry, they can’t access your messages in Facebook messenger and they can’t delete any unflattering photos of themselves that may be on your page.

Your Facebook Legacy Contact can pin a post on your page eg. your funeral details. They can also change your profile and cover photos and respond to any new friend requests.

How you nominate your Legacy Contact seems to differ depending on whether you’re on your desktop or using the App on your phone, but it’s not too hard to find.

On my desktop this morning I’ve clicked on ‘Settings’, then ‘General’, then ‘manage account’.

On my android phone, I’ve gone to ‘Settings and Privacy’, then’ Settings’ then ‘Personal Information’, and then ‘manage account’.

Legacy contacts are easy to set up. Picture: Facebook News

More information about Legacy Contacts HERE.

The latest: Tributes

Today Facebook has given your Facebook friends and your Legacy Contact a bit more power to add content to your memorialised Facebook page.

Users have started received notices about Facebook tributes.

Tributes is a space on memorialised profiles where your Facebook friends and family can post stories, commemorate your birthday, and share memories. Facebook has just begun rolling out this feature so you might not see it on all memorialised profiles yet.

Posts made after the date your page was memorialised are now included in the tributes section. The introduction of this tributes section seems to have come about in a bid to separate the timeline posts you made while you were alive and the posts that have since been added by your mates after you passed away.

Facebooks says, “We do our best to separate tribute posts from timeline posts based on the info we’re given”.

It also gives someone (your Legacy Contact) the ability to control what’s being said on your timeline – just in case cousin Jerry
gets really pissed one night and posts what he REALLY thinks about you and your family and the affair you had with his sister.

Your nominated Legacy Contact can change who can see and who can post tributes. They can also delete tribute posts or remove any tags of you that someone else has posted.

Decision time

Sure, you’re probably not going to die anytime soon, but it’s not going to hurt to get a little prepared. So, you have to decide what you want done with your Facebook page when you die.

Once you’ve decided TELL YOUR PARTNER OR A FAMILY MEMBER or you can write what you want in The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan, written by yours truly. It’s a colourful read with lots of practical information and room for you to write your funeral wishes and life’s reflections.

The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan allows you to pen your funeral wishes and life’s reflections.

So get to it. What do you want to happen to your Facebook page when you die?

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is the author of funeral planning guide ‘The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan.”

A taxi driver’s murder, executions and the missing graves: Darwin’s fascinating Fannie Bay gaol

It was a crime that angered locals. A popular taxi driver has been murdered, his body left in scrub on the outskirts of Darwin. 500 people attended his funeral.

42-year-old George Grantham had been working late and he rang his wife to tell her he’d be home for supper. He’d had a few wins on the Tennant Creek races earlier in the week so it’s estimated he was carrying between £500 and £600 the night of 17 April 1952.

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George Grantham’s grave is in Darwin’s Gardens Cemetery.

His murderers, young Czech immigrants Jerry Koci (20yo) and John Novotny (19yo), shot their victim in the head with a rifle they’d wrapped in a pair of jeans. Once they dragged his out of the green taxi they shot him again twice to make sure he was dead. Their plan was to go back to Europe to play music so they needed money and a car to get to Melbourne.

Police described the murder as “the most brutal in Territory history“.

Koci and Novotny were picked up police in Queensland and eventually made full confessions.  They were tried and sentenced death. Their execution date was kept secret because of the constant threat of locals lynching the pair.

The execution

The gallows were specifically constructed for the two men’s hanging in the gaol’s infirmary. Justice was delivered quickly back then. Construction of the gallows was underway just two months after their crime.

The pit was more than 4 m long, 2 m wide and nearly 4 m deep and required extensive excavation. The work was made more difficult because of the age of the infirmary building (built in 1887).

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The work of digging their graves was given to some Malay Pearl divers who had been imprisoned for, among other things, willfully damaging the Paspaley lugger (Pearling boat). The digging proved a difficult task because of the solid rock.

At 8 on the morning of 7th August 1952, less than four months after the murder of George Grantham, Jerry Koci and John Novotny were executed together at Fannie Bay Gaol, side by side. They’d been given 24 hours notice of their fate. Anecdotal evidence suggest that their bodies were buried away from the marked sites at the end of the infirmary building. Incredibly their final resting place within the gaol grounds isn’t known.

