Grief is the Family Business

An excerpt of New Animal by Ella Baxter, recommended by Courtney Maum

Introduction by Courtney Maum

It’s rare to read about death as a sensual experience. For the people who lose loved ones to this grim specter, death is brutal, cruel, obtrusive. For the dying, death can be any number of things: welcome, painful, frightening. Untimely, or unjust. Sensuality has to do with the commingling of physicality and pleasure, and death is rarely posited as a pleasurable event.

But there are sensualists out there who write about the physicality of death and dying with enormous pleasure—which isn’t to say that they are misanthropes, but rather they’re able to break through mortuary taboos to consider the psychosomatic experiences of living people who think about the dead. Nuri McBride is one such thinker—a popular academic who specializes in the relationship between death and scent, lecturing frequently on aromatic death rituals and the balance of the putrid and the divine. The Australian writer and sculptor Ella Baxter is another. As an artist, she fashions intricate death shrouds from antique linen and silk inspired by NASA images of starbirths and exhibits site-specific, ephemeral cocoons throughout Victoria. As a writer, her debut novel New Animal also interrogates death through the lens of physicality: the narrator, Amelia Aurelia, is a flailing almost-thirty-year-old working as a cosmetic mortician at her family’s mortuary business. The death of Amelia’s beloved mother triggers her fight or flight response—she chooses the latter, seeking solace in Tasmania’s BDSM scene. Watching Amelia interrogate her grief through the vehicle of sexual release and experimentation made a lot of sense to me. After all, aside from birth, death and sex are some of the most profound physical experiences available to humans. 

The heat and humor that crackles throughout this exceptional debut is on full view in this excerpt, which I hope you’ll enjoy in all its decadence, its morbidity, and its celebration of the human will to not just live, but feel alive.         

Courtney Maum
Author of The Year of the Horses

Grief is the Family Business

At eleven a.m., the landscape already crackles on its way to reaching forty degrees before lunch, and the sound of Kathmandu water bottles being refilled ricochets between the three major holiday parks. Radiant heat beams off the coastline in long fumes, shuddering over highways and interstate buses as the liquid inside our bodies hits a quivering boil. The Northern Rivers in summer shakes the shit out of you.

I stand blinking in the light on the welcome mat in front of the main house. My mother leaves the front door unlocked and a coffee on the console table in the hallway for me each morning. I let myself in, pick up the coffee, and then stroll through to the lounge room where Simon and his partners Hugh and Carmen are sitting on the couch. Everyone has been buzzed about Simon’s new throuple, and the three of them have accepted our enthusiasm with grace.

“Morning,” Simon says, looking up from the laptop which is balanced on his knees.

“Come and check this out,” says Carmen. “I think we found one we like.”

I walk over and look at the screen.

“It’s a two-year-old Carpet python called Harry,” Simon says.

“Hello, beautiful…” murmurs Hugh, while Carmen, who is running the mouse along her thigh, hovers the cursor between the snake’s nostrils.

My mother clacks in from the kitchen, wearing heeled sandals and a sundress, her figure like an ancient fertility sculpture that could be placed in the bottom of a grain barrel for luck.

“I still think a dog would work better than a snake, if anyone else is on board?” She passes me a platter of marzipan fruit, which she makes each week as a snack for the bereaved. Mourners need sugar; it helps keep their blood pressure from dropping and stops them from fainting.

“Our reptile license came yesterday,” says Simon.

Our mother scrunches her nose and drapes her hair over one shoulder, combing her fingers through the length of it, and I smooth down my own, trying to make it sit flat against my head. I know she gets up early to blow her hair out each morning; I can hear it from the bungalow. People often compliment her hair, admiring how groomed and polished she is.

“We can discuss it later over dinner,” she says. “As a family.” She beams at Carmen and Hugh, before grabbing her keys from the table and heading to the door.

“Or you could move out,” I say to Simon. “Then you could have as many snakes as you want.”

“Goodbye, Amelia,” he says as I pass him my half-drunk coffee and follow my mother out the door, carrying the marzipan.

