8132877822_922e3af79c_z
Type
Reflection
Category
Class
Death

Burying our dead

When my grandfather died there was no funeral. There was only an informal and impromptu wake. I was still a teenager at the time and, in accordance with the firmly held family tradition of neglecting emotional discussions, I had no idea why. All I really had to cling to was what was to become an oft-repeated phrase and family joke: ‘box em and dump em.’

This was my grandfather’s final wish, and he had scrawled it on the outside of the envelope containing his will.

For a long time I was embarrassed by my grandfather’s wish, an embarrassment that was entangled with a longstanding shame over my family’s crude and uncultured working-class ways. I was from the white, working-class western suburbs of Sydney and I had learnt, particularly when I went to university – where gaps in my knowledge and grammatical errors in my speech were openly ridiculed – that this was something I was supposed to be embarrassed about. And so I learned to keep things like ‘box em and dump em’ well-kept secrets.

I was afraid that it would – bellowed by my bawdy, beer-bellied grandfather holding up his braces – signify something crude and crass. And despite being canny, organic and autonomous, it would be reduced to something inferior. Or worse, something disgusting.

Because if there is one thing I did learn at university it is that what we want and how we say it doesn’t just allow us to be boxed into categories, it shames those of us who fall into the ‘wrong’ category. What is considered ‘vulgar’ or ‘gaudy’, rather than ‘dignified’ or ‘beautiful’, or even ‘good’, has a hidden class bias – and dumping a dead body in a cardboard box? A display of high-class taste and refinement it is not.

I knew my grandfather was an ‘undesirable’. He was uneducated, he gambled and drank too much, and he lived in the poor part of town where you didn’t replace broken things, you fixed them – with no regard for aesthetics, only functionality. He dressed badly, he said outrageous, un-PC things. He didn’t care what was considered ‘tasteful’: he’d eat prawns fresh from the fish market, straight from the paper wrapping they came in, dipping the peeled pieces into tomato sauce and mayo, and call it the high life. This disregard for what was considered ‘proper’ was evident in his wanton demand to be discarded in a box.

But in time, I began to look upon my grandfather’s funeral wish with amusement and to feel, knowing the type of man he was, that it was in large part a middle finger to both convention and the cash cow of the funeral industry. I came to see that in typical working-class style, my grandfather did not want to see his family ‘ripped off’ after he died, nor did he wish to bow to the expectation that he had to be ‘dignified’ in death – for why should he approach his death any differently than he had his life?

The idea that dumping him in a box was undignified is directly related to the notion that working-class people lack the sophistication or the resources to adopt ‘meaningful’ funeral rituals as practiced by those above them in the social hierarchy. But even if we wanted to have had an expensive funeral for my grandfather, we couldn’t have afforded it. My father worked odd jobs, my uncle was unemployed, and there was no funeral fund stashed away.

In Victorian times, the pauper funeral signalled abject poverty and low morality and in order to avoid this stigma, many working-class people made great sacrifices to pay regular and relatively significant amounts to burial clubs. What lingers today is the common misconception that overspending on funerals has a direct correlation to dignity. Even if ‘box em and dump em’ is not likely to be considered tasteful or dignified, I like to see it as my grandfather’s rejection of the idea that he should be shamed into a more ostentatious display purely so he could be considered worthwhile.

Funeral costs, ostentatious or not, are already so high, and you don’t have to go far to hear people complain of the price or the predatory practice of funeral parlours. Even basic costs of funerals in Australia can be as high as $10,000, and for low-income people, the financial burden of a funeral can be devastating. Many elderly working-class people fear their families being left with such costs, which has led to the cultivation of predatory practices among funeral providers, such as paying consultants commissions to sell prepaid funerals, targeting RSLs and nursing homes.

There is a callousness to this that is not altogether surprising when we consider that the business of death and burial has been placed in the hands of mega corporations that are hungrier for business than they are attentive to the needs of the bereaved.

What many people don’t realise is that there is scope to handle the entire thing privately – from building your own coffin and filing the paperwork to burying the body in your backyard (with council permission). However, rather than this private and personal dealing with the dead, our market is instead dominated by an international funeral giant.

