Nigel Slater’s parting gift to the community he loved and cared for was his own death.
The 58-year-old was a gentle, nurturing soul, well-suited to his role as volunteer caretaker at the Port Kembla Community Project.
Having developed lung cancer during the shooting of a documentary on the centre’s plans to establish a not-for-profit funeral service called Community Undertakings, Nigel graciously allowed filmmakers to follow his five-month journey from diagnosis to death.
The film, titled Tender, begins with ghostly images of the steelworks as plumes of steam and pollution rise to meet heavy white clouds in the night sky. It’s an eerie and beautiful start to the film, which touches on an issue none of us can ever hope to escape – death.
The film follows Nigel and his friends, all members of the PKCP, as they come face to face with issues surrounding end of life.
The idea for Community Undertakings was born out of necessity. Even the cheapest funeral can cost a small fortune. For low income-earners living in the Port Kembla area it can be an anxious and debilitating time as they struggle to come up with the money to bury their loved ones with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Andrew Allard, 52, went into debt for 10 years to pay off his parents’ funerals, which cost a combined $10,000.
A close friend of Nigel and a member of Community Undertakings, Andrew says the debt was unavoidable and a heavy burden.
‘‘It’s a lot of money when you’re not working,’’ he says. ‘‘It was horrible. It took a long time to settle things, and having a big bill over your head like that is not a good feeling. I think it will be great to finally get back to basics with funerals. Not that we want to take it away from the funeral industry but to give people a choice, to put it back into the hands of ordinary people.’’
Wollongong City Councillor Ann Martin, who also features in the film as a member of Community Undertakings, slams funerals as a ‘‘rip-off’’.
‘‘You shouldn’t rip people off when they’re grieving,’’ she says.
Ann brings a lot of humour to the film, adding a light-hearted touch to a difficult issue.
At one point she tries on a bio-degradable cardboard coffin for size, adding that she had better not be buried in her pointy bra or she might not fit in it.
Community Undertakings, which will be operated by the Port Kembla Community Project along with a licensed funeral director, will charge just under $1000 a funeral.
As well as being a much more affordable choice for low-income earners, it will offer people more time to say goodbye to their loved ones.
‘‘People won’t have to hurry through the process, which will help with grieving,’’ Andrew says. ‘‘I think the funeral people try to protect you from all these healing things. Being hands-on with the funeral and washing and dressing the body yourself can really help.When my father died of a heart attack, the ambulance took him away and I never saw him again. I think it made the grieving process much longer.’’
Filmmaker Lynette Wallworth says that though the film tells a universal story, it is the Port Kembla community, as they come together as a family, who initiate the conversations we should all be having with the people we love.
‘‘Given that everyone has to deal with death, we should know our rights and responsibilities and educate ourselves,’’ Lynette says. ‘‘But we tend not to talk about it until it’s upon us. And then we’re often in a state, unable to make any clear decisions at all. I think we really need to make a cultural shift in our society about the way we deal and view death.’’
Even after four years of research, members of the PKCP find it difficult to raise the subject of death with Nigel.
Project manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough, whose idea it was to establish the not-for-profit funeral service, struggles to ask him how he would like to be buried. In the end she decides not to ask the questions and instead he talks about it to the filmmaker.
‘‘Nigel was our caretaker,’’ she says. ‘‘He had a calming influence on all of us and was a welcoming presence. He took care of each of us in different ways. So when he got sick we were really determined to take care of him. We bought him a big chair and he would come here and sit. When he died we lost a good man. We all miss him.’’
Jenny has written a series of fact sheets educating people on dying and funerals. Particularly relevant is what you can and can’t do with a person after they have died.
PKCP has already imported a cooling board, which will allow families to keep the person’s body at home for up to five days, giving them more time to say goodbye and prepare the body for burial or cremation.
The cooling boards, which come from the Netherlands, are placed under the bodies in order to meet strict health regulations.
‘‘I had this idea that it would great if a funeral could be a healing thing,’’ Jenny says. ‘‘Because often in our community people are disconnected through drugs, alcohol or mental illness. I think there’s an opportunity in death for real healing to take place.’’
Though PKCP has received funding to write the fact sheets on death, it is yet to come up with the $114,000 needed to establish the service.
‘‘It’s important to have a conversation with somebody when you’re well about what you want to happen at your end of life because it’s very hard to have those conversations when you’re not well,’’ Jenny says.
‘‘We are all going to die, so how can we prepare for that and how can we prepare each other so that it is as beautiful as humanly possible rather than being a devastating experience?’’
Nigel’s death she says made it clear to the community group why they should set up the not-for-profit funeral service, she says.
‘‘When you’re not driven by profit there are different motivations,’’ she says.
‘‘I’m not saying that funeral directors don’t have that because they do, but the cost of funerals are ridiculous and coffins are expensive. This is about how do we make things more transparent and how do we make people more empowered?
‘‘If you want to, you can do the whole thing yourself and there’s real benefit in taking your time. I mean what’s the rush? If you want to spend time with the person, why can’t you?’’
Community Undertakings is also hoping Wollongong City Council will offer the old Helensburgh Cemetery on a lease so the group can start a natural burial ground.
There are currently two natural burial grounds in NSW: one on the north coast and the other in Nowra.
A natural burial requires a person to be buried a metre down in the warm earth so the body breaks down faster.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery says what Community Undertakings is doing is reclaiming some of what we are as human beings.
‘‘It’s about people wanting to take control of their lives and the way they grieve with their loved ones at the time of death,’’ he says.
‘‘Death has become so sanitised, we’re so disassociated from it. We’re told how to think in life, what to wear, how to die and how to be born. If we put life into context then when I die I’ll go back to the earth from which I came – Mother Earth. And my spirit – as I often say, my breath – will take place with God’s breath.’’
The Lord Mayor also features in the film, along with Andrew’s dog Bailey, often seen snuggled up beside Nigel on the comfy chair.
Tender will screen on ABC sometime next year and will play at the Gala Cinema in Warrawong in the next few months.
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