Outside, the season continues to announce itself everywhere like an extrovert. Trailing coastal succulents that have been unremarkable for most of the year are now filled with dark pink flowers blooming all at once. Nature has no sense of pacing. The footpath beneath them is stained magenta from where their petals have been trodden on by enthusiastic, early morning joggers, and the effect is like tie-dyed waves underneath my shoes.

We walk to work along the road that runs parallel to the beach, separated only by the screw pine trees and pearlescent dunes. On days I don’t work, I wade out past the break and stand listening to each wave hit the shoreline behind me like a series of overlapping sighs. If you look long enough at the green water you can see the white streak of foam marking an ungodly rip that spirals between the two headlands. A dead baby whale once languidly circled here for half a week, with one eye to the clouds and the other to the ocean floor. Everyone from the town made a pilgrimage to visit the whale, gathering in the sandy car park to watch its white belly glinting in the sun.

As we walk, my mother releases affection in short bursts along the footpath, pausing to stroke every pet we pass. “Good girl,” she coos to each one as they dissolve into an excited mess at her feet. This means it takes an age just to go a few hundred meters, but I don’t mind.

“I forgot to say that Jennifer’s parents have dropped off some photos for reference.” She sighs. “As usual, they’re useless. Both smiling. Both taken from far away.”

“And her makeup bag?” I ask.

“I had to wrestle it off the dad, but it’s on the bench in the prep room waiting for you.”

I focus on the irregular mowing that the council has performed along the side of the median strip, as my mother takes hold of my hand.

“Remember, the clients look like themselves in the same way that a dugong looks like a mermaid, which is not at all,” she says.

We have this conversation regularly—often on this walk.

“The sailors need the mermaids, though. Why? Because they were sad and lonely and…”

She lets go of my hand to squeeze her fingers between the slats of a gate to tickle a whimpering labrador.

“Mourners,” she continues, “desperately need the body to look like the person they knew. They need the same clothing, same coloring, the same expression.”

“I get it.”

“I’m just reminding you—some cases are trickier than others.”

Aurelia’s Funeral Parlour is heralded by a low blond-brick fence, six apricot trees and a large illuminated sign. We are well known in this town full of retirees and clumsy tradespeople, and we only have to compete with one other mortuary—but it’s a chain, and townspeople here like locally owned businesses. We walk up the pebbled driveway and through the double doors that open to reception.

Our receptionist, Judy, trots in from the back office and plants herself behind the long desk. She’s chewing but seems frustrated by the amount of chews needed to get whatever’s in her mouth down. She flaps one hand in the air in a bid to quicken the pace, and her amethyst rings flash as they move in and out of the sunlight.

“You’ve made it so lovely and cool in here,” says my mother. “What’s it on? Nineteen? I can feel each breath hit the bottom of my lungs.”

Judy smiles at her while masticating wildly before swallowing. “Last week’s marzipan fruit,” she says, looking relieved, as I hand her the new batch.

Judy and I are extremely close, having bonded over our common interest in dating. She let me set her up an online profile. Under a bio listing Zumba classes and chick-lit novels, outlet shopping and bonsais, there are some beautiful photos of her looking poised by the Memory Pond. I did her makeup, and my mother lent her a cream pashmina for the shot. We all think it has a Renaissance tone to it. There’s another pretty photo of her laughing while leaning back on the settee; she got a lot of new hits after adding that one.

Her weekly affirmations pepper the desk in front of her. On a yellow post-it note stuck to the dial pad of the phone, she has written, Be present in your fury.

“How is your fury today?” I ask, and she takes a short breath and places a hand on her chest.

“I am present and I accept it. I have made peace with my fury,” she says, and we all know she’s talking about her ex-husband and his jet ski company.

Like most funeral homes, the foyer has been made to look like a formal sitting room. Boxes of tissues punctuate the corners, and hidden away beneath chairs and shelves are wicker baskets full of face wipes and small packets of complimentary chocolates. Nestled among the lounges and armchairs is an antique table displaying silk flowers trailing like comets from a cut-glass vase. From here, I can see through to the viewing room, where the services are held, and to the mourners’ nook, a curtained area off to the side. The bereaved are welcome to recline here, relaxing on the velvet settee while recharging their phones and inhaling the sweet smell of the floral carpet deodoriser.