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The initials of the killers are displayed on the outside of the infirmary, just metres from the gallows inside, but the location of their graves is a mystery.

VISITING THE GAOL: If you’re in Darwin the Fannie Bay Goal is a great way to spend an hour or so. The Police Museum and Historical Society with the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory have done a great job documenting the gaol’s history.

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

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 funeral planning guide.

Lost remains of Wolston Park Mental Asylum patients buried in trenches.

Small boxes buried at Goodna Cemetery contained exhumed hospital patients, according to former hospital worker.

A retired carpenter and hospital worker holds an important piece of the puzzle in the hunt for the remains of more than 2,000 patients of the notorious Wolston Park Mental Asylum in Brisbane’s west.

While a teenage apprentice, Mr Ferg Brindley made hundreds of small wooden boxes that, he says, were used to house the remains of patients who were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery in the late 1940s.

About 50,000 people were hospitalised in the asylum in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s.  In the late 1940s, bodies in the asylum’s third cemetery were exhumed over a four-year period to make way for the development of the new Repatriation Pavilion for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.

Newspaper reports say 2,800 bodies were removed, though cemetery records have only accounted for around 200 of those which were moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery.

Qld Times article 29/11/46 - Mass Exhumation of Bodies

A 1946 newspaper article mentions the exhumation of 2800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to “improve the site of a new block being erected for servicemen suffering war effects”.In response to my research efforts to find those remains, and a subsequent blog, I’ve been in touch with Mr Ferg Brindley, who worked at the Asylum from 1948 to 1953 as a teenager.

Making boxes to fit shin bones

Now in his late 80s and living in the western Queensland town of Roma, Mr Brindley remembers the cemetery being exhumed by a hospital employee and patients. (Mr Brindley’s recollection is corroborated by Hansard’s Parliamentary record-keeping. On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Queensland Parliament the “work of exhumation is being performed by an employee of the hospital, assisted by four border-line patients who volunteered to assist to do the work”.)

As an apprentice carpenter, it was his job to make plywood boxes for the storage of each of the grave’s remains. Mr Brindley made “hundreds of plywood boxes, stained black, for the remains”.

“They were designed to enclose bones, so the size was about 2 feet long (to fit a shin bone), by 10 inches by 10 inches. That’s only an educated guess. They were rectangular boxes, not coffin-shaped.”

Mr Brindley can’t recall how many boxes were made but says before he started work at the asylum, there were others before him making the boxes.

“The work was quite a production line.”

He said it was his job to make the framework while an inmate put the plywood on, and the painter did the staining.

Burying remains in trenches

Mr Brindley says the rectangular boxes were buried in trenches in the nearby Goodna Cemetery, about five kilometres away.

“They were re-sited in the Goodna cemetery to the left of the shelter shed.”

“Long trenches were dug by an employee and inmates. I don’t know if any identification was placed on the boxes.”

Goodna Cemetery

The Goodna Cemetery, west of Brisbane, is one of the oldest in Queensland and is one of the few that remains community run, with a Trust overseeing its operation.

The Trust secretary is Ipswich Councillor Paul Tully who wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s recollections.

However Cnr Tully says another former hospital worker (who became an alderman of the Ipswich City Council in later years) gave him details about the exhumations which took place in the late 1940s.

“Those who had been buried for fewer than 30 years were exhumed and re-buried at the Goodna Cemetery with a full and proper burial, with a Minister of Religion and two witnesses in attendance. These are all recorded in the official burial register.

“They were individually buried along with their original headstones. The burial area is towards the middle of the cemetery,” wrote Cnr Tully in response to my query about the possibility that hundreds of small rectangular boxes were buried in trenches at the Goodna Cemetery.

Playing with a skull

Ferg Brindley’s father was a warden at the hospital. Growing up in the nearby suburb of Goodna, Ferg Brindley remembers swimming in Woogaroo Creek, near the site of the Asylum’s original cemetery which was later abandoned because its proximity to the creek and river and subsequent regular flooding.

“The early cemetery was parallel to the creek to the left of the bridge (now gone),” recalls Mr Brindley.

“This is where we swam as kids. Some kids had a skull.

