By night she was an exotic dancer; by day, a funeral home employee working with dead bodies and comforting the bereaved. This is Emma Jane Holmes’ story.
By night she was an exotic dancer; by day, a funeral home employee working with dead bodies and comforting the bereaved. This is Emma Jane Holmes’ story.

'My life in G-strings and scrubs'

BROUGHT up an Aussie country girl, Emma Jane Holmes found her life's calling in Death, helping the bereaved with dignity and compassion at a Sydney funeral home. But after a messy divorce left her with big bills, she began balancing her besuited day job with night shifts as an exotic dancer in Kings Cross.

New book One Last Dance is her own story - funny, moving and unlike anything you've read before. This is an edited extract.

Suits, scrubs and sequins … Emma Jane Holmes. Photo: Darren Leigh Roberts
Suits, scrubs and sequins … Emma Jane Holmes. Photo: Darren Leigh Roberts

'Rumour has it, Brad Pitt might be there!' Josie's voice chimed through the bluetooth as I switched lanes on the M5. 'This is huge for our agency, Emma Jane. Can I lock you in?'

Normally I'd never answer the phone while on body collection duties - my hand had bumped the 'answer' button while reaching for the radio in the company vehicle and technically, I didn't have a corpse on board. Just part of one.

'Emma Jane? The waitressing gig?'

'Sure, Jo, I'll be there.'

'You sound distracted, honey. Are you busy?'

I'm sure many girls would squeal at the prospect of seeing Brad Pitt's glorious hair in person, but no famous actor could spur excitement within me the way death did. My eyes darted to the box in the seat beside me, fastened with yellow tape, Complete Organ written across the side in marker.

Mr Stephen's brain was inside, finally released from the forensic pathologist. Tests finalised, the organ was now in the care of A Touch of Comfort funeral home.

 

'I'm just in traffic.' My voice reflected Josie's upbeat tone, omitting the fact that a brain in a box was sitting in the passenger seat, activating the 'turn on passenger seatbelt' light on the dashboard at every corner. Josie was my manager - well, one of my managers. The cheery entrepreneur owned one of the most popular lingerie/bikini waitressing agencies in the city, which made me … a bikini waitress. Adjusting my tie in the rear-view mirror, I saw heels, bottles of hairspray and fake tan littered across the back seat. While Josie had no idea I drove across the city collecting body parts when not working for her (okay - I do much more than collect body parts), likewise, my colleagues at the funeral home had no clue I wore sequined heels after dark, serving drinks in a bikini with a garter full of cash.

'Shit!' My foot slammed the brake to stop me from careen- ing into the back of the vehicle that had switched lanes abruptly. The Brain in the Box fell to the floor with a light thud, my latte splattering it. Great. How would I explain a coffee-sodden box to the mortician when I handed her the brain? I scrambled for the organ and wiped the damp cardboard with some tissues from the glove compartment. With the traffic at a standstill, I buckled the brain in with the seatbelt and patted the box. Safe now.

Emma Jane looking on the bright side of Life … and Death.
Emma Jane looking on the bright side of Life … and Death.

I know this scene might appear rather odd to most people, but situations like this are my everyday reality. The previous day when delivering a decadent to a crematorium, I had flown to the rescue and removed a pacemaker from the dead lady's chest before she slid into the cremation retort (the pacemaker had been missed on her paperwork). In case you didn't know, pacemakers must be removed prior to cremation to prevent an almighty bang and considerable damage to the retort. With no pacemaker storage container available in that moment, I popped it into my pocket and for the rest of the day walked around with a mechanical object that once kept someone alive in my pants, covered in yellow, slimy chest fat.

'I have to go, Josie. I'll be there, Saturday.'

'Okay, love, take care. Talk soon.'

Mr Stephen's brain and I steered into the manicured lawns

of the funeral home and a funeral director, suit pressed and shoes polished, bounced down the stairs to meet me.

'Great timing.' Kevin beamed, meeting me at the driver's side window. His moustache was set in twirls at the ends. 'New case just arrived in the mortuary for you.'

The day job … Emma Jane Holmes with one of her funeral firm colleagues.
The day job … Emma Jane Holmes with one of her funeral firm colleagues.

'Awesome.' Disguising exhaustion with a smile, I stepped out of the car. 'Anything interesting?'

'Decomp.' He winked, taking the brain from my hands. 'Lucky you! Wasn't found for days - brains everywhere!'

***

I'm not that unusual. There are double lives taking place all around us. The handsome father in conservative 'dad clothes' at the supermarket? He may wear leather underwear beneath those golf shorts and have a mistress.

That lovely co-worker with a lip-glossed smile? She may go home at the end of the day all alone and curl up in a ball of sadness and binge-eat.