In Australia this giant goes by the name of Invocare, a mega corporation that brought up all the local and smaller run businesses (while retaining the individual names of said businesses). It directs the funerals of one in five Australians, attracts one third of all funeral internet traffic in Australia and has net profit of close to $45 million a year.

As recently as two generations ago in Australia, many families were involved in caring for the dead at home; this was often seen as a final act of love. Today, however, the familial role is often reduced to that of the consumer.

In a bid to close the distance the commercial funeral industry has created between our selves and caring for our lost loved ones, and to celebrate my grandfather’s obstinate lack of shame regarding a ‘proper’ sense of ceremony for the dead, when my father passed away, we did not hold a funeral. We kept it out of the hands of the industry as much as possible, only involving them at the cremation stage.

We did invite people to come together, but we did so in a private, non-religious space and drew on the strengths and traditions of DIY culture to prepare as many things as we could ourselves. It was all horrendously hard and there were some distance grumblings from distant relatives that in refusing to hold a funeral we were not doing things ‘properly’. But despite the immeasurable difficult emotions of the day, shame was not one of them.

And perhaps most pleasing of all was that the ‘improper’ precedent was firmly set when sometime afterwards, my mother turned to me and said, ‘When I die, do for me what you did for your father.’

 

Image: ‘Coffin makers’ / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Michele Freeman is a teacher and writer based in Sydney. Her written work has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life, Meanjin and Overland. She has also produced stories for FBi Radio’s All the Best. In 2017, she was the recipient of the WestWords Emerging Writer’s Fellowship and is currently working on her first full-length novel, set in Sydney’s Western suburbs.

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Comments

  1. Excellent personal reflection and thoughtful investigation into challenging our ideas about the current attitudes around class perceptions and the industry infrastructure surrounding death, which is still often a taboo subject. Great piece!

    • Great piece to get the conversation going, though I don’t believe there’s any evidence that one can bury a relative on private land with council permission, and these kinds of myths can have a devastating impact when they’re invested with the hopes of a family, only to be burst by a bureaucrat at the crucial moment following a death. If you’ve dealt with a local council, you’ll understand that this is not the kind of request that could be turned around while a body remains in cold storage. I’m not saying it’s not a good idea – but we need to lobby for this right if we want it, not just abstractly hope it will be a right available to us or a loved one when the time comes.

      Further to the idea of a “pauper’s funeral” – language that perhaps perpetuates that 19C stereotype – some practical advice might help: in Victoria, applicant for a burial or cremation can apply to a magistrate under the Cemeteries and Crematoria Act for a “Part 10”, which is a subsidised burial or cremation. State Trustees May be able to assist with this, and Centrelink can also provide advice.

      However, the minimum solution is obvious. A birth certificate should = a funeral voucher. Make the cost of a funeral part of the social safety net.

  2. Thanks you for this wonderfully written account. I thouroughly enjoyed reading it. So little is ever shared regarding death. This piece warmed me and lit my heart up. X

  3. Michele,
    Thank you for a great article.
    Are you aware that Sydney is quickly running out of burial space?
    Despite the huge expenditure on roads, rail and residential development, we will have no available burial spaces in less than 15 years for the various religious communities who choose this type of internment.
    The NSW Department of Planning is currently assessing two Crown development applications that have been held up for 2 years by political interference and local council nimby-ism.
    With the population of NSW growing at an unprecedented rate, where will we respectfully and thoughtfully bury our dead?
    Another example of the lack of forward planning by our politicians.
    David

  4. Too, there are a multitude of green and non-green issues to discuss, consider, accept and reject in the disposal of human remains, whether at home or elsewhere, all of which is, and will be further grist to the funeral mill (and bill).

  5. I buried my mother in a chip board box covered with a giant Carlton FC flag. Made the cards, brought the flowers myself. Wrote a funny & sad eulogy for the half dozen ppl gathered. I was enraged at the blatant exploitation, smarmy bullshit & greedy grab for the little she had left. I stared them down and that alone resonates with me. Mum wld have been so proud that I stood up to them all.

  6. Not only an entertaining and informative article but a great deal of food for thought. Funeral directors and staff take advantage of grieving family members. I’m fed up to my back teeth with expensive funerals – what’s the point of all that palaver?

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