“Work on removing this cemetery was done in the early 1940s. The area became a vegetable garden. I have no way of knowing, but I believe the bodies are still there, and just the head stones were removed.”

The Asylum’s first cemetery is now the site of the Wolston Park Golf Club, a very scenic and peaceful space that is home to hundreds of kangaroos.

Golf
The Wolston Park Golf Club is now a popular spot for kangaroos and golfers alike.

Commenting on my earlier blog (Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients), ‘David’ tells me “the golf club has had numerous sonar sessions through the place to make sure there are no remains left along the bank and indeed most of the course”.

“The course and its surroundings have been checked off by the historical society as well, although in recent times like the 2011 floods (and even the 74 floods) when the clubhouse itself went 6 feet under, it’s sad to think what could have been displaced from the site.”

There were at least three cemeteries at the hospital over the years; two of which were moved to make room for hospital wards. The exhumations of the 1940s weren’t the only ones in the Mental Hospital’s history.

An article in the Brisbane Courier of June 22 1911 says “following upon the arrangement for the erection of the two new wards it has been found necessary to remove the old asylum cemetery, and the remains of 198 patients have been taken up, enclosed in new coffins, and transferred to a new cemetery”.

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery which was closed in 1945 to improve the outlook from the new Repatriation Hospital which was opened on 26 Jan 1948.

So the mystery remains…

WHAT WE KNOW:

Records show there were 200 patient re-interments at Goodna Cemetery. The records show and Cnr Tully says those 200 received full burials.

Newpaper reports and Parliamentary records claim thousands of hospital patients were exhumed between 1945 and 1948.

A former worker says he made hundreds of small boxes for the exhumed remains which were then buried in trenches at Goodna Cemetery.

The Goodna Cemetery Trust wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s claims.

So … where are the remains? Your guess is as good as mine. I’d like to know your thoughts.

Cement grave markers from Brisbane Mental Hospital are part of a memorial at Goodna Cemetery.
Numbers are etched into markers which stand in rows at Goodna Cemetery. The markers originally stood over graves in the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery, less than six kilometres away.  The highest number on the grave markers is 2,300.

If you have any information that may be able to shed light on the hospital’s cemeteries and the location of the remains of patients you’re welcome to contact me via  Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au or leave a comment on this blog.

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. You can buy here. Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead, giving them an important voice from the grave.

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.

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.

Goldrush murder: Assassinated Afghani cameleer rests in outback WA cemetery.

If dehydration, typhoid, a mine collapse and alcoholism didn’t get you, an assassin might.

In the back corner of  a large cemetery in the goldrush town of Coolgardie, about six hours from Perth, sits the grave of a man who was shot in the back as he prayed.

The headstone reads: “Tagh Mahomed who died by the hand of an assassin at Coolgardie Jan 10 1896 aged 37 years. His end was peace.”

Tagh Mahomet was an Afghani cameleer and businessman. Camels and their handlers played a vital role in the outback at the time, carrying supplies to sheep and cattle stations and goldfields. Tagh and his brother Faiz were local merchants and were prominent in civic affairs. They were the state’s largest camel owners.

Tagh Mahomet
Tagh Mahomet, 1890s. Image: State Library of Western Australia 186P

Tagh was shot by a fellow Muslim in a mosque on Mount Eva, on the eastern outskirts of Coolgardie. There are differing accounts of why Goulam Mahomet killed Tagh. Some believe the death was caused by ongoing feuding factions back home in Afghanistan. Goulam Mahomet claimed that Tagh has threatened him. Goulam Mahomet was hanged for the murder of Tagh at Fremantle Prison.

The Muslim section of Coolgardie Cemetery is in the back left hand corner.

Coolgardie Cemetery is a large goldfields cemetery. While the current population is under 1,000, during the goldrush, Coolgardie was WA’s third largest town, with a bustling street filled with grand hotels and even a stock exchange with 25 stock brokers!

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. 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 $24.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The grape-ful dead: A wine with body fit for a funeral.

A grave is usually where a dead body lies, but not this grave. This grave is full-bodied, alcoholic and tasty and, like the green funeral movement, it’s working towards becoming as natural as possible.

