Rus­sell Brown talks to cel­e­brant Hi­lary Ord about fu­ner­als and the na­ture of grief

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - PIC­TURES BY NICK REED

Hi­lary Ord does not count her fu­ner­als.

Peo­ple are not num­bers, she says. Even the of­fice of Births, Deaths and Mar­riages can’t say how many ser­vices she has con­ducted in nearly 20 years as an in­de­pen­dent cel­e­brant.

But to­day she learned new things. She’s less than an hour back from con­duct­ing the fu­neral of a young woman — in the rel­a­tively un­con­ven­tional set­ting of a West Auck­land vine­yard — and the ex­pe­ri­ence is still with her.

“It was an ab­so­lute fit­ting tribute to the per­son who had passed away,” she says. “And very dif­fer­ent to what I have done be­fore, in the way we rolled it out. Which is what peo­ple are do­ing more and more now. They’re think­ing more about what that per­son would have wanted.

“There was mu­sic and singing and laugh­ing and eat­ing and drink­ing be­fore­hand. It was re­ally hon­est, au­then­tic and gen­er­ous in what the fam­ily was of­fer­ing ev­ery­one who’d at­tended. They were ab­so­lutely open to ev­ery­one there.”

Ord, 53, is best known to her city as the co-founder of Karanga­hape Rd’s iconic Verona Cafe, and to the hos­pi­tal­ity trade since as a calm, com­pe­tent op­er­a­tor.

It was dur­ing her 12 years run­ning Verona that she be­gan a new part of her life and be­came a wed­ding and fu­neral cel­e­brant.

Ord was un­usu­ally, al­most uniquely, young for a cel­e­brant at the time, but she filled an im­por­tant role for her peer group — the ma­tur­ing gen­er­a­tion of kids who’d grown up on punk rock.

Some had lost friends in their 20s and en­dured alien­at­ing re­li­gious fu­ner­als at which they were barely ac­knowl­edged. Oth­ers were get­ting to grips with get­ting mar­ried. In that first year, 1999, she con­ducted a wed­ding for one group of friends — and a fu­neral for an­other.

“I was scared,” she re­calls. “Was I able and ex­pe­ri­enced enough to lead such a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in a fam­ily’s life?

“I think I called upon my whole life his­tory to deal with that in a pro­fes­sional way — which is to main­tain an emo­tional dis­tance at that point in a ser­vice when I’m look­ing out at a con­gre­ga­tion and all the peo­ple I love are in ter­ri­ble states of grief. And I still find it hard — even in a room full of peo­ple I don’t know, it can be in­cred­i­bly over­whelm­ing and you do have to sum­mon ev­ery fi­bre of your per­sonal be­ing.”

The matches have con­tin­ued, hun­dreds of them, some­times in un­usual set­tings. Ev­ery year, she mar­ries peo­ple at Auck­land’s Splore Fes­ti­val. She even mar­ried Chris Warner and Rachel McKenna on Short­land Street. But it’s the dis­patches that rep­re­sent a deeper el­e­ment in her life.

ORD, THE fu­neral out­sider two decades ago, has be­come a sym­bol of the chang­ing face of cel­e­brancy.

“She’s very, very good,” says Deb Cairns, co-owner of fu­neral di­rec­tors State of Grace. “We tend to pri­ori­tise Hi­lary if we have a dif­fi­cult fu­neral — a young death or a sui­cide. She speaks in a way that peo­ple can hear it with­out be­ing too pained by it. A lot of peo­ple don’t talk about sui­cide, but she will.

“She’s good at hold­ing the space, she’s good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple from all walks of life.

“She can read a crowd well — her hos­pi­tal­ity back­ground, I think, has been quite use­ful. I think she’s used to work­ing un­der pres­sure and deal­ing with the un­ex­pected and hav­ing to work in cri­sis mode. I think a lot of hos­pi­tal­ity work is like that — you don’t know who you’re go­ing to get in your restau­rant and what they’re go­ing to say and you re­ally don’t know that at a fu­neral ei­ther.”

State of Grace “bent our own rules” to take on Ord, says Cairns, even though she hadn’t for­mally trained as a cel­e­brant.

But early on, Ord did some­thing most cel­e­brants don’t: worked part time for a year as a fu­neral di­rec­tor’s as­sis­tant.

