It could be said that the history begins with death: the death of a person, of a nation, of an idea. Death and mortality allow us to visualise the passage of time, to study cause and effect, to identify transitions – in effect, to make stories.
Historiography, it is well-known, has had to come to terms with the fallacies inherent in attempting to document the past. Facts are never objective, cause and effect less so, and the innermost thoughts of a person? Well.
So what does it mean that as soon as a person has lost the ability to speak for themselves, to judge their own actions, to sue for libel, we begin to cherry-pick ‘facts’ from their life and make stories out of them?
On complex emotions
Doctor Henry Peak, my grandpa, was a complicated and difficult man. As a result, when he died in 2006 there were a lot of conflicting emotions on the part of his immediate family: his five children (David, Patrick, Samuel, Megan and Jonathon), his ex-wife and mother of their children (Diane), his daughter-in-law (Elizabeth) and son-in-law (another Patrick), his ex daughters-in-law (Susan, Adelina, Katelin) and his brother (Paul).
In the same year that my grandpa died, Australian icon Steve Irwin was fatally attacked by a stingray off the coast of Port Douglas. In an obituary that – according to The Age – created a furore among ‘Australian leaders’, Germaine Greer famously remarked that ‘the animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin’. Despite the caustic tone of Greer’s words, she was able to describe a deeply conflicted personality. Greer agreed that Irwin had been, ‘a great Australian, an ambassador for wildlife, a global phenomenon’, but could not reconcile Irwin’s philanthropic nature with his seeming inability to ‘understand that animals need space … There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle. Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress’.
Ultimately, she judged him a fool – a well-meaning buffoon with a love for fame, money and histrionics. Yet compared to the sickeningly heroic persona described by toadying Australian politicians, who described him as a hero who ‘epitomised the Aussie larrikin’, Greer’s portrayal of Irwin gave him a humanity that was often hidden behind the uniformed caricatures we saw on TV and at fundraising events.
In the week leading up to my grandpa Henry’s funeral (which was to be held at a tan-brick fronted Le Pine franchise funeral home, next to the forbidding walls of the Jehovah’s Witness church), his sons David, Patrick and Samuel, who would be speaking at the funeral, were all in various states of distress.
The problem: How could they write a celebration of the life of a man they didn’t particularly like, and who was to blame for creating a pervading sense of social and familial dysmorphia and a general fear of achievement, such that they had never quite managed to eradicate his destructive imprint on their lives.
‘Dad was a really good cook.’ Patrick Peak, Henry’s second oldest son and a professional chef, spoke in front of the guests at the drab Le Pine funeral home.
‘I’ve only known one other cook, untrained, that came close to him. If there had been a Good Food Guide for the Home Café, he would have been in there. I would have given him a hat, and I know a few others who think the same.
‘It wasn’t normal kiddie food. Dad was a doctor and not at all squeamish: glazed pigs head (you ate the cheeks), sweet breads (I can’t explain), whole pressed ox tongue, various themes on liver, kidney and brains, veal wrapped in caul (I won’t explain), lung, trotters, marrow…
‘In dad’s café, as in others, there was a back of house and a front of house. The part of maître d’ changed regularly: one evening it could be perhaps a Noel Coward or a Dame Edna. Often it was the very energetic conductor from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who was directing the dinner table.
‘What was consistent was the need for good manners, and a basic knowledge of the role of cutlery. You also had to know the difference between hock and claret: one went with fish, one didn’t. Armed with these basic rules you could sit back and enjoy the ride. Except when asked would you like some more.
‘If you did: great!
‘If not: “Why? Was there something wrong with it? Too much salt. Damn. Too much salt, I knew it! No? You just didn’t like it. What? Overdone, what nonsense. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous!”
‘For those who knew dad’s café, “I’m full” was the box to tick.
‘This was also not a bring your own plate café. I once made garlic bread, thinking that by adding parsley to the butter and garlic it would turn out something special. Dad announced that it was passé. At first I thought, hey “passé”, that’s French! Got a winner there. I found out much later what passé meant.
‘Back of house was a bit different. The fiery and passionate Gordon Ramsey lived there. No room for the faint hearted.’
It may come as a (rather upsetting) surprise to those of you who know me, that I have thought about you dying a lot. Not your actual death, but what you having died would mean to me. It’s true that I rehearse your eulogy with regularity, I attempt to come up with archetypes and classical myths that will fit your character; I will go over the wording ad nauseum. As I think of your funeral, the people who are there and the people who are not. The eulogy becomes a challenge – how do I encapsulate you? How can my words reach out to snare your spirit and bring it, palpably, into our presence?
