By Ben Nielsen
Dying is expensive. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission estimates that a basic cremation costs around $4000, and the most elaborate burial is about $14,000. So, what options are available to those who can’t afford to die?
Jenan Taylor, who is a postgraduate journalism student at Monash University, spent a fortnight with the staff of Bereavement Assistance, a charitable funeral parlour in Melbourne. There she was given a rare insight into the preparations and private ceremony of a woman who had died of cancer.
“I think it’s surprising to see what sort of care is given to someone who can’t afford anything,” she said. “It is confronting, especially for me with a middle class background; when I’ve gone to funerals there has always been a big ceremony and there were always people to give a send off.”
Ms Taylor was inspired to write the feature article ‘Dignity and the Art of the Downsized Death’, in response to her experience at the funeral parlour and as a tribute to mortician and ‘carer of the dead’ Kathy Hodges. She was declared the winner of this year’s $4000 Guy Morrison Prize for Literary Journalism following the launch of the UTS Writers’ Anthology at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
This year’s judge Chris Feik, who is editor of Quarterly Essay, associate editor of The Monthly and publisher at Black Inc, said, “It does what the best journalism does; it tells us things we didn’t know. It explains what happens when a pauper dies and the uncertain effect of the many different rituals we have for dealing with death. We witness in vivid close-up the embalming of an anonymous woman who could not afford to die.”
Mr Feik said, “The piece is noteworthy for what it leaves unsaid. Tonally it is calmly alert to the many mysteries of the story: the subject’s anonymity, the feelings and motives of mother and daughter, and the uncertain effect of the many different rituals we have for dealing with death.”
The Prize honours Sydney journalist and playwright Guy Morrison, who was production editor of The Australian and features editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. Mr Feik acknowledged Ms Taylor’s article as an exemplary piece of journalism.
“There is a special, irreplaceable buzz that comes from a writer encountering a new part of life and faithfully registering the sparks that fly,” he said. “I saw a strongly personal tone and a desire to delve into experiences that are personally confronting. But there is no uniformity of style – in a sense anything goes.’
With just two weeks until she completes her degree, Ms Taylor said she hopes the award will provide her with the necessary professional development to further her career as a feature writer.
“I really would love to keep doing something like long-form journalism or literary journalism. I’m doing a bit of freelance work here and there, so that’s also really good to help me get more exposure. I truly believe that this is the path for me.”