I was alone in the dressing room when the funeral home called my mobile phone. My rhinestone manicure sparkled in the glow of the globes framing the mirror and I checked my rouge lipstick as the funeral director at the other end of the line informed me of a death.
“Wasn’t found for at least two weeks,” he said. “Just letting you know so you’re prepared. I’ll call you back in a couple of hours when it’s time to transfer him.”
I glanced at the time on my phone screen. 3:30am. The club would be closed by the time he called back, allowing me enough time to peel off the lashes and remove the winged eyeliner before jumping into the transfer van to collect the dead. I’d be tired from dancing all night, but nothing a triple shot skinny latte couldn’t fix. And plenty of concealer to mask the eye bags.
My arms would be weak from performing on a pole, but I was always surprised by my strength when collecting a dead human being from a floor. I could transfer dead weight onto a stretcher with ease, but once home I couldn’t unscrew the lid on a jar.
“Talk soon,” I reflected my colleague’s funeral-director tone, the call ending as three showgirls swanned into the changeroom, costume jewellery jangling.
“I need you to check my tampon string isn’t visible,” said Heaven.
“Only if you massage my new boobs,” replied Sugar. “The surgeon said I have to massage them to prevent the capsule hardening…”
Oh, the polarity of my life.
I returned my gaze to the mirror, blonde-bombshell Madison staring back at me. Perfect contouring slimmed my cheeks, eyebrows arched as high as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, huge GHD curls and almost a can of hairspray to set them coiled in place. My cleavage shimmered with glitter, my torso (and love for pasta) hidden beneath a corset.
The stage light would soon be turned down as the sun came up, and I’d swap stilettos for funeral director shoes so shiny I could use them as mirrors. Beige gloss would replace red lipstick, dramatic blonde hair slicked into a corporate bun. My recent manicure would be tucked snugly into latex gloves and the rest of my body sealed in PPE wear designed to collect a decomp.
Decomp is slang for “decomposition” in the funeral industry. I felt so much compassion for those not found for weeks after death. They usually died alone and I wanted to be there for them. I knew once I got home following the transfer, the scent of Chanel that usually perfumed my house would be overpowered with the smell of death. Decomp cases follow you home. The smell makes its way into your pores, your hair and shower. Glittery heels by the door, death stench in the air. This was my reality.
When I was a girl, I was curious about the death profession. My nan died when I was eight, and I accompanied my dad to the hospital late that night to view her. I touched her cold lips and wondered why they weren’t like mine anymore. Little did I know that one day, not only would I discover why her lips were cold and blue, but I’d learn how to make them plump and pink again. During Nan’s funeral, I noticed the two grown-ups standing by the long shiny car, poised and seemingly emotionless. Once Nan was buried, I watched them slip into the death car and drive off amongst the headstones to a place unknown. Who were those mystery people? Did they touch the dead bodies? Why weren’t they crying like all the other adults? I decided they were some sort of superheroes in suits, and longed to become one. Later, I watched the movie My Girl, which is about a little girl who lives in a funeral home. I was inspired to enrol in beauty school as soon as I left high school with plans to apply makeup to the dead.
But how did a funeral director end up stripping in the evenings with a garter hugging her thigh? I first entered the adult industry because I had set up house in my car. My marriage had broken up, I had no job, and I’d hit a speed bump in the road, pun intended. My diet consisted of $2 cheeseburgers and microwave macaroni cheese. I asked fuel stations if I could borrow their microwave. I dressed in public toilets and made excuses to friends and family when they asked if they could visit for dinner. I kept my predicament secret because I was at an age when everyone around me was making babies and homes.
Although I eventually found a house and a full-time role as mortician, I was still struggling financially. Contrary to common assumption, funeral directors and morticians are paid a slim wage. I’d had enough of eating microwave pasta so I applied some lippy, and checked into a hairdresser and nail salon, using my last hundred on a professional blow wave and manicure. Peppermint gum masking cheeseburger ketchup, I strutted into a strip club with phony confidence.
The dismal circumstances that led me to the stage turned out to be the greatest of blessings, because spinning around a stripper pole on stage brought me much joy. I learned to climb the pole and touch the ceiling, the crowd down below cheering my name – or Madison’s, anyway. Rainbows of cash fluttered to my feet as I twirled and pirouetted in nine-inch heels. On stage, all of my worries melted away. I didn’t think of mounting bills, the dead at the funeral home requiring my attention, or family dramas when I was dancing.
The adult industry rescued me and thanks to Madison (my alter ego), not only could I afford vegetables from the organic grocer, I now had defined and strong legs, a stronger heart and some wonderful friends who wore twinkling costumes after dark.
But it wasn’t all cash and Moet. Separating my two identities was as tough as Shellac. The constant shift from Madison to Emma Jane was exhausting. The lack of sleep and constant lying became almost too much to bear. My heart broke a little each time I lied to my parents, my friends, my colleagues. The funeral directors had no idea I twirled into character at dusk; likewise, fellow adult entertainers had no clue I tended to the dead during the day. I didn’t want to freak them out, because let’s face it, most people squirm at the word “mortician”. Only I knew my secret. Well, Madison and I, let’s say.
Fatigue aside, the hardest part of the compartmentalisation was keeping the stories to myself. I once buried a local celebrity (legally) and lap danced for another on the same day! Some nights in the dressing room, when the dancers asked about my day, I was dying to tell them about my fascinating day job. But I knew they would consider it morbid; I’d been called a weirdo enough times already.
I never considered my role as cosmetician for the dead as gross or macabre. Scrubbing corpse blood from my mortuary gumboots did not bother me at all. In fact, it was like attending a classroom each time I walked into work. Each and every deceased person taught me a valuable lesson. It was like having tens of parents telling me what not to do, in order to stay alive. I stopped running red lights. I invested in my diet. I stayed clear of hard drugs. Because I had seen more road tragedies, overdoses and cardiac arrest victims than you can possibly imagine. Confronted by death every day, I was grateful to be alive. I didn’t go home and cry (well, some days); I tackled my job head on with a smile. How lucky was I? I lived to see another day! Death enriched my life. I wasn’t alone in this mindset. The funeral crew were a family. At the end of a long day, we headed to the lunch room to debrief and share jokes, banter and hugs. Like a daily Christmas party, a mental high five: we made it, guys! We’re alive. We get to eat dinner!
I experienced a similar vibe in the stripper’s changeroom. The beautiful dancers were a team. Sure, there were catfights and the odd hair pulling tussle: “That’s my regular! How dare you lap dance for him!” But mostly it was a sisterhood, all trying to make as much money as possible to live our best life. Whoever would have thought? Death and sex: my daily inspiration to live each day as if it was my last.
Death and sex work are two of the biggest taboos in life; hushed from conversation. But acknowledging mortality everyday makes life special. And the sex workers, dancers and showgirls I’ve met in my time, are the most special souls I’ve encountered. Maybe it’s time we embraced it all: dying, strip clubs, coffins, bordellos, hearses… and heels.
Emma Jane Holmes’ debut memoir One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-Strings published by HQ, is a sassy, heart-breaking and jaw-dropping memoir of life behind the scenes in a funeral home and strip club, written with all the panache, honesty and sensitivity of Rosie Waterland’s The Anti-Cool Girl and Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner. Available to purchase from Booktopia.
Lead image by Darren Leigh Roberts courtesy HQ.