My stories are not their stories. They’re not even your stories.
And yet if we attempt to use facts as if they were stones – unequivocal and solid, falling and measured in their trajectory – is that not, in itself, an erasure of the deep resonance between you and your life?
IMPORTANT FACTS TO INCLUDE
– according to www.cremationsolutions.com
Always include the full name of the deceased and a nickname if he or she had one. The town or city of residence, the place and cause of death, the person’s age and the date he or she died, including the year are all important facts to include when writing an obituary.
Doctor Henry Peak (Henry) was born in Port Augusta to well-to-do English émigrés, Violet and Ernest Peak. He lived in Melbourne for most of his life and died in 2006 at the age of seventy seven, five years after suffering a severe stroke that left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak clearly, write or read.
When it comes to writing about the person’s life, include the important events in the person’s life such as the date and place of birth and the person’s parents. Include siblings, close friends and information about the person’s education, if they attended a college, university or technical school.
Henry studied medicine at Melbourne University, eventually becoming a doctor at the Alfred Hospital.
According to family legend, he had wanted to enter the theatre – but his mother, Violet, threatened to disinherit him if he didn’t finish medical school.
By the time I was born, Henry and his first wife – my grandma Diane – had divorced and Henry had married a woman called Rose. Together they kept a tortoiseshell cat called Tishy and lived in a two-bedroom house in Clifton Hill. Rose divorced Henry a few years later. He kept the house and Tishy.
It is maintained by everyone that Henry had no real friends, only colleagues.
Henry had three grandchildren: Raphaelle Celeste, Violetta Aurora and Ruben Carlo.
He had a brother, Paul. They didn’t really get on.
Include information on notable awards or other achievements, where the person worked, business colleagues, notable career events, hobbies, interests or other activities.
Henry must have liked to garden, though I never saw him at it. He had an ornamental grapevine, two plum trees, two apricot trees, and a lemon tree. On the table in his loungeroom there was always a bowl full of unshelled pecans, walnuts and peanuts and a stainless steel nutcracker.
In the 1970s, he became a Chief Medical Officer working on what would eventually become Medicare, Australia’s national free healthcare system. After this he was appointed to be Director of Hospitals at the Health Commission of Victoria. He eventually became an outside consultant and worked full-time up until his stroke in 2000.
If the person was involved with charitable or religious activities include those as well. If the deceased had an unusual life or attributes.
Henry was an avowed atheist.
One of his favourite words was ‘Nonsense!’ and it was always accompanied by a dismissive wave of his hand, cigarette smoke wafting.
In January 2015, Colleen McCullough died of a series of strokes at the age of seventy-seven. The best-selling author of The Thorn Birds (1977) and writer of over fifty novels, McCullough was appointed an ‘Officer of the Order of Australia’ in 2006 for her service to the arts. She studied neuroscience at Yale University in the United States, a career which took second place to her books, but which always managed to inform her writing, and no doubt contributed to McCullough’s herculean feats of research.
After her death, The Australian newspaper published a pre-prepared obituary, later alleged to have been written by a deceased journalist.
The article began with the line: ‘Colleen McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”’
The article goes on to deliver an affectionate and detailed description of one of Australia’s most prolific and popular writers, but sadly the image of the fat, ugly and unstylish cat lady of the first paragraph manages to stay with you until the end of the article – and on into the rest of your day.
Facts were David Peak’s approach to speaking of his father. David was Henry’s oldest son and the organiser of the funeral. With facts, he could talk about Henry’s achievements, his milestones, and avoid the treacherous emotional troughs of his memories.
Nonetheless, he realised that an anecdote is needed in a eulogy, however minor.
‘I have two memories separated by forty years to do with Papa and gardens’, David began. ‘In the first I recall myself around the age of five perched on the edge of a spade, jumping up and down using my whole weight to push the blade into the ground. Papa was standing nearby in his grey trousers and black shoes. We were digging square holes in the back yard of the house in Elsternwick. Precise, square holes, each the depth of the spade. Many holes in which the roses were to be planted.
‘The second memory is of Papa after his first stroke in his electric wheelchair in the sun room at Clifton Hill. We are both looking through the floor to ceiling glass windows, we are pointing at the brightly coloured waxy flowers of an orchid and neither of us are able to name the flower, I had never been interested in gardening enough to learn the names of plants and Papa, who knew perfectly well the difference between a dendrobium and a cymbidium, was no longer able to put his tongue around the right word.
‘And words were very important to Papa.’
In my memories of him after the stroke, my grandpa would (still with a cigarette in hand [the nurses wouldn’t let him have the martinis though]) often stutter and slur his words, yet he would have no trouble saying ‘DAMN!’ when the aphasia robbed him of the right noun.
