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Burying Our Dead

Published in Overland Literary Journal, 12th October 2018.

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.’