In life, my sister taught me to love. In Death She Made Me Want To Fix The Funeral Industry | Jackie Bailey
I hold her leg up so her daughter can gently wash under her knee. Then she does the same for me. We kneel on either side of his father’s body, which we brought from the hospital where he died last night.
“You do his face,” I say and return to the base of the bed where I wring out my fabric in hot water. My colleague arrives with a cooling plate. His daughter and I finish washing and drying him, then we dress him in his best costume and place him on a sheet over the plate. The plaque means his daughter can keep him at home until cremation time.
We pull another sheet to his chest. I light candles and place them on each corner of the bed while his daughter scatters rose petals around him. Tomorrow we will place him in a wicker coffin. We will surround him with garlands and greenery and lead him to the hearse. His daughter will accompany him to the crematorium where she will testify as her father’s body is placed in the fire.
It’s been seven years since my sister Allison died. She has lived most of her life with various degenerative diseases as a result of brain cancer. My family gave him a good start. Her adult nieces and nephews, whom she had babysat when she was little, brought her special memories, prepared a slide show, decorated the casket.
I brought markers so we could write the final messages on his eco-coffin. My daughter, then three years old, drew ‘potato people’ on the side of the coffin to keep Aunt Allison company on her final journey. Friends and family said prayers. Me, my brother and our older sister gave the eulogy.
After Allison’s funeral, I took a break from writing the manuscript that would become my new novel The Eulogy. I needed some time away from our story. But instead of vacation, I found myself enrolled in a master’s degree in theology. Two years later, I was an ordained interfaith minister, trained death walker, celebrant, and independent funeral director.
Interfaith ministers provide pastoral care outside of religious institutions, creating spiritual services for non-religious people. Many of my peers have become hospital and prison chaplains, social workers, university counselors. But for me, it was always about death. I wanted to give others what my sister’s funeral had given me: a clean wound, ready to heal.
But all was not perfect at my sister’s funeral. I had become irritated under the transactional gaze of the undertakers. The inflated price of the eco-casket outraged me, as well as attempts to sell my grieving mother urns, nameplates, casket decorations.
I later found out that the funeral company we had hired was not a local family business as I had thought, but was in fact owned by the multinational InvoCare, which controls over a third of the funeral market in Australia.
State and federal governments have conducted a number of investigations, attempting to make the funeral industry more transparent, recognizing that consumers are particularly vulnerable at these times in their lives.
But I want more than competition in the funeral industry. I want there to be no “industry”. When my sister died, I was not a consumer; I was a pool of grieving emotions. I wanted a human I could trust to walk with me.
My book takes the form of a fictional guide to writing a eulogy, as the protagonist prepares for her own sister’s funeral.
In reality, I have never been able to find a good guide for writing eulogies. They all seem to assume you’re telling the story of a successful businessman who lived to a ripe old age. But what about people like my sister Allison, who had no career, no kids, no value in that reckoning, even though she was the defining person in my life, the person who learned to love?
In the end, I wrote an entire book to say goodbye to my sister. But if you only have one time slot at a funeral service, here’s my advice: it doesn’t have to be perfect. It shouldn’t take long. And it’s totally okay to cry, laugh, or do both at the same time.
In 2017, I celebrated my first funeral. It was for a non-profit funeral service provider in my area, a charity that believes that someone’s death should not be an opportunity to take a company public.
I was nervous before the service started, but once it started, the anxiety dissipated. It was so clear that this event did not concern me. I was there to give people permission to feel whatever might arise: sadness, relief, despair, joy. I was there to walk with them.