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Steeling my heart

I AM fascinated by death.

I am intrigued by the movement in Australia to reconfigure the way we engage in the ceremonies of death. There's a grassroots change afoot.

Recently I went to Tender Funeral Home in Port Kembla, Wollongong.

As we pulled up a wild haired woman stumbled across the road. She threw us a crazed look. She carried a plastic bag with sticks poking out and her ragged coat billowed out behind her.

My friend and I were startled by her strange and desolate state.

Jenny Briscoe-Hough, the general manager, came out of the building, which is a converted fire station and now houses the funeral home. That's one of the working street girls, she said. Port Kembla is an industrial suburb of Wollongong, which was based around the steel works and the port.

It was thriving hub of activity and the landing place for many new migrants to find work when they landed in Australia many years ago. These days the employee count has dropped from 15,000 to 3000 as the focus of work has shifted. The town has gone through a cycle of decline and now produces steel to build frigates.

This is a steel town and it is here that Tender Funerals has come into being.

This is a business that helps people through the death and dying process.

When someone dies, Jenny said, don't pick up the phone, pick up the kettle. There's no hurry and no need to make decisions immediately. Give yourself space to absorb what has just happened, sit and breathe. This is an important moment in life and need not be rushed.

She showed us a room of coffins: wooden, willow and cardboard. Then she took us into the mortuary. I have never been in one and found it both confronting and interesting. The car that carries the bodies sat in the bay that used to hold a fire engine. We saw where the bodies are held and the cold plate for a body to lie on when it's being viewed.

She told us of a family that couldn't decide what they wanted to do and were reluctant to let their mother go. So they came to the home, 15 of them, and sat with body for hours, talking, eating drinking until they were ready to let her go to the next step of the death process, disposal of the body.

In that long sitting together space, with their mother in a casket in the middle of them, they came to an agreement as a family how this would happen.

They felt comfortable and empowered with their decisions.

Tender is community based and the services include low cost funerals, provision of a place to wash and dress the body, hold a vigil, dress the casket or help you have the body at home for the family to sit and say their goodbyes.

It's part of the change in how we 'do death'. It was a sobering and fascinating experience. Then it was time to go. We went outside. The wild street girl had gone. In the distance plumes of steam billowed across the sky. The flame burned atop the pipe at the steel works. Port Kembla, a steel town with a big heart.