“I’d never seen a naked dead per­son be­fore, and I’m about to wash them, anoint them,” Ord re­calls. “I didn’t know what to pre­pare for and yet I felt this in­cred­i­ble at­tach­ment to the role. I was do­ing what women since time im­memo­rial have done for their loved ones.

“Men tak­ing over this role has only been a re­cent tra­di­tion. I think women com­ing back to the role is re­ally on the move.

“I chose to do it be­cause I wanted to see what hap­pens post-mortem. I wanted to have that ex­pe­ri­ence so that when I talk to a fam­ily about what is hap­pen­ing to that body, I know ex­actly what is hap­pen­ing to that body, over days. I wasn’t re­pelled by it, I found it a very ten­der and gen­tle ex­er­cise. I felt re­ally com­fort­able.”

Since then, she has guided the ser­vices for ba­bies, sui­cides, a mur­der vic­tim, along with those who have lived long and fruit­ful lives.

She writes each ser­vice in­di­vid­u­ally, in a process that be­gins with meet­ing the fam­ily, find­ing out what they need and tak­ing “co­pi­ous notes” about the de­ceased.

“If I find some­one that’s got a pas­sion for clay pi­geon shoot­ing, that’s fas­ci­nat­ing — I will go find out about clay pi­geon shoot­ing. Even if it doesn’t ap­pear in the ser­vice, it gives me a greater un­der­stand­ing of that per­son. I get a lot of plea­sure from that — it deep­ens the re­la­tion­ship with the de­ceased, who I re­ally think about a lot, for that three or four days where they are con­stantly a pres­ence in my life. I think about them all the time. Some­times I like to think they talk to me. It’s re­ally im­por­tant that peo­ple hear that. I’m the spokesper­son for the fam­ily and I’m also the spokesper­son for the per­son who’s passed away. I join that ser­vice to­gether and give it a sig­nif­i­cant be­gin­ning, a mid­dle and an end. And I need to know who I’m talk­ing about. That is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal.”

Ord has al­ways been a sec­u­lar cel­e­brant, but read­ily ac­knowl­edges a spir­i­tual el­e­ment to the role.

“And it’s at odds with my prag­ma­tism and my ra­tio­nal­ity and my hu­man­is­tic phi­los­o­phy. But, def­i­nitely. There is some­thing over­whelm­ing about the hu­man spirit at that time. The hu­man spirit is in­cred­i­ble. You can’t mea­sure it by sci­ence, but it ex­ists and that’s prob­a­bly what I be­lieve in more than any­thing. How peo­ple en­dure, how they trans­form them­selves and rise up at times of in­cred­i­ble grief.

“I’ve seen chil­dren speak at their parent’s

I’m the spokesper­son for the fam­ily and I’m also the spokesper­son for the per­son who’s passed away.

fu­neral, par­ents speak of their chil­dren. I’m con­stantly blown away by that. The hu­man spirit, the dig­nity I see come through time af­ter time.”

I’VE SEEN Ord con­duct a ser­vice once, four years ago, as the calm, steady pres­ence in the room at the shat­ter­ing fu­neral of 26-year-old Daisy Ram, the daugh­ter of a mu­tual friend and the vi­brant cen­tre of her own cir­cle of friends.

What she did then was a long way from the for­bid­ding fu­ner­als of yore. It was, says Cairns, em­blem­atic of her style.

“She got all those young peo­ple round to her house for sushi and just talked to them all and said what do you want to say and how are we go­ing to do it, and let them run with it.”

“She just guided them,” agrees Daisy’s mother, Kather­ine Frame. “She put on some food and they all had that time to talk about Daisy. She took that time to learn more about Daisy.”

With Ord’s en­cour­age­ment, Daisy’s friends dec­o­rated the hall for a ser­vice that was “so amaz­ing and re­spect­ful of Daisy and re­flected who we are too,” says Frame. “She came with us to the cre­ma­to­rium after­wards, just a small group of us, and she broke down at that point. She al­lowed her­self to break down and cried with us. I think that was im­por­tant too.”

As she al­ways does, Ord talked that day about the na­ture of grief. It was some­thing she

had to directly con­front her­self the fol­low­ing year, when her beloved fa­ther died sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly, sur­rounded by his fam­ily. Days later, she was his cel­e­brant.

