Dying is the one thing we are all guaranteed to do. Journalist SHERELE MOODY finds out what happens when we make our final journey.
"Life asked death, 'Why do people love me but hate you?' Death responded, 'Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth." - Anonymous
YOU struggle to stay awake. The urge to eat and drink is gone.
Your head is foggy, you're delirious and, as your body grows weaker, you lose control of your bladder and bowels.
A cold chill creeps along your fingers and toes before slowly moving up your limbs - a sure sign that your blood has stopped circulating in your extremities and your body is devoting all of its energy into keeping your heart and brain alive.
Red and blue blotches mark your skin, every breath is a battle and, finally, your heart stops and the world goes black.
This is what dying feels like.
Let's talk about death
"There are no words to really describe it," Michael Visser says of the moment your brain shuts down.
Revealing he's journeyed into "the other reality" many times over the years, Dr Visser tells Weekend Magazine he had his first near death experience as a four-year-old.
"My parents left me in a car for a few seconds and I had almost like an anxiety attack and extreme fear," the 53-year-old Brisbane medico explains.
"From that moment I just pooped out and then I was no longer in my body.
"I was surrounded by light beings who told me I wasn't alone and I shouldn't worry.
"They showed me some future things that would happen in my life."
Unlike Dr Visser, most of us shy away from talking about our own end of days.
Last year, Pallaitive Care Australia surveyed Australians to find out how many of us are like Dr Visser and have no issues talking about death.
The organisation found that while 82% reckon it's a subject we need to raise with our families, only 28% will actually have the conversation.
Meet Australia's death talker
Sydney author Molly Carlile is determined to turn around that statistic.
Ms Carlile is a death talker. It's her job to help dying people make their final journey the best it can be and to demystify the process for those of us left behind.
The specialist palliative care nurse's obsession with teaching people how to "die well" started two decades ago when she helped a young mum pass away from ovarian cancer.
"That mother really introduced me to the idea that nursing is more than caring for people's physical health," the author of three books on the topic says.
"Talking about dying is the most important discussion we will have.
"You only get to die once, so you can't afford to stuff it up.
"It's our job to listen, to be a sounding board, to enable people to talk about stuff they may have no one else to talk about it with and to do it in a way that validates their experience and offers them realistic hope about their next step."
Ms Carlile says all medical professionals must understand the importance of encouraging their dying patients to open up about how they want to spend the last days and hours of their lives.
"I see palliative care as being a conduit for allowing people to do what it is that's important to them in the time they have left," she says.
"For some people a good death is about being aware and being able to talk and interact with their loved ones.
"For others a good death is pain-free and a quick one.
"Everyone is different but the only way you will get any understanding of what it is from an individual is to sit and listen to them about what the things are that they value.
"If you don't know what's important in their life there is no way you can facilitate what they want."
Preparing for our final farewell
In Australia, someone dies every three minutes and 17 seconds.
According to the Grattan Institute's Dying Well report, 54% of us will take our last breath in hospital, 32% will cross over in a residential care facility and the rest of us will spend our final moments in our own homes.
If we die in hospital or a residential care facility, the staff will take care of all the formalities, they will ensure our body is collected from their mortuary and that we are delivered to the funeral home of our family's choice.
When we die at home, our loved ones will need to contact our GP who will verify that we have passed away from natural causes and the doctor will issue the death certificate.
That's when professionals like Jo Smith take over.
"Loved ones are brought into our care and will remain in our mortuary until the day before the service," the softly spoken 61-year-old White Lady Funerals director says.
"The day before the service the deceased are prepared for burial.
"Their body is washed, their hair is washed, they are dressed in the clothing that the family provides or sometimes the family does not wish to have clothing so they are dressed in a shroud.
"Then they are placed in the coffin ready for the service."
Ms Smith says bodies are always handled with the utmost respect.
"The body is lifted and placed on the preparation tray very carefully and respectfully," she says.
"The deceased is never laid out without a covering and the process of washing is very gentle - a lot of care is taken to treat everyone the same."
How funerals have changed over time
The world's oldest graves are from 60,000 BC, showing that, regardless of culture and religion, humans have always held end of life rituals and ceremonies in high regard; buried their dead in sacred places; and memorialised them in some way.
Funerals were once sombre occasions but these days most of us will choose to celebrate the end of our lives with music, colourful clothes and even memorial parties such as wakes.
A recent industry survey found 59% of Australians expect their funeral service to be "relaxed and reflective" while 27% hope their final journey will be marked by a "jubilant, celebratory, fun and irreverent" event.
Just 12% want a "dignified" service and only 1% of Aussies opt for a "solemn and serious" funeral, McCrindle Research's Deaths and Funerals in Australia: A Statistical Snapshot says.
"When the family comes in we need to go through a lot of paperwork and that can take a couple of hours," Ms Smith says of laying the groundwork for the final ritual.
"Then we go through all of the other details for the service.
"We listen to the family's story because that's important to them and then we try to provide all the things they want.
"We talk about where the service will be and we talk about the flowers, the type of coffin, notices in the newspaper, if they want things like doves or butterflies, the order of the service.
"People are showing more films and photographs of their loved ones at services and music has become very important."
Come inside the crematorium
After the service, our bodies will either be buried or cremated.
