Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week Joo-Inn Chew is a writer and doctor working in general practice and refugee health. She has had short stories, memoir and poetry published in various anthologies, most recently ‘Growing Up Queer in Australia’ and ‘These Strange Outcrops: Writing and Art from Canberra’. She lives in Canberra with her partner and two children.
Joo-Inn: Hi everyone, my story’s called ‘Ice Cream at The Crem’
The funeral attendant’s name is Liz, and she has hair that looks like it drowned in a vat of peroxide, was dragged out by an over keen golden retriever, wrestled from its jaws after a long tussle, and then blow dried to death with an industrial leaf blower. Her nails are lethal scarlet talons that would make Kali the Goddess of Destruction envious. She raises and lowers the stiff rafts of mascara attached to her long-suffering eyelids and shoots us a syrupy look of professional sympathy.
‘Well, we finally got him back from the Coroners again last night. He looks good, your dad. Young.’
My brother and I blink at her in disbelief. Only a funeral attendant could describe our dad, after his fatal stroke, undiagnosed metastatic cancer, autopsy and reconstitution, as looking young and good. Especially since we had chosen his favourite clothes to dress him in after he was stitched back together: ancient cargo pants, a faded batik shirt, dilapidated old black shoes, and the least tacky baseball cap we could find in his bedroom. To me he had looked like a homeless but jaunty Chinese zombie. These funeral attendants could really bullshit.
Liz shifts her taut linen clad rear on the saggy couch in dad’s front room. She recrosses her stilettoes and flicks open a booklet edged with white lilies. ‘We offer a wide range of caskets to accompany your beloved on the next stage of their journey’, she intones. Her talons caress the pages as she runs through the Mahogany Grand, the Rosewood Deluxe, the Graceland Classic. Golden handles gleam, silken linings pout invitingly. Being dead never looked so glamourous. You’d think dad was going to Playboy Mansion not to a crematorium. The price tags are the size of the average family’s credit card debt. No wonder Liz drives a Porsche.
‘Um, would you have anything a bit more… simple?’ I ask. ‘He was a humble sort of man.’
Liz frowns. She turns towards the back of the folder where we see some plainer white and brown coffins. On the last page is an untreated pine box with a note in brackets ‘repatriation coffin, $300’. My brother leans forward with interest, rolling up his op-shop sleeves, all his eco and bargain-hunter instincts activated. ‘How about that one?’
Liz looks like she’s about to keel over, so I butt in. ‘That one’s for bringing remains back from overseas bro.’
‘So that’s perfect! Dad was a traveller, he went all over the world, and he’d want the simplest thing.’
‘Bro I know he’d go for it, but think about the whole thing – the church, the relatives…’ I kick his leg under the table. Imagine the ‘repatriating dead soldier/home carpentry’ vibe in the midst of the Baptist extended family, my kick says. Imagine the ‘he was only worth an Ikea pine flatpack coffin’ gossip in the back rows of the church, my toe-stomp adds. My brother shoots me a you-are-such-a-bourgeois-older-sister-even-if-you-are-a-lesbian-look, but manages to curb his enthusiasm.
Finally we settle on a plain but respectable wooden casket. Some minor detailing and staining mercifully differentiate it from the repatriation coffin, which my brother stares at wistfully as Liz closes the folder. I know he would prefer dad sent off in a cardboard box leftover from weekly bargain-time market shopping, with limp lettuce leaves as a garnish. Dad would probably have liked that too, to give us a laugh and a last only-one-dollar moment.
Next we have to work through choices about funeral notices, flowers, catering, cremation versus burial. Which sandwiches will people feel like eating after their final goodbyes? Will the pain of grief mean party pies will give them indigestion? Will Arnott’s Assorted Biscuits seem too stingy. We decide to ditch flowers and decorate with the white paper roses made by one of dad’s Chinese friends, the one who hurriedly set up a shrine to help our father’s spirit become an ancestor, rescuing him from the spiritual incompetence of his Australian children. We decide on cremation, it seems somehow tidier, and then we can hold on to the ashes until we are ready to believe that he is really really dead. We get a discount price on the whole funeral package, as the religiosity of the extended family, usually an impractical oddity, is finally paying off, with a minister aunt and uncle willing to lead the service. Liz is reluctantly impressed, noting on in her floral notepad ‘supplying own clergy’. Who knew being dead was so complex and costly?
Or such a bustling business. Liz is unhappy about our request for a second viewing. ‘That might be pushing it at our end, we’ve had so many deaths this week’ she says, sounding both stressed and gratified with the spike in mortality in Melbourne’s North West, and at her funeral company being chosen by so many grief-stricken families. She frowns down at her schedule. ‘Service at 12, off to the Crem at 2… we might be able to squeeze in another viewing at 3 before the next group have the chapel at 4. But it’ll have to be quick.’
‘Sure,’ I agree. Somehow a hysterical lobe of my bereaved brain is now going rogue, edging me closer and closer to maniacal laughter. ‘We can squeeze in a quick goodbye to dad at The Crem.’ My brother shoots me a warning look. But it’s too late… I imagine Liz drumming her red talons on the casket and eyeing her gold watch, while a queue of coffins back up the cemetery road, mourners leaning out the hearse windows to swap tissue boxes and swigs of whisky. A widow in black gets out and starts a slow handclap ‘why are we wai-ting, get on with the crema-ting…’ Meanwhile in the chapel a catering stall has set-up: ‘Crème de la Crème – Ice-cream at the Crem – A Last Refreshment’. A black-garbed worker leans towards me with a scoop. ‘Don’t Feel Alone, Have A Cone’ he murmurs solicitously. ‘We have every flavour to complement your grief: Salted Tears Caramel, Nostalgic Nougat, Rocky Relations Road, Good Riddance Gooseberry, Deceased Estate Ripple, Banana Embalmer…. And we try our Pizza Range too – Ashes to Ashes, Crust to Crust –‘ suddenly I am exploding with hysterical giggles, snorting and gasping like a grieving rhinocerus.
Liz is affronted. She gathers her brochures and stalks toward the door in a cloud of lily perfume and huff. ‘Well! I’ll be in touch later when you’ve… composed yourselves.’ She clangs the screen door shut like she’s dropping a coffin lid. A minute later her red Porshe roars off down the street.
My brother and I look at each other and disintegrate into hysteria. We roll around the floor mimicking Liz and upselling each other coffins and urns (‘mine has diamonds!’ ‘well mine is self-scattering!’), wallowing in the surreal hilarity of death logistics. We laugh and scream until we cry. We cry until we have snot and tears all over our faces. After we cry we crack open dad’s whisky, even though it’s ten in the morning. We sit out on the porch and wipe our eyes and toast to dad. Somewhere out there we can almost hear him laughing.
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