I stumbled across GilGraves wine in central Victoria, not far from where it’s grown, and loved the simplicity of its label and the way it’s made.  It’s perfect for a ‘death over dinner‘ scenario or perhaps an upcoming Halloween party. And if you’re unsure about having that third glass of wine perhaps the label might help solve your dilemma: “Life is not a dress rehearsal!”

GilGraves is an organic wine grown between Bendigo and Heathcote is central Victoria.
Putting the cask into casket.  This wine label reads “Life is not a dress rehearsal”. GilGraves is an organic wine grown between Bendigo and Heathcote in central Victoria.

Ken Gilchrist’s vineyard is at Axedale, near Bendigo, where he grows four grape varieties with his wife Kaye Graves. (Hence the GilGraves name). Developing the vineyard in 2011, GilGraves now has 2,550 vines.

Ken and Kaye produce what’s called “low intervention” or natural wine. Their grapes are grown in an organic vineyard and during the wine-making process nothing is added except for a bit of sulphur just prior to bottling.

“So what you’re tasting is basically just the fruit, rather than oak or additives that are usually introduced into wine. It’s not wine you would cellar, it’s wine you open and enjoy!” he said.

“It’s going back to the early wine-making practices of the French, Italian and Spanish centuries ago when they didn’t have any chemical additives.”

Growing grapes organically isn’t without its challenges. Ken works hard to control any mildew without chemicals and grazes Dorper sheep among the vines to keep to keep any weeds in check.

More than a fad.

Back-to-basics wine-making has only emerged in Australia in recent years and Ken believes conservative wine critics have slowly come around to the idea of natural wines, realising it’s not just a fad.

He said it’s the young people who are driving demand for the emerging low intervention wine market because they take a real interest in the origins of the food and drink they’re consuming.

Ken Gilchrist holds a bottle of GilGraves Shiraz.
Ken Gilchrist hopes to increase his wine production from the two tonnes of grapes he grew last year (1,600 bottles) to 10-12 tonne when his vineyard matures. That’s around 9,000 bottles of wine.  He says because GilGraves wine is natural and doesn’t contain any preservatives it’s best to drink it within a couple of years of purchasing.

So, just as there’s a growing demand for a more natural funeral where no embalming chemicals are put into the body or lacquers and glues used to make the coffin, there’s also an increasing demand for simpler and natural wines.  It seems Australians are keen to get back to basics. And that’s worth raising a glass to! Cheers!

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 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.

“Killed by a blow from a whale”: The tragedy of the Kelly family. 

One son drowned,  one son died via a whale blow, four of their siblings didn’t see their first birthday, and another died when she was just 14. That was the fate of the seven Kelly children. 

The Kelly tomb in Hobart’s first cemetery tells an intriguing yet devastating tale of the extraordinarily difficult way of life in Australia’s pioneering days.  

Hobart Town was one of the great whaling ports of the  southern hemisphere.
Hobart Town was one of the great whaling ports of the  southern hemisphere. James Kelly, who died in a whaling accident, is remembered in the family tomb in Hobart.

The children’s father,  James Kelly, lived to be 66 but, despite being very successful, his latter years must have been a lonely existence. Not only did he lose all of his children, his wife Elizabeth died when she was 33. Described by historians as an “energetic explorer who circumnavigated Tasmania in an open 5-oared whaling boat, James Kelly named Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast. A skilled seaman and successful whaling entrepreneur, Kelly became pilot and harbourmaster for the Derwent in 1819”.

The Kelly tomb in Hobart's St David's Park.
The nine members of the Kelly family are remembered on the four sides of the Kelly tomb in Hobart’s St David’s Park which was Hobart’s first cemetery.

Thomas Kelly's tomb inscription
Thomas Kelly died in a boating accident on the Derwent River, one year after his brother was killed by a whale. 

Elizabeth had lost five children by the time she died in 1831, aged 33.
Elizabeth had lost five children by the time she died in 1831, aged 33.

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 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.

Eddie Mason from Scone repairs broken headstones.

The volunteer headstone repairer: Eddie Mason’s cemetery passion

Spending days working hard and alone in a cemetery may not be everyone’s idea of fun but, for Eddie Mason, it’s a passion and a favourite past-time.

As I wandered through one of Scone’s many cemeteries I noticed Eddie tending a grave. He was wearing a tool belt and moved backwards and forwards around the broken headstone.