We take it in turns to have breaks in the nook when there are gaps between the services. Simon uses the space for midday naps and I like to eat the chocolates and look at my phone. Judy and my mother use the space as their personal lunch room, chatting loudly enough for all of us to hear, which dispels any feeling of privacy that a closed curtain would usually bring.

Judy leans over to the photocopier and pulls a stack of memorial programs from the printing tray. On the front cover is a photo of Jennifer wearing sunglasses and smiling, photo shopped into an oval frame with scalloped edges. Her name and today’s date is typed in an ornate font, and as I trace the small circle of her face with my thumb I feel the first edge of sadness for the day. Over the years I have learned that grief is conta gious. You can catch it if you get too close. Before I knew better, I would go to each service and sit in the back row, staring at the families as they stared into the casket, the low thrum of sadness circling the room until it reached me, where it would spread through my body like shrapnel.

Vincent bounds through the office door, mop in hand.

“Ah, I see my daughter thinks it’s appropriate to arrive late to one of the biggest funerals of the year.” He rests the mop against the wall. “And her mother too.”

There are already rings of sweat on his paisley shirt and the large checked cravat around his neck looks damp as well.

“Turned up late morning, just to torture me.”

He hurries over to one of the lounges and brushes it down with loud whacks, arcing his flat hand through the air and creating a cloud of dust motes that is actually quite cinematic in the morning light.

“And no one except me ever dusts anything!”

Once I saw Judy watching raptly while he cleaned a wall fan. Vincent moves like he’s dancing, she said in an undertone as he waved a damp cloth near the blades. And having witnessed him undulate the vacuum cleaner around Aurelia’s many times, I have to agree: he has a dramatic litheness that is rare.

“Your son is late too,” I say to Vincent as Simon pushes through the door, using one shoulder to prop it open as he kicks forward a box of biscuits and milk. He drops two plastic shopping bags full of tissues in front of Judy’s desk before rummaging around in his pockets for the receipt.

“We should make a move,” my mother says to me. “Only a couple of hours until it starts.”

People turn up early if the person who has died is young. It’s because their discomfort is so agitating that they can’t sit patiently at home or in the car outside. The earliest anyone ever turned up was three hours before the service. That was for an eight-year-old who had drowned in a neighbor’s pool. The mother couldn’t bear another moment without being near him; she was already walking up the drive as we were turning on the computers for the day. It seemed like the whole town came to the funeral, gazing at the boy in his small coffin while his mother stood at the lectern with wide, shell-shocked eyes and spoke about him in the present tense. When I saw her a year later in the local greengrocer, she was choosing mandarins with the robotic action of a person who had nowhere to be. It looked like she was just passing time until she could be with him again. Drowning—years more slowly than he did, but drowning nonetheless.

My mother and I take jumpers from the hallway cupboard and pull them on, then push through the heavy door into the prep room, adjusting to the temperature and the vinegary smell of the chemicals. I switch to breathing through my mouth, and loosen up the muscles in my back by twisting from side to side. It’s a big audience today and I need to do a good job. I’ve read some of Vincent’s books on meditation and everything is related to the mind and the breath apparently. The mind is a muscle, the body is a vessel. If you’re anxious you can dilute the feeling using willpower. Dissipate. Dissipate. Dissipate.

Jennifer is laid out in a mid-range coffin in the center of the room. She is about my age, with broad features, heavy eyelids and a Cupid’s bow for a mouth. As I lean closer, I can see that Vincent has flooded her body with a rose-colored wave of formaldehyde, which makes her look pink and full. I brush her fringe either side of her face, and straighten the green dress she’s wearing so that it is square across her shoulders. Everyone I see in this room is special in their own way. You can’t tell me that a cold body is bad, because to me it’s not even close. Sometimes I try to explain to people that the shell of a hermit crab is beautiful whether it’s empty or being used. It’s a sculpture. It’s a home. It’s natural, organic, delicate. I love the shell. The shell is magical.

“They want her hair in a low bun, some pieces around her face,” my mother says as she walks over to the bench and opens an envelope. “The grandmother’s pearl earrings are in here somewhere.”

She shakes a wad of tissues out onto the bench for me. I’ve always found jewelry difficult because it’s such a tender and slow process. I can’t rush through unclasping and reclasping precious things. Anyone in this industry will tell you that putting a necklace on someone, or pushing an earring into an ear, is an intimate thing.

