We hope you enjoy our 'Dying To Know Day' inspired Q & A with Amy Porter a Sydney based Funeral Director. Don't let the fact that there are actually 13 questions stop you :-).
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What is your work and why do you do it?
I am a Funeral Director/Embalming Student. My work consists of many roles around the immediate death of a person, including making funeral arrangements with the family of the deceased, involving booking cemeteries and crematoriums, clergy persons and floral arrangements. Most of the time however I am behind the scenes in a more hands on role doing things like transferring the deceased from home, nursing homes, hospitals or the coroner to the funeral home, trimming coffins, cutting name plates, providing essential mortuary care, staffing funerals and viewings, assisting families in dressing their loved ones and driving hearses and mourning cars. As an embalming student I am learning the art of preserving the human body. Once I am qualified I will be able to preserved deceased people for many purposes, one of which would be to allow the body to be taken back home until the funeral.
The reason that I do this work is because I love helping people. I am working with families everyday who are going through potentially one of the hardest things they will ever have to deal with in their life. It’s through my work that I can take a load off their shoulders in handling the funeral arrangements, allowing them the essential time needed with their loved one to say goodbye, and respectfully caring for their loved one and restoring them to a state that they can be viewed by their family leaving a positive last image of the deceased. I can make a huge difference and bring peace of mind at such a difficult time, and being able to do that feels very special. To have a bereaved family member say to me ‘Thank you for everything you have done. You have made a time like this a little bit easier.’ That’s why I do my job. I find it very rewarding, and I love it.
What is your most memorable experience of this work?
So many experiences come to mind, but one very recently really sticks out. I was driving the first mourning car behind the hearse on our way to the cemetery for a well respected aboriginal woman. On our way we did a lap around ‘the block’ at Redfern. It was freezing cold and raining at the time as we snaked through the small streets, but as we rounded a corner at the top of the block we could see a single skinny lady standing as a silhouette with one hand on her heart, and the other with her fist straight up in the air doing the ‘power to the people’ symbol. As we approached she signaled the hearse driver to stop, walked up to the glass window where the coffin lay, placed both hands on the glass and kissed it, then (still in the rain) resumed her stance on the corner as the rest of the cortege went past. It sounds so simple, but in the moment it was a very powerful scene and unlike anything I had seen before. It was touching.
Do you have any tips on how someone could develop their personal relationship with their mortality/death/dying?
Attend more funerals. This is something that’s hard to do if you haven’t had much loss in your life but attending funerals with work has really opened my eyes to the things that really matter, what I want to do before I die and reminded me most of all that no-one ever knows which day is their last. I now live my life differently because of those realisations.
As a more realistic and achievable exercise you could just talk to your family and friends about your death. Discuss what you expect, what you want at your funeral, even create a bucket list. It’s a good way to become comfortable with the idea and grow as a result. And please, talk to your children about death. They will have such a better attitude about death if they learn about it from a young age in a matter of fact way. I am a strong advocate for involving children in the funeral process and educating them about death before they have to deal with it for the first time as the thing that took their loved one away be it a family member, friend or family pet.
What are you Dying to Know?
I’m dying to know how many people would like to keep their late loved ones at home for longer before being taken to the funeral home, or how many people would like their late loved ones back home before the funeral.
If you could re-write/redesign/redevelop an aspect of the Australian way of death what would it be?
My dream Australian way of death would one of total acceptance of death. Us Aussies have become very good at pretending someone didn’t die. I would like to see more of us coming in to wash and dress their loved ones, have proper viewings, and even take their recently departed family member back home for a night or two so that all family and friends have a chance to say goodbye in a comfortable and familiar environment.
Cremation, Aquamation, promession, natural burial or….? How do you want your body disposed of after death?
My family have always been cremated, but since attending so many burials at work I’ve decided that I like it. It’s very dramatic and final watching the coffin get lowered into the grave, and then having a permanent gravestone in place so that my name, and hopefully a snippet of my story can be gazed upon by people passing bye. I love walking through cemeteries and looking at all the graves, and I’d really love for my grave to be one that strangers stop at and wonder about the person who is buried there.
What’s the best funeral you’ve ever been to, and why?
