When my son, Robbie, died in a car accident 2 years ago, I felt this legal and cultural urgency to organise the funeral quickly. I do not know where this feeling came from. No one advised me otherwise. I was swept up in the funeral process. I made lots of rapid decisions in my disassociated state of consciousness without understanding or knowing all the options available. I did not want Robbie embalmed, but he was embalmed. I did not want Robbie wrapped in plastic, but he was wrapped in plastic. I was told not to see his body as it would be too distressing, but thanks to his Dad’s encouragement I spent some time with his body just hours before he was scheduled for cremation.
Some decisions I made were the right ones for our family, thanks to the Master of Education – Social Ecology course I was studying at the time. Other decisions have left me with a deep and lasting regret that still haunt me today when I reflect on them. One such decision was not stopping Robbie’s scheduled cremation to allow time for my Daughter to have some quiet alone time with her Brother’s body. Can’t fix that one … ever. I would have done many things differently if I had known my legal rights and natural burial options about burying our dead in Australia. I had, and still have, very poor Death Literacy. I am death illiterate. I am on a quest to change this and share what I learn in the process.
Robert Larkins is an Australian Barrister who wrote his first book in 2007: Funeral Rights. He was moved to research the death-care industry in Australia after hearing his close friend’s widow relate her story. In her vulnerable state she felt she had no control or understanding of the well-entrenched Australian Funeral process that systemically unfolded around her. From the moment her husband died in hospital to the moment he was elaborately buried was a deeply dissatisfying experience and cost an appalling $15,496. The family had wanted a simple funeral. What went wrong?
A legal friend, Bethanie Castell, found this gem of a book – Funeral Rights – and let me know about it on a Facebook post. I am eternally grateful for her gesture. I immediately purchased the e-book version and am currently immersed in thirstily absorbing this information I wish I had known when Robbie died. I am so inspired by this book I need to summarise each chapter as a blog post as I go so the detail sinks in. I hope in the process I get to make contact with and even meet Robert Larkins. His book is a gift to all of us death illiterate Australians.
In the introductory chapter Robert makes the alarming observation that we “can get through life in Australia without ever seeing a dead person.” In the last 80 years we have successfully become totally disconnected from death in our culture and now outsource the whole process. Anne O’Connor poignantly asks us to consider that: “Someone will wash the body. Someone will dress the body. Someone will close the eyes for the final time. Someone will. At the critical moment of death, someone will perform these tasks for the person whom we have loved and cared for all our lives. Why would we give those meaningful rituals away to a stranger? Why do we give away the best stuff?”
Euphemisms provide another way we can distance ourselves from death. Celebration replaces funeral. Final resting place is where we place the body or ashes. Loved one has become over-used and to me sounds a bit creepy. It reminds me of the unsettling, classic, novel we studied in High School: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948). Passed away or my favourite, lost, replaces died. I did not lose my son like a Mother in the supermarket who momentarily takes her eyes off her child then hears the broadcast message to pick up her little Johnny from the front counter; my Robbie died.
I will write a separate post for chapter 1 which explores the history of the death-care industry in Australia.
OFF THE CUFF | speaking life into death
Larkins, R. (2007). Funeral rights. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Group.