Eddie Mason from Scone repairs broken headstones.
While I usually visit cemeteries to learn about those buried there, every now and again I meet someone above ground who is just as interesting. Eddie Mason volunteers his time to repair headstones in Hunter Valley cemeteries.

Eddie Mason spends much of his spare time fixing headstones in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, particularly at Scone’s old Anglican cemetery. And a lot need fixing there.

Developed on black soil farming land in the mid-1800s, the cemetery regularly gets inundated with water and the earth moves considerably. That’s not ideal for a graveyard and the evidence lies in cracked headstones, crooked graves and toppled monuments. Visitors also have to be careful not to trip in one of the many dips on the cemetery grounds.

Wonky monuments and broken headstones at Scone Cemetery.
The black soil of Scone cracks and undulates depending on the season, leading to grave movements and damage. Irrigation from neighbouring farmland seeps into the cemetery and it floods when the rains come.

A Scone local and with ancestors arriving on the First Fleet, Eddie has found lots of his own family members in the cemetery. But he hasn’t been able to locate the grave of his great grandmother who, at age 92, was the ‘oldest lady in the town’.

“She used to live at the other end of Kelly St. It’s the Coles carpark now. She used to watch everyone. She knew everything about the town, they tell me. ”

Like so many of Australia’s older cemeteries, there are many unidentified or unmarked graves. I’ve visited several cemeteries that have been subject to ‘clean ups’ over the years and have had historic markers and headstones or footstones removed, usually to make mowing and cemetery maintenance easier.

Eddie’s search for Rebecca Eveleigh’s grave is not over though, even turning to satellite images of the cemetery to identify burial plots.

“I found seven Eveleighs I didn’t even know where buried here,” he said.

Little Elsie

Eddie’s current project is that of the grave of little Elsie Maud Ball. Next week it will have been 129 years since she died. She was one year and nine months when she died in 1888. Her headstone has broken off its base and has cracked in half.

Elsie Maud Ball's grave at Scone's old Anglican cemetery is 129 years old.
Elsie Ball’s headstone is being repaired by Eddie Mason, who volunteers his time to fix historic graves.

Eddie said it’s often the graves of children that are most neglected.

“There’s a lot of children’s graves everywhere I go and they’re the ones that get ignored the most, probably because it’s painful for the families at the time.”

His own family experienced that grief. Eddie’s great aunt buried her young son in the cemetery.

“When he died they left Scone all together and never came back. They went to Tamworth.”

Hard work but rewarding

Eddie said he gets a lot of enjoyment from piecing damaged headstones back together, but admits it can be hard work.

“I dig up the headstone’s sunken bases and if I can level it I can put the headstone back on then and it’ll hold it.”

He points to a big headstone about 10 metres away. He’d dug the base out in the rain which softened the ground.

“That took all day to get that out of the ground. I had a crowbar and everything. It was raining then. But Elsie’s, which I did last week, it’s (the ground) so hard.”

The repaired grave of Percy Nicholson and Louis Nicholson in Scone's Anglican cemetery.
When repairing a grave, Eddie Mason first digs sunken base out of the hard ground. He levels the base and is the able to fix the headstone. It took a day in the rain for Eddie to dig the base of this grave at Scone’s old Anglican cemetery out of the ground.

Like much of New South Wales, Scone hasn’t had good rain this year and it’s causing the black soil to dry out and crack. Having visited the cemetery many times over the years, Eddie’s able to gauge the season by looking at the cracks in the ground.

“Usually my great grandfather George Eveleigh gets cracks right out the front and they even opened up his grave last time. But once it rains the soils shuts up again.”

“So I say ‘how are you going, George?’” Eddie chuckles.

 

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 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 century-old gravestone of Joshua and Clara Bowd has been repaired by Eddie Mason.
The century-old gravestone of Joshua and Clara Bowd has been repaired by Eddie Mason. The heavy marble headstone was broken into six parts after falling from its base.

 

Are you sure you want to die in Queensland? Getting the facts on funerals.

Dealing with a death in the family is hard. Trying to make sense of Queensland’s death-care and funeral rules and regulations is pretty difficult too because it’s all a bit of a confusing mess.