Two out of three Australians will choose cremation, one in five of us want to go in the ground and 14% of us do not have a preference, trend-tracker McCrindle says in its Deaths and Funerals in Australia report.
Death is big business in Australia - for example, coffins cost about $350 to make but retail for up to $2000 each while funerals themselves will set us back $8000 to $12,000.
With about 160,000 Australians passing away each year, the funeral industry turns over $1.1 billion annually, employs 5643 people, supports 848 businesses and has a forecast growth of 2.5%, IbisWorld's Funeral Directors, Crematoria and Cemeteries 2016 report says.
Albany Creek Memorial Park in Brisbane's north is one of the busiest facilities of its kind in Australia.
Run by industry giant InvoCare, the 53-year-old 40ha park currently commemorates the lives of 50,000 people and it has room for tens of thousands more.
Jack-of-all trades Robert Phillips oversees about 100 burials a year at the park and the cremation of about 2000 bodies.
During a walkthrough of the crematorium, the 48-year-old explains how a body arrives for its final journey in the facility's no-frills loading bay.
Mr Phillips completes a thorough check of all paperwork before signing for the sealed coffin.
When a body is to be cremated, a small silver plaque with the person's name and unique identification code is removed from the coffin.
The plate is put into a special holder attached to the wall of one of two cremation chambers.
It will will stay there until the ashes are removed from the Australian-made cement and steel chambers.
Turning the giant oven on and setting it to 850 degrees, Mr Phillips reveals that it's not unusual for mourners to watch the cremation process.
"Some family members wish to see the end of their loved one's journey," he says.
"They might attend and hold special rituals or ceremonies that reflect their religions before the coffin is inserted."
Mr Phillips explains that all bodies need to be deemed "safe" before they can enter the chamber.
"Pacemakers are a major risk, they can explode, so they have to be removed from the body before it arrives here," he says.
"Some families will ask that we cremate their loved ones in a wet suit or certain other items of clothing but we have to say 'No' because they can also cause major problems and dangers."
The coffin slowly enters the 1.2m wide chamber head first. It will take about 90 minutes to four hours to burn down, depending on the person's size.
When the process is finished, the ashes - weighing about 6kg for the average body size ¬- are raked from the cremation chamber into a small container that sits in a square hole below the furnace.
The name plate and the temporary urn with the ashes are removed together and taken into a nearby room.
Mr Phillips puts the ashes into a special machine that cools them down, separates any metals including hip joints and turns calcified bones into dust.
The ashes are then sealed in a box marked with the person's name, ID number and any other identifying details.
These are stored in a locked and highly secure room that is monitored by CCTV until the family comes to collect them.
Mr Phillips points out that the bodies are always cremated in their coffins, dispelling the myth that the industry 'recycles' caskets.
Mr Phillips also oversees the burials at the memorial park.
He explains that graves are dug to a precise 2.4m to allow for three bodies to be buried on top of each other in each space.
If a body is embalmed and buried in a coffin it could take up to 50 years to decompose. A non-embalmed body buried without a coffin will take eight to 10 years to decompose to skeletal remains.
In memory of a little boy lost
Mr Phillips is a happy outgoing big bloke who has been working at Albany Creek for 14 years.
As we walk around one of the themed memorial gardens, he shyly directs our attention to towards a marble wall lined with bronze plaques.
"Precious memories of Cooper Robert Harrison Phillips; 21st November 2000. Forever loved by mummy and daddy, your sisters and brothers, XOXOX," is inscribed on one of the plaques.
"Cooper was still-born," Mr Phillips says of his son, whose ashes are sealed into the wall.
"When I found out he was a boy, I was like 'Sweet, beautiful, a son'.
"Then he was born at 36 weeks and the doctor says 'Sorry, bubby has passed'."
Mr Phillips sits down next to the memorial to his son.
"I love working here - I love my job," he says.
"The best part is that every day I can pass by and say hello to my boy."
- ARM NEWSDESK
THE WEIRD WORLD OF FUNERAL CUSTOMS
FROM hanging coffins from cliff walls to letting birds of prey eat loved one's bodies, the world is full of strange funeral customs. Here's a few of them.
HANGING COFFINS: Practised across Asia, this ancient burial custom was particularly common in southern China. Mourners placed the bodies of their dead in intricately carved caskets and then balanced the coffins on human-made or natural ledges along vertical cliff faces. The coffins were usually made from one piece of wood. This ritual meant wild animals would not eat bodies and the souls would be protected for eternity.
SKY BURIALS: Communities in Tibet and Mongolia often cut corpses into small pieces and these are left on mountain tops to decompose naturally or to be eaten by vultures and other carnivores. The belief in the "transmigration of the spirit" means there is no need for a body to be kept once a person dies.
VULTURE CULTURE: Similar to the sky burials, followers of the Zorastrian religion in Mumbai leave their dead on top of temples so vultures can eat them. This allows the physical body to disappear so only the spirit remains.
EATING THE BODY: Cannibalism has been known to happen in some PNG and Brazilian communities. Although extremely rare, it is believed a few communities in these countries choose to cook and eat their dead. This means they have meat when food is scarce and they do not have to worry about disposing of the body. The corpse is cooked with herbs and other taste enhancers.
A FRIEND IN NEED: Although rarely done these days, there was a time in certain parts of Fiji where people would kill close relatives of a deceased person so the deceased would not have to go to the next world alone.
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