I unzip Jennifer’s makeup bag and spread the contents across the metal countertop near the sink. There’s a terracotta blusher. Fawn eyebrow pencil. Pencil shavings. Mango lip gloss. A tube of tinted sunscreen. A bent eyebrow brush. Mascara, and four lipsticks. Along either side of the zipper are her faded fingerprints in foundation. A beige pattern of her flight path as she got ready each day, opening and closing this case.

My mother slides the trolley over and I pick out some of the makeup to add to it. As I wheel it across to Jennifer, there’s a brief knock at the door, then Vincent opens it, clutching a bunch of young irises to his chest.

“These just came but it looks like too many to me,” he says, placing them on the bench.

“No, that’s how many I need,” I say.

There’s silence in the room while I adjust the position of Jennifer so that one hand covers the other completely.

“Who did you see last night? Was it the mechanic?” Vincent asks, leaning casually against the cupboard.

“You can’t ask that,” says my mother. “Let her be.”

“Just a friend,” I say.

“Josephine and I would love to meet some of your friends one day,” he says.

“Sure,” I say.

“She’s just blowing off steam,” my mother tells him. “It’s totally natural.”

“I’m just checking she’s not depressed,” says Vincent.

“She’s doing fine,” says my mother. “Aren’t you, Amelia?”

“I’m fine, I’m happy,” I say.

I hold up a few of the foundations next to Jennifer’s face so I can see which one will suit, and settle on two. It’s good practice to use the client’s personal makeup mixed with some industry standards. For an undamaged face like Jennifer’s, you can just use an oil-based, full coverage foundation. Chemist brands are highly pigmented and do the job well. Most of us are already using the makeup that we will wear at our funerals, unless something severe happens.

I pull on the thin gloves and squeeze a large dot of each product onto the back of my hand, then roll a short-haired brush through it before dabbing it evenly across Jennifer’s knuckles.

For suicide cases I prefer to start where the injury is located because that’s where people will be looking. For necks I use scarves and turtlenecks. For wrists I use flowers as a prop so that nothing is showing. Every single person who comes to her funeral today will approach her coffin and look at her wrists. I think it’s human nature to want to look at wounds. It must be.

“Great color,” Vincent says, placing his hand on the edge of her coffin. “You know, before all the legal regulations and blah blah bullshit, I used to get on the tools and do all this myself.”

“You were useless,” says my mother. “Ham-fisted.”

“That’s not true,” he says. “You used to say to me, Only you are allowed to do my face when I’m gone. Don’t let anyone else touch me.

“That was before Amelia was qualified. Until then I had to come in here and blend every day. Every day, Vincent. You gave them all red apple cheeks.”

I change brushes and try to keep my full attention on Jennifer. There are only two shades of nail polish you can use in my opinion, and I get the sense that she is more of a cappuccino than a blushing coral. I’ll paint her nails last, then spray them with a varnish dryer. I glance around the room, trying to locate the crate of nail supplies.

“Name one person I did that to,” Vincent is saying.

“Lucas Reid,” my mother replies immediately.

He waves his palm through the air like a metronome. “That was thirteen years ago, Josie—thirteen years ago.”

“Completely unrecognizable,” my mother says, shaking her head and clasping her hands together under her chin.

Vincent had set Mr Reid’s face a few shades darker than necessary. I remember my mother piling navy chiffon around his face and lighting him from the side, while Judy frantically scattered gladioli around the base of the casket as a distraction.

“I really need to focus if you want her to be ready in time,” I tell them.

Vincent bows deeply in my direction. “I’ll leave it to the expert then.”

“I’ll go too,” my mother says before gesturing to the irises. “Slip three under her hands when she’s ready.”

“I know what to do,” I say, as she follows Vincent out the door. As soon as it closes behind them, I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.

Finally. Just her and me.

Are her hands comfortable? I mimic the placement to test it. What about her head? The hairstyle can’t look too matronly. Is she natural enough? Do the eyelids look strained? I tilt her chin. Where would she have liked her head to go? I move it again.