Ahead of Dying to Know Day on August 8, a day to bring to life conversations about death, dying and bereavement, I’ve spent days trawling through Queensland Government legislation, calling councils, chatting with cemetery operators and funeral directors, contacting hospitals and even visiting my local cop shop.

Here’s what you need to know about funerals and burying dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan*.

(*Joan is a made-up person; a little feisty grandmother who always wore floral dresses, swore a lot, enjoyed gardening, drove an old Corolla and drank cheap whiskey.)

1. Qld’s legislation regarding death care, funerals and cemeteries is a confusing mess.

Queensland doesn’t even have stand-alone legislation governing burials, cemeteries or funerals. There are more than a dozen Acts that make small mentions of them here and there but even combined they don’t provide a lot of guidance. Unlike most of the other states, Queensland has a confusing web of rules, regulations and blaring omissions. The Law Reform Commission attempted to work through some of those in its Review of the Law in Relation to the Disposal of a Dead Body  in 2011 and recommended lots of changes to Queensland laws and regulations but none of that has come to fruition.

There used to be a Cemeteries Act but that was repealed in the mid-1990s with the intention of introducing fabulous and thorough legislation soon after. But it all got too hard and cemetery and burial responsibilities were hand-balled to Local Government. While local councils have done a good job initiating their own local laws and managing this stuff, inconsistencies remain between local government areas.

2. Signing up to Queensland’s Funeral Industry Code of Conduct is voluntary.

Funeral directors around the country are working hard to redeem themselves after some pretty damning reports and inquiries in which the industry was accused of a lack of transparency and taking advantage of vulnerable people. These days there is a Queensland Funeral Industry Code of Conduct which aims to protect customers and ensure they are not pressured into buying products and services. This voluntary Code also endeavours to “ensure clients fully understand what is and is not included in the funeral plan or package they purchase” and “provide clients with accurate and timely information about the range and price of their services and products, including low-cost options”.

Not all funeral directors have signed up to this Code of conduct. And unlike states like New South Wales, funeral directors in Queensland don’t even have to be licensed.

So how is the quality of care afforded to dear ol’ Aunty Joan and her family regulated?

Um… It’s not.

3. Funeral services are bloody expensive and so are burials.

An increasing number of funeral directors now display funeral packages and their costs on their websites which makes shopping around when you’re grieving much less challenging. As well as funeral brokers, there are also some funeral comparison websites that can help find the type of service and price you’re after. Some of those websites are run by industry, others are not.

One of those independent ones is GatheredHere which has a database of costings for about 700 funeral options and companies around the country. Website founder Colin Wong said the site had 8,000 visits in June, proving the internet generation now expects online product comparisons and reviews.

“They’re accustomed to it and the demographic now demands it. “

Colin said he established the website because he wanted to protect vulnerable consumers.

“I want them to know there’s a range of options, cost-effective options. And a funeral service is different and separate to the disposal of the body.”

Colin has broken down funeral costings in this great article on the average cost of an Australian funeral. (You might need a glass of wine to help you read it – there are some big numbers in there!)

Country funerals and interments are much cheaper than in the city, mainly because real estate is much cheaper. Mark McGowan oversees 12 cemeteries for Southern Downs Regional Council. He tells me the average cost of a full funeral service and burial in Warwick Cemetery is between $10,000 and $13,000.

Cemetery plots cost thousands of dollars
Cemetery plots cost thousands of dollars. Headstones and monuments aren’t cheap either.

4. Now that I know how expensive funerals and burials are, do I have to have a funeral?

Finally, some good news! No, you do not have to have a funeral and you’ll be surprised by the growing number of people taking that option.  To cater for that there are now lots of funeral directors happy to provide a very simple body disposal service.

After 15 years in the funeral business, and disillusioned by the huge cost grieving families had to pay to farewell their loved ones,  Tim Button and mortician wife Casey started Just Cremate Me.

“It pissed me off watching so many funeral companies make so much money. It was wrong to charge grieving people like that,” he said.

Just Cremate Me is a small south-east Queensland business set up to offer a cremation service, including transport and a family viewing. Families can also help wash and dress their loved one in Tim’s parlour (which looks like a comfy lounge room) before Aunty Joan is driven to a crematorium in a cheap, cardboard coffin. The family later picks up the ashes from the crematorium and then quite possibly takes a trip around the world with the money they’ve saved by not having a funeral. (Thanks Aunty Joan!) One of Tim’s unattended cremations costs $1,250 – about a quarter of the price of a really basic funeral service.

