Disclaimer: These are my personal thoughts and feelings on the experience of my brother’s funeral. I am not, in any way, intending to offend or upset anyone.
So, obviously I’ve been very, very quiet lately. I won’t lie, even existing is a struggle right now. Everything is just…wrong. Jared’s funeral was on the 30th of April, so two weeks ago today. Jared’s partner is Tokelauan, so we followed along with the Toke traditions for the funeral. Imz was clear at every step that we didn’t have to do anything. We could participate or not participate, it was up to us.
So, I guess I should tell you my personal experience of funerals thus far in life. Maybe, there’s a viewing of the body, maybe there isn’t. If there is, it’s usually about half an hour before the funeral. You see the body for five minutes, while in complete shock, then the funeral happens. You go to the cemetery, and the coffin is lowered into the ground before you walk away from an open grave. I may never have criticised this way of grieving if Jared hadn’t died, because it’s all I ever knew.
The night after Jared died, my parents and I sat with Imz and we discussed the funeral. That was when she told us that he would come home and lie in state for three days before the funeral. She warned us that, “the last night before the funeral is a big one”. So we knew all along that Jared would need to be fully embalmed for that to happen.
Cue some stress and concern because there was a 3 to 5 week wait for autopsies, so we didn’t know if we would be able to have an open coffin for the viewing. As the funeral director put it, they can’t turn back time, and they can only work with the body as they receive it. Luckily, we heard back after 3.5 weeks that Jared’s body had been received by the mortician.
This was when Imz told us that as part of their tradition, the immediate family dresses the body. Again, she stressed that her brothers would go with her and we did not have to do it. Of course, though, we weren’t going to leave her to go through that without us with her.
I won’t lie, I was absolutely shitting bricks on the drive to the mortuary. I wasn’t ready, and I don’t think that anything could have ever prepared me for that. I’m the kind of person who always wants to be first, I’m happy to lead the way…not this day. I offered for Imz to take the lead, but she let me go first…and so I did, not wanting to be first for once, and absolutely dreading what was to come.
I don’t have words to describe the way I felt the moment I saw him. My big brother, lying dead on a table. I screamed and wailed and the pain was too much to bear. The others joined me in the room and we all cried. I was scared to touch him and would only barely put my hand on his arm, meanwhile Imz and Mum both gave him a kiss. He honestly looked like he was just sleeping.
Even writing this, I’m crying at the memory and it doesn’t seem real; it certainly doesn’t seem right. After about half an hour, the mortician came and asked if we were ready to dress him. Well, I pretty soon had to get over my fear of touching his body. I was grateful that he already had a singlet and jocks on, because I didn’t want to see my brother’s junk! They’d also bandaged his legs, which was my other fear, because I knew that was where he was most badly injured.
Dressing a dead body is ludicrously difficult, let me tell you. It took the mortician, Imz, her two brothers, Dad, Mum, my husband, and me to get it done. So, eight people. It’s like dressing a baby, except they’re absolutely zero help and you can’t lift their torso. You roll them to their side, yank down the shirt as much as you can, roll them back to the other side, yank the shirt down as much as you can, roll them…you get the idea. By the time we’d rolled Jared back and forth about fifty times, I was joking, “Come on, Jared! Just lift your bum and help us get your pants on!”
Basically, by the end of it, you’ve spent this time with your loved one and gotten over that initial shock. You’ve also helped them one final time into an outfit to wear. It really was beautiful, even if I did cry a lot.
But I see the point of it, because he came home on the Tuesday before the funeral and there was a ‘welcome home’ ceremony with extended family. Because of the time spent dressing him, it wasn’t as scary when the coffin was opened, and I wouldn’t have wanted to have the reaction I’d had at the mortuary in front of other people. I was prepared emotionally for what I would see at that point.
There was a rosary each night at 6:30pm and everyone would bring a plate of food or some drinks. Jared was in the front room, and we all laughed and cried and hugged him and kissed him and shared stories about him. Basically, for three days and nights, he was loved on by family and friends. Each night, someone slept on the floor by the coffin, so he wasn’t alone in some drawer in a mortuary.
