Still reeling from the deaths of his parents, Greg Bruce attends a funeral directors' conference to talk to those who deal with grief daily.
Late on the conference's first afternoon, during the Organised Fun at the Christchurch Bowling Club, a casket-maker looked around the room and told me conspiratorially that she could point out all the people who'd had breakdowns - the implication being, I think, that there were a lot of them.
Everybody looked happy enough. They were laughing, joking, dressed in Hawaiian shirts for some reason. They were in teams, putting together remote-controlled cars.
The conference had begun only that morning and I'd already heard numerous graphic, harrowing and traumatising stories about the things these people had seen, although the traumatised were never the ones telling the stories. It seems self-evident that dealing with death all day every day will mess you up but no one would cop to it. For God's sake, it was only a two-day conference and the whole second day was dedicated to mental and emotional well-being.
Earlier in the day, a funeral director had told me about seeing his first dead body, a Coroner's case, during his first week on the job:
"I walked past the mortuary door and they'd left it open and they were doing a post-mortem and they had the calvarium open and the cranium cap off, so the whole head was exposed. I was like, 'What is going on in there?' I had no idea. Like I knew it was the mortuary but didn't know what they did. I just did not know."
I said: "What could you see? The brain?"
"Well, the pathologist removes the brain."
"Yeah," he said, "and they're eviscerated."
Another funeral director, another first body. He said: "The body was over here and the head was over there."
One funeral director told me of going to collect a schoolchild who'd been hit by a train, the body spread over 100m of railway tracks.
The same person said: "I remember FDANZ [Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand] had a number you could call and it was basically support if you were having a hard time psychologically. It still exists, but we found we were better to talk to each other. I think she, the lady, burnt out.
"Someone was telling her a horrific story. Seriously, like infanticide, some Mongrel Mob member throwing a baby against the wall, cigarettes being put out on a baby's hand, that's the sort of shit that's out there in society. That happens. Babies in washing machines, stuff like that; and you hear about it on the news. You think, 'Oh, that was horrible.' But if you're actually there ... yeah, the lady that was helping us couldn't cope with it."
The general manager of one funeral home told me about a member of his staff who, he recently found out, struggles to deal with traumatic deaths - something he has been doing for 20 years. The general manager said: "And that was the first I knew. And that brought it home to me: it does affect everybody in this room."
When they took off their Hawaiian shirts and lay down that night in their deluxe and superior rooms at Rydges Latimer Square, situated midway between Christchurch's temporary cathedral and the southern hemisphere's largest playground, how did they get to sleep? And what did they dream about?
I had my own s*** going on. I was still grieving, I suppose. I say "suppose" because my dad died last September and my mum died two years before that and I don't know how long I'm allowed to continue taking advantage of the sympathetic privileges bestowed by society on the grief-stricken; nor do I want to make anyone uncomfortable.
What if, each day when people said, "How are you?" I replied, "The deaths of my parents five months and three years ago respectively are continuing to f*** me up?" What if I said, "Night after night I have these dreams that my parents are still alive and they don't realise they're about to die"? If I did say any of this, what would I expect in return? And if that expectation wasn't fulfilled, how would I deal with that? And what would all of this do for my social and professional prospects?
A funeral, as we know, is the place where we leave that sort of thing. The days immediately after the death of a loved one are spent deep in the preparations: casket selections, will executions, house emptyings, photo findings, death noticings - the bureaucracy of death - and then we have the catharsis and emotional openness of the funeral and then we have our return to the repressions of real life.
That's not to say sympathy ends there - of course it doesn't - it ends, on average, one to two weeks later.
On tap, the Christchurch Bowling Club had Speights, Canterbury Draught and Lion Brown. When I ordered a Lion Brown, one of the bowling club's veteran barmen said, "Finally! A real man!"
I hate the idea of a "real man", particularly as related to his choice of alcohol but I'm highly susceptible to praise and I won't deny that those words made me feel good.
I had met Richard Fullard on the opening morning of the conference and my immediate impression was of an old white man in a suit. Soon though, and unsettlingly, I started to suspect he might be the same Richard Fullard who, 30 years ago, had played soccer and cricket alongside me in teams that were both coached by my dad.