The popularity of an inexpensive, simple cremation has even surprised Tim. After just one year in operation, Just Cremate Me cremates 40 people per month, and Tim says the reasons behind his service’s popularity isn’t necessarily financial.

“Some people just don’t see the need for an expensive funeral. Sometimes families are overseas or interstate and only get together once a year so it’s at that time when they will hold a memorial for the person.”

“I’ve cremated multi-millionaires,” said Tim Button.

Watching the rise in demand for the direct cremation model is David Molloy from the Queensland Cemeteries and Crematoria Association. After nearly 30 years in the funeral business, he believes the importance of a funeral should not be underestimated.

“Without one, the grieving process isn’t able to start. A funeral doesn’t bring closure. It brings opening,” said David.

But he’s quick to point out that a funeral needn’t be a formal event held in a chapel or cemetery.

“It could be held at someone’s house. It’s a ritual, a memorial, a chance to simply talk, tell stories, laugh and cry. It’s for friends as well as family,” he said.

5. Do I have to use a funeral director?

No, but with so much confusion around Queensland’s rules and regulations it sure makes it easier. Do It Yourself death-care and funerals are not unheard of and there is certainly an increased interest in taking care of dear ol’ Aunty Joan home for a vigil instead of sending her away with a stranger.

The paperwork is pretty straight forward. You need to register a death and apply for the death certificate with the Department of Justice and Attorney General.

HOWEVER, the problem you might encounter is that some cemeteries will only liaise with a funeral director, not Aunty Joan’s daughter. For example, the 12 cemeteries managed by Brisbane City Council will only deal with funeral directors. It’s a different story on the Southern Downs where the Brethren religious community organise their own funerals.

6. Can I put dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan in the back of my ute?

Yes, you can.

Weekend at Bernie's was a 1989 black comedy.
Weekend at Bernie’s is a 1989 black comedy in which one of the main characters is dead.

While it might seem like a scene from “Weekend At Bernie’s“, you can transport dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan in the back of your ute (or the Corolla) in Queensland. While the New South Wales legislation clearly outlines its rules for the private transport of the dead, Queensland rules and regulations are a bit of a debacle in this space.

It’s cut and dry in NSW — you can transport a body as long as the journey is less than eight hours and Aunty Joan isn’t infectious. I’ve had coffee with one lady in NSW who moved a man’s body from an unhelpful funeral director’s premises to a house for a home vigil using an old van, four blokes and a door.

Yes, a door.

In Queensland, the Coroners Act makes no mention of private body transport; neither does the Cremations Act. The Public Health Act briefly makes mention of not spreading an infectious disease. Section 236b of the Criminal Code makes it “an offence for a person, without lawful justification, to improperly or indecently interfere with, or offer any indignity to a dead human body”. That seems to leave itself wide open for interpretation and that’s why I sought clarification at my local police station.

“That’s revolting,” was the response from the woman at the counter when I asked about the private transport of Aunty Joan. So I made a more official inquiry to the Queensland Police Service and received this response:

“The QPS is not in a position to answer these questions – this depends on individual circumstance and it is not something that QPS has come across at this time and as such is a hypothetical.”

The consensus among the industry folk I’ve chatted with is that the private transport of bodies is allowed, though one did admit that funeral directors are probably better equipped and therefore are able to do it in a more dignified manner. But, in another example of the confusion and ignorance in Queensland’s rules and regulations, some hospitals will not release a body to anyone other than a funeral director. That’s despite it being “legal for any person that has the authority to control the body to take physical possession of the body as long as the death was not from an infectious disease”. (Section 3.2.2 It’s Your Funeral Report, Sandra van der Laan, Sydney Business School).

7. Bodies at home and home vigils.

The subject of death, dying and funerals was only until recently very taboo. Of late there has been a noticeable shift in thinking and people are looking to take more control. But there’s still a long way to go. Mackay funeral director Belinda Hassan said, “As a society we’ve been conditioned not to deal with death. We become immune to it.”

She told me many people want their loved one taken to a funeral home soon after they die in the home.