The first night, my 7 year old was too scared to touch him, but my 5 year old was fine. By the second night, my 7 year old gave him a hug, as well. All of the kids there (and there were a lot!) were fine to talk about him, touch him, hug him, and kiss him. I feel like maybe if I’d had experiences like this growing up, I wouldn’t have had a fear of death, because it was clear over those three days that it was nothing to be scared of. He was still there with us in the memories and love that we had for him.
It kind of became a thing that after the rosary was finished each night, I would sit and cry on him. Like…messy, hysterical tears. I would swear at him and tell him I loved him but that I was angry and that I didn’t know how I was meant to go on without him. On the second night, I burst out laughing when I sat up from crying on him because I had managed to leave a tear perfectly in the corner of his eye and it looked like he was crying! Yes, I took a picture to show Imz and we all laughed.
I can’t stress enough that my kids came away from these evenings talking about the ‘party’ they’d been to. It really was a celebration. Even though we were also crying and sad, we laughed in equal measure. Different family members from each side met each other, and I met friends of Jared’s from business and grid iron, and heard hundreds of stories about how he’d touched people’s lives.
Finally, it was time for the funeral. We cried a lot and we’d picked a black coffin so we could write messages to Jared on it. I drew a cock and balls, as well as someone pulling the finger, on the inside of his coffin lid, and I have no regrets about this. He’d have done the same to me (and I’d be disappointed if he didn’t!). My 5 year old and I wrote a letter to Jared that we put in his coffin, as well. Fuck, I miss him so much.
Anyway, the funeral was beautiful and sad. When we got to the cemetery, his coffin was put on the back of his work ute for one last drive to the graveside. When we got there, I used the tipper to tip up the tray a little so he got one last use of the tipper function as well (many jokes were made about backing up to the grave and just tipping him in!).
After a short ceremony at the graveside, he was lowered into the ground and close family members dropped a long-stemmed red rose into the grave. Some other memorabilia went in with him, as well. Then, as part of Imz’s tradition, six shovels had been provided by the cemetery and we all shovelled some of the dirt into the grave. I could only do three shovels full before I stopped because it was too painful to buy him. Even my 7 year old did a few shovels, as did a lot of the family and friends there.
We went back to the venue where the funeral had been held for the wake and had a beautiful meal. Then the day after the funeral there was a big celebration at Imz’s house where some people (read: me) got drunk and vomited in the garden.
All in all, though, I found the experience to be a much more full one that what I’d experienced in the past. By no means did this more full grieving process mean that I am now suddenly okay, but I do think that I have many, many more precious last memories with Jared than I would have gotten if the experience had been what I’ve been used to with other family members that have passed away.
It was absolutely beautiful, and an honour to be included in what is clearly a sacred tradition. Jared really had both embraced the Tokelauan culture and been embraced by his Tokelauan family. When Imz’s grandmother died a few years ago, she went back to New Zealand for the funeral, but Jared didn’t go. He had apparently been fascinated by her stories of it and was curious to experience a Tokelauan funeral. We’re pretty sure this wasn’t the way he wanted to experience it, but hey, he got to go to a Tokelauan funeral after all!
That’s not to say that our own traditions were excluded at all. Imz wanted to be sure that nothing that was a part of her tradition would eclipse ours, and it didn’t. Space was made for both families to grieve, while we were also allowed to grieve alongside her in her traditions. The placing of the roses was our tradition, and Mum got roses for Imz and her family to place in the grave, as well. So, we did share something of ours, it just feels…smaller than what was shared with us.
All in all, it really was a beautiful experience, but it is one that I deeply regret having had. I wish I didn’t have this experience. I wish I didn’t know how this feels. I’m still not coping. The way I describe it is as being ‘checked out’. I’m walking around and doing things, but I’m not really there. I saw my psych on Monday and he happened to have lost his older sister when she was 37 in a car accident, so he knows this specific pain. He said that it doesn’t go away, it just hurts less frequently, and that I don’t have to be okay right now. All things I knew, but it’s still nice to hear it from my psych, especially as someone who has been through these kind of circumstances.
I know that I’ll get there in time, but what I’ve been telling my boys is also true. I’ll never not be sad again, because Uncle Jared will always be dead. Nothing will bring him back, and that is a loss that I’ll always feel on some level.