The best funeral I’ve ever been to was a Tongan funeral. They just get mourning so right! They had the deceased embalmed and taken back to the church overnight where people could come and see them and spend as much time as they liked with them. And they sat all night crying and singing with their beautiful voices all in chorus, and out the back was a feast so they could all eat and go back into the church again. There were lots of children there as well which was nice, and I believe it to be a very healthy practice. And the next day they had the funeral in the church then went to the cemetery for the burial. Once again they all sang together in a harmonious tune that travelled through the cemetery. The men then got up and hand lowered the coffin into the grave, then each took a shovel filled in the grave themselves. There is no way that those mourners could possibly try and deny the death or pretend it didn’t happen. There is nothing more final than literally burying your own dead. They went through the process of allowing themselves the time needed with the deceased to say goodbye, and then personally laid them to rest. I was moved, and although I was only the funeral director – even I left feeling enlightened.
Assuming you have one, what will your deathbed scene be like?
My dream deathbed scene will be pain free and surrounded by family. Hopefully it’s a matter of simply falling asleep and not waking up.
What songs will be played at your funeral?
I want ‘Never Let me go’ by Florence and the Machine, and ‘Any Other World’ by Mika. I’m still deciding on my third song but I think a more upbeat one to finish would be good. My selection is a real tear jerker and very dramatic….but I like them.
What is your best advice when people remark “I don’t know what to say”
It’s not about what you say. It’s about what the person that’s grieving wants to say but feels that they can’t. I use open ended questions that can have either a short or long answer and allow the mourner to talk. Examples are ‘Were they (the deceased) sick for long?’, ‘Have you received much support?’, ‘How have you been sleeping since (the deceased) died?’. I know from my own experience of grief I desperately wanted to talk about it since it was on my mind 24/7 but didn’t want to burden people with having to listen to my grief, and not know what to say in response. I found it a relief when people asked questions because it meant I could talk about it to another human being who was actually comfortable hearing about it – which was really important.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the death directly, and still refer to the deceased by name. And finally make sure to do a follow up. It’s so easy to forget about a person’s grief because the world keeps turning. But for that one person their world has stopped. Take a moment to remember the loss and make contact a week after the funeral, six weeks after the death, on birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. The first ones are the hardest and someone actually acknowledging that can make a world of difference. A simple ‘How are you doing since the loss of your (state relationship)?’, or ‘I know it’s your first Christmas without (name), know I haven’t forgotten them and you are both in my thoughts today’.
Is writing about death and dying morbid? and are you ‘special’/‘weird’/‘scary’ to be doing this work?
Writing about death is viewed as morbid, but is not actually morbid. People always say that I’m a special person to do the work that I do, but I don’t think so. I think I was just lucky enough to be raised in a household were death was a freely discussed topic and without taboo. It gave me a head start in being comfortable enough with death to learn more about it and become very passionate about it.
I must point out that most people think my work around death ‘weird’ or ‘scary’ because of the way that the media has portrayed it. I love working in a funeral home and its nothing like the movies make it seem.
What’s your view on death being taboo?
I think death became taboo because people shied away from talking about the pain of a loss they have had in the past which turned into full blown taboo; which is a real shame. Death is going to happen to all of us one day, it’s one of the few certain things in life. It’s such a vital thing and I believe taboo has made grieving an isolating experience.
It is also an optional thing. I was raised without taboo and didn’t realize until I was older that it was taboo to be talking about death. I have been to Penrith High School to talk to the year 11 students about death and my experiences working as a funeral director/mortician as part of the Groundswell’s Drama Project and no-one in that room had any taboo about death. It was an amazing environment which even I learnt things from about our attitudes towards death. It goes to show that being taboo-less is possible, and enlightening.
What do you hope/imagine your legacy might be when you’re gone?
I have thought long and hard about what legacy I’d like to leave and I think death literacy is a big one. I have opened up the minds of so many people I know to actually think more about death, and live their lives in a way filled with death positivity. Through conversations about my work, and my dream about changing the Australian way of death I hope I have impacted them enough to have a more positive experience around deaths within their own lives, and have the ability to better support others who are suffering a loss around them. Hopefully my legacy will leave the message that death, while sad; can still be a positive experience.
Dying To Know Day is August 8th.
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