“They want them out of sight as soon as possible,” said Belinda.

But not everyone wants to shift dear ol’ Aunty Joan off to a funeral home as soon as she dies in front of the telly. Home vigils can offer families a personal and private opportunity to say goodbye and connect with family members and friends during a time of grief.

A body can be kept in the home for a few days, often laid out in the bedroom or lounge room while life goes on around them and loved ones come and go. Obviously the body may undergo some changes during that time and the air con will have to be turned on, but people who do take part in home vigils report it to be a very positive experience.

Shop around and prepare.

But home vigils aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Dealing with death and grief is a personal journey and there are people who can help guide you through the process. For most, it starts with a funeral director. Don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions. Ask for an itemised quote and check out if they funeral director you’ve called has signed up to Queensland’s Code of conduct. And remember, just because you decide not to spend $15,000 on dear ol’ Aunty Joan doesn’t mean you didn’t think she was the best aunt ever.

An even better way to make the funeral decision process easier is to discuss your wishes before you or a family member dies. It needn’t be a long or morbid discussion and it will help clear up any confusion when the time comes. I wrote a book called The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan that’s practical, colourful and filled with dad jokes to help make that happen.  Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed, which most likely won’t be anytime soon.

 

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 $24.95, 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.
Author Lisa Herbert.

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 $8 – contact me for details) 

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”.

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

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?

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

 

Colourful fireworks over Brisbane.

Ashes scattered by fireworks means loved ones go off with a bang.

As you look skywards tonight, you might just see some particularly special fireworks.

The scattering of ashes via fireworks is taking off. These days there are several companies that offer the service for both people and pets.

Fourth generation pyrotechnician Andrew Howard is co-ordinating 75 fireworks shows in towns and cities across the country tonight. While none of those events include someone’s ashes, he told ABC Darwin that ashes being spread using fireworks is becoming more popular.

“We got our first inquiry over a decade ago. It was a little bit weird but it’s certainly very common now.”

“We do several throughout the year but there won’t be any on New Year’s Eve this year,” said Mr Howard.

Ashes are put into handmade aerial shell fireworks that are launched high into the sky over the location sought by the client, usually somewhere of significance to the deceased or their friends and family. The colour of the fireworks becomes an important component of the ceremony, with the colour chosen to reflect the personality of the deceased.

In 2010 the Sydney Harbour New Year’s fireworks incorporated the ashes of two dogs, Gyprock and Zeus. They were the beloved pets of Craig Hull, who has since become a successful pyrotechnician. His company, Ashes to Ashes, specialises in “the scattering of one’s cremated ashes by way of a beautiful and spectacular fireworks display”.

Mr Hull’s first clients were Mikala and Stephanie Dwyer. The sisters sent their mum and grandmother up in fireworks in Sydney in 2014. Speaking to The Feed, Mikala said the ashes had been “hanging around for quite some time”.

“My grandmother’s been hanging around in cupboards since 1994 so this is a way of setting her free a bit,” said Mikala.

“My mother loved fireworks so this was the perfect thing.”

“It seemed totally right and I realise it’s not right for everyone, but for us it was quite wonderful,” she said.

What do you think? Would you like to go out with a bang at a memorial service with a difference? You can make your wishes known in your will or simply tell your loved ones or write down your wishes in The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.

I hope you have a safe and memorable New Year’s Eve. Enjoy the fireworks! And I’d love to know your thoughts about sending your friends and family skywards.

 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 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.

 

Eh? You wrote a book about whaaaaaat?

Welcome to a blog about the inevitable. While it’s not for everyone, there are a lot of people who like the idea of having a say in their own farewell. Some people tell me it’s because they don’t want their family burdened with the task and others tell me it’s to ensure everyone has a good time at the funeral!

My interest in western society’s perception of death and dying was sparked as a teen after reading several books written by renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The works, inspired by Dr Kübler-Ross’ work with terminally ill patients, were groundbreaking at the time. Never before had the emotional needs of the dying been given attention by the medical profession.

Nearly 50 years on and many people are still reluctant to talk about the inevitable. However, while researching The Bottom Drawer Book, I found that once the discussion began, people opened up and gave their mortality some measured thought. All they needed was someone to initiate the discussion. And that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book comes in. Its aim is to start the conversation.