The good-looking pool cleaner with the chiselled back muscles and a fantastic tan? Yeah, he's a stripper after dark.

The night job … Emma Jane Holmes ready to take the stage.
The night job … Emma Jane Holmes ready to take the stage.

Wearing suits by day and stilettos by night, I didn't dip my shellac toes into the adult industry to spice up my life. My day job was not only exciting, it was deeply fulfilling. I was an FDA (Funeral Director's Assistant) and Mortuary Assistant. By day I polished hearses, bathed bodies and dressed them, applied their lipstick and even helped the embalmer with the duty of reconstructing a skull following a vicious accident. The head mortician was quite the artist, and no request was too challenging for her. If the family wished to view their loved one who had just skidded into a tree on his motorbike, cracks would be filled. And I was the assistant by her side, passing implements and holding pieces of skull together as she glued and bandaged. I was one of the last people to ever touch the decedent's hand before they were buried into the earth. Then, at dusk, I peeled off the scrubs or suit and slipped into a lacy number, piling on the lipstick. My wardrobe was bursting with sequined bikinis, diamante-studded stilettos and 'naughty schoolgirl' costumes, yet my lounge room told a different story.

Telling a different story … One Last Dance by Emma Jane Holmes
Telling a different story … One Last Dance by Emma Jane Holmes

Black stockings and professionally dry-cleaned suits were draped over the couch, red silk ties on almost every bare surface and shiny leather funeral director shoes by the front door.

I adored working with death. The world I was born into - the West - seemed to have an unusual perspective on death: that it should be ushered quickly from sight, which led to misconceptions and myths that still break my heart today. I yearned for people to open their minds to the beauty end of life offers.

Death enriches life.

Acknowledging mortality every single day made me a better person. A nicer person. Working as an FDA softened my hastiness in traffic. I was grateful to be alive and sitting in peak hour. I sent my grandma flowers regularly to remind her she was loved. She wouldn't be here much longer, and this fact sobered me every time I touched the hand of a dear old lady in her coffin.

A lover of history, I remember reading that back in the time of the Caesars there was a person whose only job was to chant the words 'Thou Art Mortal!' to remind Caesar that he, too, was only a man and lived in a mortal body. Working at the funeral home was like having my own personal assistant following me around reminding me of my mortality. Every morning when I secured a lid tight on a coffin, I heard it: 'Thou Art Mortal! Thou Art Mortal!'

‘Made me a better person’ … her job gave Emma Jane a new perspective.
‘Made me a better person’ … her job gave Emma Jane a new perspective.

My life motto became even more relevant when I began working in the adult industry to clear mounting bills as a result of a difficult divorce. Because apart from death, here was a subject with an even darker stigma attached to it: sex.

The more time I spent in adult entertainment meeting wonderful souls who powdered glitter on their cleavages after dark, the more I realised much of society judged dancers and escorts, believing they had no other choice. A lot of people felt they were 'above' exotic dancers and sex workers because they worked a 'straight' job. I think those people need a little helper too, chanting 'Thou Art Mortal'. Our lives eventually end and the way we earn money in the meantime shouldn't matter, as long as we're happy and not hurting anyone.

Death and sex are braided: sex produces life and death is the end of it. Yet they're both frowned upon. Eyebrows shot up when people discovered I worked in a funeral home. 'You work with dead people? That must be so depressing!'

When I began to confess my secret about working in adult entertainment, I was met with more astonished glances. Why? Why are death and sex so taboo? They are important fundamentals in life.

***

Theatre of life … One Last Dance author Emma Jane Holmes. Photo: Darren Leigh Roberts
Theatre of life … One Last Dance author Emma Jane Holmes. Photo: Darren Leigh Roberts

There was another similarity between my two careers. Theatre.

As funeral directors, we shine our shoes, straighten our ties, show up with our Funeral Director Face on - an expression of compassion promising strength. We don't personally know your loved one, yet during the funeral process we put ourselves aside to be there for you.

Once eulogies are shared and the final song plays, after the funeral conductor has led the pallbearers down the aisle, I'm reminded of the dancer's stage. Following a burial, the funeral directors take a stand graveside and take a synchronised bow. Then, performing at the club, the stage show concludes with a bow before stepping out of the spotlights.

There was theatre in both the adult and death industry. In fact, one day while standing graveside in the cemetery prettied with flower beds, I realised life is a show.

We are all living in one big giant movie, and just like every great film or theatre production, there is always a final bow and two words looming …

The End.

 

This is an edited extract from One Last Dance by Emma Jane Holmes. Published by HarperCollins Australia, it is on sale from March 3.

Originally published as My life in G-strings and scrubs


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