Conversations with a young blonde twenty-something sassy funeral director.
Not too long ago, I discovered Miss Heels and Hearses on Instagram. Her IG account and blog are unusual, interesting and chic – an irresistible combination. Over recent weeks, Alison and I have been emailing, slowly getting to know each other. A bit like a series of dates or coffee mornings, and we’ve discovered we have quite a bit in common.
Okay, I’m a reclusive writer in Perth who collects books like there may be a worldwide shortage any day now, and I’m happiest tapping away at the keyboard. Alison, on the other hand, collects Louboutins, is a funeral director and mortician, lives on the other side of the country and is planning a trip to the City of Love later this year. Okay so on the face of it, I’m significantly older and boring (I really like my Birkenstocks and UGG boots), but we both love words and where it counts, similarities abound. Alison launches herself at life. We both believe life is short, time is ticking and we’d better not waste a single day. So let’s find out more about the skinny blonde who loves life and the dead…
What made you choose to be a funeral director and mortician?
I wanted to be a mortician ever since I watched Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in the comedy flick Death Becomes Her. I was about eight years old and then I saw My Girl and knew it – I was going to work in a funeral home!
Most days you’re in scrubs and polka dot gumboots, is this why you like Louboutins?
Louboutins are my favourite shoe! The quality is incredible, and they’re from France!! They are so smooth and shiny and beautiful and the sleek red soles send my tummy flip flopping all over the place. They’re stunning!!!! But at $650 a pop, I don’t own many, and I hardly wear them because they are not a heel you wear out for a casual dinner at Santinos.
What kind of training did you have to do?
Formal training to be a funeral director in Australia lasts six weeks. There’s a theory component with education about the culture and history of funerals, assessments and checklists, but the rest you learn hands on. Mortuary work is far more intense – two years training; exams, weeks and weeks of reading and case studies, hands-on experience and visiting funeral homes across the country. The training isn’t the hardest part of becoming a funeral director – it’s gaining the initial opportunity itself. Most Australian funeral homes require some level of formal training and you have to prove 100% passion and dedication to the funeral profession. Impressing the funeral board is a tough gig.
What have you learnt about life from dealing with death?
That’s a tough one because I learn so much from it all. Basically, our time here is short and we all have our purpose. Death is an important part of our earthly duties. We have a certain amount of time to serve others, develop our skills and passions, and create memories for our families to carry on through generations. I believe our paths are different and determine where we go next after this. Cherish the small things, like the smell of coffee and late-night rain.
Did you ever find the dead intimidating?
I started out in the industry many years ago, and yes! I did initially find it intimidating. I actually fainted on my first day. I shit myself if asked to go ‘downstairs’ on my own. The locker room at that particular funeral home was very close to the mortuary, and it felt cold and eerie and I was always on edge. I would only powder my nose if someone else was in the change room with me. Now I am older and wiser perhaps, I have overcome this intimidation and actually find working with the dead not only gratifying but peaceful. Some cases are confronting, naturally, but never intimidating.
When you’re super happy do you have to tone it down for work? How can you be happy when everyone is sad around you?
We are happy because we feel grateful, we appreciate every moment we are alive because we know how fragile life is. Daily we look after people who were alive yesterday. Our own funerals could be next week… You just don’t know, so we are happy people because we value our time alive. We do tone it down, and I consider our ‘funeral’ look a skill – it’s a look we wear that is compassionate and condoling; a kind of smile, head hung slightly low. Only moments ago we could have been chatting about Zara Larson’s latest track, but as soon as we see the grieving, on goes our ‘funeral look’.
Are the dead like the living – are there some you like more than others? Do you deal with many younger people? Is that harder emotionally for you?
I give all of my people the same respect and love. I don’t like any of them more than another. Some characters are more interesting than others, but I love them all the same.
Yes, we do work with younger fatalities; from accidents to suicide, and others who were born into disease. Of course it is heart breaking to wash the hair of a twelve year-old girl who had the world at her feet and place her dressed in her coffin. I wouldn’t be human if this didn’t pull at my heart strings. However, when a 30 year-old is on my mortuary table I am more affected. When faced with young adults, around my age, I feel so deeply for the young families they left behind. They are old enough to have gained a life (children, career, marriage), but are far too young to die. When a young adult is snatched from this world in their prime, I am frozen in my polka dot gum boots. That could be me lying there.
What casket would you have? (probably one of the strangest questions I’ve ever asked)
Each funeral home has different coffins/caskets in stock. Our major supplier delivers to all of us, and we choose six to eight different types to have accessible. So depending on which funeral home you approach, all of the coffins on offer differ. I am leaning towards to the Grecian Urn. This casket is very expensive and mostly used for Greeks and Italians who pay close to one hundred thousand dollars for a funeral. The grecian urn is not only luxurious, but it won’t crumble beneath the weight of soil once underground and slowly deteriorate in time. It truly is remarkable looking.
Do you think cremation or burial is better?
Tough one, lovely! Neither is better. They are so very different. Cremation used to scare me. I have watched hundreds of coffins be engulfed in angry looking flames and watching a human body be cremated can be horrific! However…the stages of decomposition underground aren’t very sexy either. I swing from one to the other. Some days I wish to be cremated and stored in a hot pink glitter urn on my niece’s mantelpiece, other days I believe I would prefer to rest peacefully in my grave and give life to the Earth.
Do you ever feel a living presence?
I ALWAYS feel a living presence. Some more so than others. I refer to each and every case on my table with their name. NEVER a number. I have worked in funeral homes where the deceased are ‘numbers.’ Where I currently work, only names are used. They are people and we will look after them and care for them. Mr. Stephens. Joe Hollands and Fabian Macintyre. Joy Brice and Samantha Deanne. Every body bag opened has a name.
Do you style hair & apply make-up? Is that difficult? How do you make your people look less dead?
Make-up and hair styling is a huge part of my role. I actually find this therapeutic some days – radio blasting while I set hot rollers and apply lipstick to cold lips. No one bothering me, and watching the transformation fulfils me.
Dressing my people is actually one of the most challenging parts of the job. I remember when I was first taught the mouth suture. I watched in doubt and thought I would never be able to get that right. My mortuary trainers made dressing the bodies look easy. It turns out…the mouth suture came naturally and the dressing had me flustered and grumbling. It gives new meaning to the common phrase ‘dead weight’. Let me tell you, a dead weight is very heavy. There is no give – your lower back aches. The skin is so cold that trying to pull denim jeans up a rigid leg is no easy feat!
We definitely make the faces look less dead, but it’s not the make-up that achieves this result. It’s the careful bathing and emollients we massage into the face. We secure the eyes closed and bring the mouth to it’s natural resting place with the mouth suture.
Tell me more about this trip to Paris.
I am so excited about my Paris trip! I have dreamt of eating a croissant under the Eiffel Tower for my 30th birthday for as long as I can remember. This year, I am not letting anything get in my way. For three weeks, I will be sipping champagne and eating cheese, In Paris. I cannot wait!
And the last word from Miss Heels and Hearses…
The job I wake up for every morning is my dream role. I have been blessed to achieve this. Right now, I’m in my prime, loving my job, colleagues and my role as a mortician and funeral director. Of course the death industry isn’t for everyone. But it’s a part of me and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
You can follow Miss Heels and Hearses on Instagram @heelsandhearses