Talking about death opens a door to another world
Demystifying dying for those making their final farewell and those left behind
“Life asked death, ‘Why do people love me but hate you?’ Death responded, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.” – Anonymous
YOU struggle to stay awake. The urge to eat and drink is gone.
Your head is foggy, you’re delirious and, as your body grows weaker, you lose control of your bladder and bowels.
A cold chill creeps along your fingers and toes before slowly moving up your limbs – a sure sign that your blood has stopped circulating in your extremities and your body is devoting all of its energy into keeping your heart and brain alive.
Red and blue blotches mark your skin, every breath is a battle and, finally, your heart stops and the world goes black.
This is what dying feels like.
Let’s talk about death
“There are no words to really describe it,” Michael Visser says of the moment your brain shuts down.
Revealing he’s journeyed into “the other reality” many times over the years, Dr Visser tells Weekend Magazine he had his first near death experience as a four-year-old.
“My parents left me in a car for a few seconds and I had almost like an anxiety attack and extreme fear,” the 53-year-old Brisbane medico explains.
“From that moment I was no longer in my body.
“I was surrounded by light beings who told me I wasn’t alone and I shouldn’t worry.”
Unlike Dr Visser, most of us shy away from talking about our own end of days.
Last year, a Palliative Care Australia survey found that while 82% reckon it’s a subject we need to raise with our families, only 28% will actually have the conversation.
Meet Australia’s death talker
Death talker Molly Carlile is determined to turn around that statistic by demystifying the process for people who are dying and those of us left behind.
The specialist palliative care nurse’s obsession with teaching people how to “die well” started two decades ago when she helped a young mum pass away from ovarian cancer.
“That mother really introduced me to the idea that nursing is more than caring for people’s physical health,” the author of three books on the topic says.
“Talking about dying is the most important discussion we will have.
“You only get to die once, so you can’t afford to stuff it up. “For some people, a good death is about being aware and being able to talk and interact with their loved ones.
“For others, a good death is pain-free and a quick one.”
Preparing for our final farewell
In Australia, someone dies every three minutes and 17 seconds.
According to the Grattan Institute’s Dying Well report, 54% of us will take our last breath in hospital, 32% will cross over in a residential care facility and the rest of us will spend our final moments in our own homes.
If we die in hospital or a residential care facility, the staff will take care of all the formalities, they will ensure our body is collected from their mortuary and that we are delivered to the funeral home of our family’s choice.
When we die at home, our loved ones will need to contact our GP who will verify that we have passed away from natural causes and the doctor will issue the death certificate. That’s when professionals like Jo Smith take over. “Loved ones are brought into our care and will remain in our mortuary until the day before the service,” the softly spoken 61-year-old White Lady Funerals director says.
“The day before the service the deceased are prepared for burial.
“The body is lifted and placed on the preparation tray very carefully and respectfully.
“The deceased is never laid out without a covering and the process of washing is very gentle.
“Their body is washed, their hair is washed, they are dressed in the clothing that the family provides or sometimes the family does not wish to have clothing so they are dressed in a shroud.
“Then they are placed in the coffin ready for the service.”
How funerals have changed over time
The world’s oldest graves are from 60,000 BC, showing that, regardless of culture and religion, humans have always held end-of-life rituals and ceremonies in high regard; buried their dead in sacred places; and memorialised them in some way.
Funerals were once sombre occasions but these days most of us will choose to celebrate the end of our lives with music, colourful clothes and even memorial parties such as wakes
A recent industry survey found 59% of Australians expect their funeral service to be “relaxed and reflective” while 27% hope their final journey will be marked by a “jubilant, celebratory, fun and irreverent” event.
Just 12% want a “dignified” service and only 1% of Aussies opt for a “solemn and serious” funeral.
“We listen to the family’s story because that’s important to them and then we try to provide all the things they want,” Ms Smith says of laying the groundwork for the final ritual.
“We talk about where the service will be and we talk about the flowers, the type of coffin, notices in the newspaper, if they want things like doves or butterflies, the order of the service.
“People are showing more films and photographs of their loved ones at services and music has become very important.”
Come inside the crematorium
After the service, our bodies will either be buried or cremated.
Two out of three Australians will choose cremation, one in five of us want to go in the ground and 14% of us do not have a preference, trend-tracker McCrindle says in its Deaths and Funerals in Australia report.
Death is big business in Australia – for example, coffins cost around $350 to make but retail for up to $2000 each while funerals will set us back $8000 to $12,000.
With around 160,000 Australians passing away each year, the funeral industry turns over $1.1 billion annually, employs 5643 people, supports 848 businesses and has a forecast growth of 2.5%, IbisWorld’s Funeral Directors, Crematoria and Cemeteries 2016 report says.
Albany Creek Memorial Park in Brisbane’s north is one of the busiest facilities of its kind in Australia.
Run by industry giant InvoCare, the 53-year-old 40ha park currently commemorates the lives of 50,000 people and it has room for tens of thousands more.
Jack-of-all trades Robert Phillips oversees about 100 burials a year at the park and the cremation of around 2000 bodies.
During a walkthrough of the crematorium, the 48-year-old explains how a body arrives for its final journey in the facility’s no-frills loading bay.
Mr Phillips completes a thorough check of all paperwork before signing for the sealed coffin.
When a body is to be cremated, a small silver plaque with the
◗ Robert Phillips sits next to the memorial for his son Cooper, who died at birth. Mr Phillips works at the Albany Creek Memorial Park overseeing cremations and burials.
◗ Two out of three Australians will choose cremation, one in five want to go in the ground and 14% of us do not have a preference, trend-tracker McCrindle says.
◗ Michael Visser says he has had many near death experiences.