The Fullard question nagged at me throughout the day until, during the Organised Fun, I was put in a team with him. Our job was to construct, then race, a remote-controlled car. Fullard and I got talking and he asked how old I was and when I told him 42, he said "So am I!" Then I asked where he grew up and he said, "Pakuranga" and that gave me 100 per cent certainty he was the boy I remembered.
He didn't seem to recognise me though and, because I don't much care for that period of my life or those teams and because I didn't know what Fullard had thought of my dad and because Fullard had been much cooler than me and because I had a vague memory of him being mean to me aged 12 and because I didn't want him to feel stink that he hadn't remembered me, I didn't say anything.
Instead, we talked about death and funerals, although I failed to take any of it in. The longer we talked, the more I could feel myself starting to disintegrate, socially. Specifically, the longer I sat there with him, the more time I was spending, psychologically, back at Lloyd Elsmore Park and Riverhills, aged 11 or 12, my dad on the sideline, my mum at home, both still alive. The last thing I needed at a conference about death was to be thinking about my childhood and the speed with which it and its key characters had disappeared.
It was suddenly too much. I was in over my head, emotionally. I felt I might at any stage start crying, then throw up. I felt a desperate need to escape.
I thought about going to the bathroom and climbing out the window. It would have been easier to walk out the front door but there would have been so little drama in that. There are many reasons you might walk out a door, but you only climb out a bathroom window in a crisis.
Fullard was still talking. Before he'd become a funeral director, he had worked in radio advertising, a job that involved playing golf, drinking piss, f***ing over the salesperson next to you and stealing shit from the station's prize cupboard. Then one day he'd woken in the middle of the night gasping for air (the gasping may have been metaphorical), thinking: "[GASP!] What am I doing with my life? I've got kids and a wife and a house and [GASP!] What am I doing with my life?"
Before I came to this conference, I thought hard about whether it would be a good idea. I knew two full days of death would be emotionally challenging and I had understood the possibility of facing down at least some sort of emotional quasi-crisis at some point. If I'm honest, I'd sort of hoped for it.
I didn't leave. Instead, I sat there smiling and nodding at Fullard's re-enacted midlife panic attack while pushing my own thick and rising unease deep, deep down inside. Later, in the parking lot of the Christchurch Bowling Club, selected to be my team's driver, wearing sunglasses, intoxicated by the cheering of 100 or so funeral industry professionals, I drove our remote-control car brilliantly in both the preliminary race and the final, winning both by enormous distances.
In photos of the event, I appear ice-cool and content. For the rest of the conference I was referred to frequently as "The Champ". I won't pretend I didn't like it.
During the conference's opening session, the president of FDANZ Gary Taylor had diagnosed what he called "the generation coming through (I think they call them Gen Y or Gen X)" with anxiety. "They have anxiety about everything," he said, "but particularly about death."
Studies have shown, Taylor said, that these generations are more anxious about death than any other, because they don't have any reference points for it and they don't understand it. The way to deal with anxiety, he said, is to expose yourself to it.
"Our job," he said, "is to expose everybody, I suppose, to that whole funeral process."
He said: "We are the gatekeepers of a vast amount of knowledge. We have a public that is ignorant of this knowledge. We have a public who is ignorant and therefore tries to ridicule the whole funeral process. We need to get out into the community, we need to reduce that level of anxiety among generation X and generation Y and we need to do that by getting to people way before they need our services."
This is the thrust of the industry's 3-year-old marketing campaign, which it calls "Take The Time to Talk".
After Taylor's presentation, the floor was opened to questions. Wade Downey, general manager of leading North Shore funeral home Dil's, got straight down to tin tacks: "Are we seeing an increase in no-service cremations - yes or no - so therefore is 'Take the Time to Talk' working?"
Downey already knew the answer to the first part of the question. Everyone in the room knew it. The question was rhetorical. The term, "No-service cremation" or, more commonly, "Direct cremation" was everywhere at the FDANZ conference, like a plague. Increasingly, it seems, people are bypassing a meaningful and potentially expensive farewell for a cheaper direct-to-furnace approach.
One funeral director told me later, in regards to direct cremations, "Yeah it's huge. People are just flicking them. Boom, gone. It's just not healthy."
Taylor said: "All that emotion has nowhere to go."
The subtext of the Take The Time to Talk campaign is, "You might think you want a direct cremation but you really don't."
