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Respect for the dead
Reader Profile: Amy Porter

REDFERN: Amy Porter is a bright, blue-eyed and dark-haired young woman who loves camping and leading rover scouts on adventures. Her occupation, however, might surprise you. At 20, she is a Funeral Director at Joseph Medcalf Funeral Services in Redfern Street and has been working in the industry since she was 16.

Amy Porter at work in Redfern (Photo: Andrew Collis)
Amy Porter at work in Redfern (Photo: Andrew Collis)

Amy recalls a video of renowned German anatomist Gunter Von Hagens she was shown during a high-school food technology class. Von Hagens sawed in half “healthy” and “unhealthy” bodies dipped in liquid nitrogen, to show differences in fat marbling. It changed the perception Amy had of dead people. “I saw that and it really got my mind ticking, like … wow!” she said. “To them [the anatomists] it’s not scary, it’s not taboo, it’s just a deceased person.” A few weeks later she decided this was something she was really interested in and went to her career advisor to talk about becoming a mortuary technician. She says her family was very supportive of her decision, but some of her friends were a bit spooked. “They thought it was weird: ‘Oh, that’s scary, don’t you get scared?’ No, it’s not scary, it’s the living you’ve got to worry about!”

Mentioning what she does for a living rarely leaves people indifferent. They either find it very cool or quite odd, and assume she is a very dark person. “Yeah, I get that a lot: ‘You must be a goth, because you work with dead people.’ No, not so much! I’m sure everyone has a curious interest in that sort of stuff, but I’m pretty normal!”

In the early 2000s the HBO series, Six Feet Under, starring Australian actress Rachel Griffiths, helped shed light on the profession. “We watched all the seasons together, myself and one of the other girls from work, we were sitting and going: ‘Oh no that’s not right … Oh that’s so true!’ It was quite funny.”

Her work at the funeral home is very diverse. “I’ll do one month in the mortuary, so I’ll prepare everyone that goes in the mortuary [making the deceased presentable by washing, dressing them, doing their hair and make-up] and then I’ll do one month of coffins, I’ll be the one who puts on all the handles. Then I’ll have one month of just washing cars, and I also do the transfers as well, which is really to go to the home, the nursing home or hospital, wherever the deceased is, and take them into our care, that’s my job as well, we all do everything!”

Amy admits that some cases are harder to deal with emotionally than others. She recalls one cancer patient who came to organise his own funeral [a “pre-paid”]. “It must have been about the third time I’d seen him. I knew he had cancer but I could see his health really deteriorating. That time he could hardly breathe, and he looked me in the eyes and he said, ‘Amy, I don’t think I’m gonna make it through the weekend’. And that was pretty hard, I was probably 18 at the time … that was really sad. You get the other sad ones as well, like children and babies, they’re never really nice to deal with, but that’s probably one of the ones that stand out to me, because, what do you say to someone who thinks they’re gonna die on the weekend? I was gobsmacked. I didn’t know what to say.”

There are also extreme circumstances, when for example the deceased are in an advanced state of decomposition, that are “not-so-pleasant”, but Amy doesn’t mind it and finds her work very rewarding. “You’re dealing with people at possibly the worst time of their life, and through the work that we do we can see the difference that we make. A lot of them, just at the end, say, ‘Thank you so much, you’ve made such a difficult time a lot easier’, and that’s really, really rewarding, that’s what we really get out of the job.”

Despite her young age, Amy knows this is her calling, and is considering becoming an embalmer. “I’ve got lots of different ideas buzzing around, but honestly, I’m so young, I’ve got so much time to really decide what I want to do! But I definitely see this industry as my career, I don’t see it as just a part-time thing. This is what I’ve been working towards.”

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