So sure, he was no longer able to put his tongue around the right word, but his communication was still bang on.
I wondered, as my uncle David spoke diffidently of his father, if it was possible to erase the memory of someone’s ability to speak.
Eulogy for Richard Nixon – 27 April 1994
Selected paragraphs from the eulogy by Henry A Kissinger, Secretary of State to Richard Nixon prior to, and during, the POTUS’s impeachment trial for treason
‘When I learned the final news, by then so expected yet so hard to accept, I felt a profound void. In the words of Shakespeare, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again”.
‘He came into office when the forces of history were moving America from a position of dominance to one of leadership. Dominance reflects strength; leadership must be earned. And Richard Nixon earned that leadership role for his country with courage, dedication and skill.
‘So let us now say goodbye to our gallant friend. He stood on pinnacles that dissolved into precipice. He achieved greatly, and he suffered deeply. But he never gave up. In his solitude, he envisaged a new international order that would reduce lingering enmities, strengthen historic friendships and give new hope to mankind – a vision where dreams and possibilities conjoined.
‘Richard Nixon ended a war, and he advanced the vision of peace of his Quaker youth. He was devoted to his family, he loved his country and he considered service his honor. It was a privilege to have been allowed to help him.’
I can trace my (almost pathological) fondness for eulogies and obituaries directly back to being seven years old and watching the kitschy 1994 English tragicomedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. For those of us who grew up alongside the 90s, John Hannah’s deeply romantic Scottish brogue reciting ‘Funeral Blues’ by W. H. Auden exists in our collective memory alongside Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, the death of Princess Diana, and Pokemon Yellow.
Toward the end of the movie, the broken-hearted Matthew (played by John Hannah) has lost his lover, Gareth (Simon Callow), to a heart attack. Too distressed to write a eulogy himself, he reads the poem instead.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
This eulogy was a momentous statement (especially for a light-hearted popular movie in the early 90s) for its performative critique of regulations against same-sex marriage.
‘All these years we’ve been single and proud of it’, says Hugh Grant’s character, Charles, in the aftermath of the funeral, ‘and never noticed that two of us were, in effect, married all this time”.
FOLLOWING A QUICK NON-DIVERSE SURVEY AMONG MY FRIENDS OF THINGS PEOPLE HATE TO HEAR AT FUNERALS:
Empty platitudes were all at the top of the list.
- Beloved by all that knew her
- A great man
- A wonderful woman
- Wouldn’t hurt a fly
- Greatly missed
- You all remember when…
- Thank you for coming
‘We were always encouraged to ask questions. I’m grateful for that.’
Samuel James Peak began his eulogy about his father, Henry, quietly. A performer and poet cursed with shyness, Samuel’s eulogy was perfectly timed, with his notes peppered with instructions-to-self: slow here, speed up, look up.
‘I plagued Dad about his job over the years. “What did you do at work today Dad?”
‘I used curious questions, witty questions, loaded questions, caustic questions and interrogations. Dad never refused my unspoken right to have a go at him, and I remember him being polite even when I was at my adolescent worst. Unfortunately though, he never really answered that question.
‘It was only later that I realised that most of Dad’s work involved having meetings and that the dinner table was his final meeting of the day. The agenda involved every member (except mum) providing a report on something he or she felt would hold everyone’s interest. Mum had carte blanche at the table, and had to be treated with utter respect.
‘During my later childhood I never sat down to the table without a clear picture of what I was going to say, and I still constantly report to people about my life. Briefly, to the point – and fast enough that no one can get a sarcastic word in edgewise.
‘I remember, in year ten, being given a take home essay by a new teacher. The question had potentially religious overtones and I threw the gist of the essay question on the table for debate. This being the Peak family table, the essay I consequently wrote had an atheist backhander in the penultimate paragraph.
‘A week later, the teacher told me that he didn’t like me, a fact which was also duly examined at the dinner table.
‘The dinner table conversations were a complex affair. You could liken them to a jazz septet. One person at a time had the solo, but the other six were able to interject with witticism, criticism, or cheek and could also hijack the topic for a few bars. Dad would talk about science, and there he was careful and accurate, but he never discussed religion or politics, and both subjects were banned. errorism did happen at the table, but never bad table manners , and only Dad could get away with expletives. “Dammit!”
‘The competition for space, the speedy interjection and sheer force of personality issuing from seven sharp minds could make for a daunting recipe for the friends of the kids who stayed for dinner. We frightened nearly everyone. Theoretically we weren’t allowed to pick on visitors but even then anarchy could slip out. I remember Patrick inviting our friend Lance to begin eating and then asking pointedly whose turn it was to say grace.