Taylor reminded the audience of the vast wisdom they'd accumulated as funeral directors, not just in their professional lives but which had been passed down through their DNA. He told them an inspirational story about remains found in South Africa's Rising Star cave system indicating that funerals had been conducted there 300,000 years ago.
He said: "These were people, early ancestors of ours who, as far as we know, had no verbal communication. What they did recognise is the emotional upheaval that death caused them. They needed to mark that occasion. They needed to do something."
Taylor either didn't know or didn't mention - did it matter? - that the latest research casts doubt on, or at least offers no conclusive evidence for, the claim that the people found at Rising Star were buried in any sort of ceremonial or ritual way.
It is in the interests of the funeral industry that New Zealanders continue to die, which we currently do at the rate of about 31,000 a year and rising, but it's at least as important to the funeral industry that we continue to celebrate those deaths by spending a reasonable amount of money on them.
Taylor spoke of the power of the funeral: "We are there to transfer not only the deceased from this world to the next, wherever that may be, but we are there to transition those families that come to us. We're there to transition them through from wherever they are now, which is in turmoil, to a point at which they start to understand the altered reality that is their world ahead."
Both my parents had traditional funerals and I would describe both of them as good funerals and important moments. But, as I say, my dad's funeral was five months ago and my mum's was two years before that.
I am at the very tail end of what demographers and marketers call Generation X and, as FDANZ's Taylor correctly identified in his intergenerational analysis, I didn't have much of a reference point regarding death until deep, deep into adulthood, when my mum died. Prior to that, my only funeral was my grandfather's, when I was maybe 3 or 4.
When I discovered grief, following the sudden death of my mum, early on a Saturday morning at Middlemore Hospital in 2016, there were two things about it that surprised me: First, it was not some abstract thing, some feeling, but a physical object. It resided in the centre of my chest and I found the only effective way to manage it was continually pressing down hard and rubbing on it, as if to prevent it blowing me open.
The second thing was its shape in time, which was not linear (not a steadily declining line from, say, intense grief to minor melancholy), but a series of waves of wildly varying shape and power that would recede and return for no reasons I could explain or control.
Obviously I didn't know any of this in advance and, therefore, hadn't prepared myself for it. If I had, would it have helped? Talking is sometimes worthwhile and sometimes it's purest weightlessness and it can be quite hard until after the fact to know the difference.
In his editorial in the December 2018 issue of Funeralcare: The magazine of the New Zealand Funeral Profession, Taylor wrote, "I have seen all manner of horrendous sights. I have experienced the raw, uncontrolled heart wrenching emotions of families in the pit of despair. I have seen team members crying at their desks overcome by the enormity of the emotions they are being asked to deal with. I once found myself holding the hand of a dead 17-year-old girl, tragically killed in a car accident, because I wanted her to know that she wasn't alone. Looking back, it seems an odd thing to do but I see now I was the one needing the support."
Major trauma is easy to identify and respond to in others. Awash with sympathy, we provide things we believe necessary for the relief of suffering: food and drink, love and care, ritual and ceremony, alcohol and other drugs.
But even if any of that helps, we cannot be sympathetic forever. Sympathy responds to novelty and diminishes over time. It's a finite resource. Its application is exhausting and time consuming and we the sympathetic have other things to do with our lives. At some point we tell the sufferer, usually not explicitly, it's time to get on.
The problem is one of volume: the human capacity for suffering is larger than its capacity for sympathy. Or maybe it's a problem of time: the half-life of suffering is longer by multiples than the half-life of sympathy.
All this is probably irrelevant if your workday revolves around suffering and if the things you're getting on with, on an endless basis, are dealing with dead children and decapitated corpses and the unrestrained grief of bereaved families. It's one thing to know in an abstract way that the capacity for human suffering is boundless but it's another to see it daily made flesh.
At one stage during the conference, Fullard told me about an old boss of his who once said: "There's two rules in this business: you don't drink my piss and you don't own anyone else's grief."
Fullard said he didn't understand what his boss meant until later, when he interpreted it thus: "What he was saying was, 'You have to let that family own all of that grief. You can't be upset for them, you can't be sorry for them, because they need to deal with that. You can't take that home.'"
That advice sounds great and is well-meaning but is not at all helpful. What comes home with you is not your choice.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
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