“It might have been a year af­ter my fa­ther died that some­one said to me, ‘oh you look so young!’ and I re­alised my veil of grief had lifted. I didn’t re­alise I’d worn that veil, and it was heavy. It’s a heavy load, grief.

“While we can talk about men­tal ill­ness and de­pres­sion, we still bury grief some­where as some­thing we can’t dis­cuss, some­thing we must get over. Af­ter the fu­neral, the grief isn’t gone. It can take months, years or a life­time — the grief just be­comes in­cor­po­rated into your life.

“It’s not a men­tal ill­ness: it’s a state of mind, the price you pay for love.

“And we strug­gle with peo­ple who grieve for much longer than we think is ap­pro­pri­ate. They’re not hur­ry­ing up and get­ting on with their lives. I wish there were many more dis­cus­sions about grief in New Zealand. We don’t know what to say, we don’t know what the right words are, we avoid peo­ple who are griev­ing — be­cause we feel awk­ward and un­com­fort­able.” And those words are? “‘How are you to­day?’, be­cause to­day is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent from to­mor­row. That per­son’s grief has to be ac­knowl­edged. ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ just doesn’t cut it.” We also, she be­lieves, need to talk more when we’re alive about what we want when we die.

“Ask your mum what songs, hymns, prayers she wants, what sort of sand­wiches and tea she likes. The list of peo­ple to in­vite. I re­ally im­press this on peo­ple: while we’re all liv­ing, write what you want. Store it on your com­puter in a file that says ‘fu­neral’. I’ve told ev­ery­one what songs I want. I want lots of mu­sic.”

Ord says that while fam­i­lies are be­com­ing more cre­ative in what hap­pens af­ter a fu­neral ser­vice, and where, the ser­vice still usu­ally takes place at a ded­i­cated fa­cil­ity — and that Auck­land is blessed with those. “And those chapels do re­ally well. I think Waikumete is a beau­ti­ful chapel. All Saints at Purewa as well — it’s sec­u­lar, the team is fab­u­lous. Manukau Gar­dens — they’re all coun­cil-owned, they do a great job.”

ORD IS one of 2000 in­de­pen­dent cel­e­brants in New Zealand, of a to­tal of about 12,000 (most are at­tached to Births, Deaths and Mar­riages), who work for a stan­dard fee of $450.

“Over the last 10 years the di­ver­sity of cel­e­brants has in­creased,” she says, “and I re­ally want to credit the Depart­ment of In­ter­nal Af­fairs for broad­en­ing that reach and ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple of dif­fer­ent faiths and sex­u­al­i­ties. And you all don’t have to be a pil­lar of your com­mu­nity — you just have to be part of that com­mu­nity. Them ac­knowl­edg­ing the di­ver­sity of our com­mu­ni­ties — in faith, lan­guage, cul­ture — has re­ally changed the face of cel­e­brancy. More peo­ple I know are be­com­ing cel­e­brants, and where I felt I worked in iso­la­tion a lot of the time, I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to spend­ing more time with other peo­ple who are do­ing the same thing and con­nect­ing with them and shar­ing ideas and in­for­ma­tion.”

It’s not a liv­ing — last night she was busy cater­ing the wrap party for a video pro­duc­tion — but not only for fi­nan­cial rea­sons. She per­formed three fu­ner­als in a week once “and it was too much, es­pe­cially with the amount of work that I put into it. That was way too much for me emo­tion­ally.”

She turns again to to­day’s ser­vice, mar­vels at how spe­cial and good it was, then cracks just a lit­tle. “It’s been tough to­day. I’m go­ing to cry again. I don’t of­ten get that, but I’ve done lots of young peo­ple re­cently. How do you make that okay?”

She has plans for the evening. She’ll go out — with her grown-up kids — and soak up the restora­tive pow­ers of a crowded dance floor.

In the longer run, Ord thinks she’s due for one of the cour­ses avail­able to pro­fes­sion­als suf­fer­ing “grief over­load”. It’s not your av­er­age job.

“No, not when you find your­self cry­ing in the night for some­one you’ve never met, just feel­ing ab­so­lutely grief-stricken for her and her fam­ily. Maybe that’s why I’m good at my job — I care.”

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