‘I remain a man of simple pleasures … But where I really come alive is sitting down to a Peak family dinner (yes, with a bottle or two of wine) and joining in with a free spirit. I owe all this to my father, the leader of our jazz septet.’
On 26 January 2016, the landmark Australian politician Gough Whitlam slipped away after struggling with cancer for three years. Three days later, Indigenous lawyer, journalist and academic, Noel Pearson, read out a eulogy calling Whitlam an ‘old man’.
Old man – a dismissive, infantilising word in western Anglo society – in Pearson’s voice became a word that recognised its own duality, a word that combined an era of baby boomers which dismissed the old socialist ideals of Whitlam with the reverence that Indigenous Australians show toward their elders.
‘Raised next to the woodheap of this nation’s democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan belief … In June 1975 the Whitlam Government enacted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Queensland Discriminatory Laws Act.
‘The law put to purpose the power conferred upon the Commonwealth Parliament by the 1967 referendum, finally outlawing the discrimination my father and his father lived under since my grandfather was removed to the mission as a boy, and to which I was subject [for] the first ten years of my life … Without this old man, the land and human rights of our people would never have seen the light of day. There would have never been a Mabo and its importance to the history of Australia would have been lost without the Whitlam program.
‘We salute this old man for his great love and dedication to his country and to the Australian people.
‘When he breathed he truly was Australia’s greatest white elder and friend without peer of the original Australians.’
On speaking ill of the dead
DOS AND DON’TS OF WRITING A EULOGY
– According to FuneralWise.com – Everything You Need To Know About Funerals
- Pay respect
- Avoid the circumstances of the death
- Tread lightly with humour
- Avoid religious themes unless they are expected
- Avoid inappropriate memories or anecdotes
It was May 1994, the morning after the death of Richard Nixon, when Hunter S Thompson sent a memo to the National Affairs Desk of the Rolling Stone.
He wrote: ‘Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing – a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy … Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together. Nixon laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you”.
‘Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state and himself a zealous revisionist with many axes to grind … set the tone for the day with a maudlin and spectacularly self-serving portrait of Nixon as even more saintly than his mother and as a president of many godlike accomplishments.
‘Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was an evil man – evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him – except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.
‘He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.’
Henry Peak’s brother, Paul Peak, was the last person to deliver a speech at his funeral. The two men, one a doctor and one a dentist, had often competed with each other in life and as a result the two sides of the family – wives, nieces and nephews of each brother – detested each other with cool courtesy.
We were surprised to see Paul, in his late seventies, stand up without any notes to hand as he went to give his speech. Intent on winging it for his older brother’s funeral, Paul spoke of a memory he had of when he and Henry attended St. Paul’s Boarding School together as young children, and Henry would pay Paul to shine his shoes for him. This was, Paul said, an early indication of Henry’s opportunism with money.
‘Of course, Henry never paid for anything if he could help it’, Paul said with a strange breathy laugh. ‘You would pay for Henry’s dinner, but Henry would never pay for yours.’
On saying goodbye
Henry’s only daughter, Megan, didn’t speak at his funeral.
When she does speak about him, she remembers that they shared a delight in rich and quality things. Together they would go shopping at the couture outlet Georges in upmarket Melbourne, and when his ability to walk was claimed by the stroke, Megan would go out and buy him soft jumpers and expensive shirts – laying the array on his bed when she went to visit him.
When my grandpa died, I remembered a line once heard from an ex-girlfriend of my Mum’s:
‘Henry would always open the front door wearing mismatched socks and holding a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other.’
Whenever he saw me, his first words were inevitably, ‘He-llo dearie’, in a quavery but posh Australian-English accent.
When I was six, he convinced my teetotaller parents that it would be fine to feed me a bowl of incredibly alcoholic and delicious trifle. The trifle was made with raspberry jelly, custard, cream, strawberries, sponge cake and liberal amounts of sherry. I got drunk and laughed so hard that I knocked over a small pretty liquor glass. He said nothing as it shattered across the polished wooden floorboards – I was never given alcohol there again.
His kitchen smelled like Kirks Dry Ginger Ale and decades old spices.
So, I think to myself, as I imagine what I will wear to your funeral. When you are dead, what words, what thoughts, images or gestures will bring you back, however temporarily, into this world?
Facts are not like stones. To quote Chuck Palahniuk, you are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.
Yet through memory alone, death is endowed only with a reflection of one’s self. And you are left, defined by negative space.
*Names have been changed to (somewhat) preserve the dignity of my family
Image: ‘Funeral’ / Carol Von Canon