I wish that the people closest to her could see what I do. Then perhaps they could feel that dark things aren’t actually always so dark. Dead things. Bone things. Blood and skin and matter things. It’s now natural that she is this still. That she turns a different color. That parts of her harden. But to the people who knew her and loved her most, it feels better to know that all her openings are sealed shut. Give her face a fresh coat of paint, and put her in a dress that she never even moved in.

As I shift Jennifer’s body into a more natural position, I wonder if her mother is organizing a bathroom renovation that she probably can’t afford. The aunt would organize it. Aunts always spring into action at times like this. They are the ones we argue with the most because they seem to channel all their suffering into creating a space for their siblings to mourn. Aunts write the emails. Aunts haggle over the prices. Aunts are titans in this industry. While holding her sister up, the aunt would be liaising with plumbers and tilers. She would demonstrate the right way to glance around the bathroom, ignoring the dark ring of blood marking the tub, and the rest of the family and the subcontractors would follow her lead with relief.

My concentration is broken by my mother calling out to Judy as she drags the vacuum out of the cupboard. She turns it on, and the high-pitched wail of it merges in and out of harmony with her rendition of “Delta Dawn” as she shunts it across the hallway carpet. There’s a loud thump as she knocks the vacuum head into one of the sofa chairs, almost as if using it as a point to push off from. Judy has joined in with the singing and they both hold a long note together, before my mother voyages so far into the next room that the cord disconnects from the socket and the wailing stops.

As I brush makeup across Jennifer’s face, I wish I could tell her what today will entail. How important it is for her people to see her like this, how they need to witness this image of her at peace before they can begin to feel peace themselves. I want to tell her that people sitting in front of her coffin will be angry and confused by what she did, and that these feelings will be magnified by her three dull cousins singing “In the Arms of an Angel”. I want to tell her that a woman can take another woman’s weight, and that my mother will find her mother and lead her away from it all. They will stand together in front of
the apricot trees outside, with their backs to the other mourners, and my mother will point to the trees and tell Jennifer’s mother that each of these trees loses everything.

Leaves. Flowers. Fruit. Until it’s nothing but sticks under the sky.

She’ll say this part again.

No leaves. No flowers. No fruit.

Her message is significant, so she’ll slow her words down for the next part.

The tree needs to wait. It will all come back if it waits. But it’s a long, long time. Longer than it wants. Longer than anyone feels is natural.

She will take Jennifer’s mother by the hands, and the mother will nod and say she understands that it might take years or decades, but yes, one day her fruit will come back, her leaves, her flowers. She will nod again and wipe her face. I get it, she’ll say. I really get it.

I asked my mother once how long she thought it would take. Lifetimes, she said, but deep down they already know.

By the time I can leave Jennifer it’s an hour before the service and people have already eaten the marzipan and filled the foyer. As I exit the prep room, I pass Judy, who is still humming the song, and I join in on a long, low note with her. As usual, Vincent and my mother are working the room expertly, handing out pamphlets and greeting new guests. I make eye contact with Vincent and give him a subtle nod, and he winks back at me. I pick up my bag from behind Judy’s desk, as well as the spare car keys, and keep my head down as I walk through the crowd to the car park. People know my role here and often feel compelled to speak to me, I think in part because they can’t imagine doing this job themselves and want to break the social barrier between us by being fine with it. I prefer the barrier up. I love my job. The general public tends to squirm around death and anyone associated with the industry, but that reveals more about their own Victorian standards of cleanliness than it does ours. I wish I could tell everyone who approaches me that they absolutely do not have to shake my hand, but they always try. They want to get those barriers down.

Before I start the engine of the Camry, I swipe sweat from my forehead and rummage through the compartment and map pockets looking for a stray water bottle. The interior has absorbed the heat, and the flesh of my thighs stick together, making me feel slightly hysterical. Sweat dots my upper lip and I wipe it away with the back of my hand before unwinding the windows. I’m about to pull out of the car park when I see my mother jogging toward me.

She leans through the window, panting. “You heading to the lookout?”

“Yeah, just for a bit,” I say, hand on the steering wheel, ready to go.

“Need to commune with nature?”

“Always,” I say.

“Do you ever feel his presence there?”

“Nope. Just a good view.”

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