Rarely do I have the opportunity to chat with someone with as diverse a background and interests as New Zealand born Brook. Having spent time traveling as both a pilot and flight attendant, Brook’s wisdom is limitless. It was also the first time I’ve had such an in-depth conversation about death. His funeral directing experience is certainly not what you would expect. In fact, it was quite uplifting to hear such positive thoughts on death. He also serenaded me with a happening number on the piano. The whole experience felt a little bit like the HBO hit Six Feet Under.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. I moved to Prague after living in Dubai for two and a half years, and I also fell in love with someone there. We broke up after about 8 months and it was a difficult one, but I came out of it ok.
And you decided to stick around?
Yeah, I really really love it. Just last night I was at the opera seeing Tosca and it was beautiful. I always try to see an opera every month. The architecture of Prague is really beautiful too, so that’s another reason I stayed, and the people.
What did you do in Dubai?
Why did you move there? Well, I was a funeral director for 8 years in New Zealand and I had my own business and after 4 years I became a bit burnt out and needed a change, so I began to see the world. A colleague of mine applied for a job with Emirates airlines and suggested I do the same, and I did. So I went to Dubai, there were 25 000 people that applied for the job and only a few thousand got it.
Wow and that was a flight attendant position?
Yes, I did that for two and a half years.
Ok, and being a flight attendant you obviously travelled a lot. Where do you think was the best place?
Rome, closely followed by Prague.
What do Czech people ask you when they find out you’re from New Zealand?
Why on earth do you live here? (Laughs). New Zealand is so beautiful and green! I just relay it back to them and say the Czech Republic is also a very beautiful, clean and green country – they just look at me completely baffled. We take advantage of the beautiful mountains and lakes in New Zealand, whereas they take advantage of the buildings, culture and history. There is so much history.
So… The Lord of the Rings. Do a lot of people mention that to you?
What do they ask you?
Is it really like that? Does it really look like that and I always say yes, it does. Peter Jackson didn’t touch it up at all. Obviously he added the towers and stuff like that. But, I have a confession. I didn’t really enjoy The Lord of the Rings.
No, I must be the only Kiwi that didn’t. I actually fell asleep during it. The only reason I watched it was to see what I could recognise.
Was any of it filmed where you’re from in Hawkes Bay?
No, but the closest place was Matamata, which is where the Shire is.
Nice, and what was it like growing up in Hawkes Bay?
It was fun, I grew up on a farm.
What did you do for fun as a kid?
Hmmm, ride on sheep, horses, motorbikes and that sort of thing. When I was really young I couldn’t obviously ride horses so I would hang on to the sheep in the pens and ride around on them.
(Laughs) Sounds fun. What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a pilot, but my parents never really entertained the idea when I was a kid. They realized how expensive it was to learn to fly so they tried to discourage it as much as they could. They would even say no to toy planes, so I would nail two bits of wood together and pretend it was an airplane.
And you are a pilot now, how did you get there?
Eventually they saw that it wasn’t a phase. I did maths and physics at school just so I could be a pilot – they were both subjects that I didn’t like, but they saw there was determination there so they sent me off to flying school in Auckland. I did my first flight with my father and a flying instructor and I was hooked. I got my private license just after turning 16, and my commercial license some time later.
Why is that?
It was difficult. I came out of the closet, so my parents stopped funding my education.
And how did you make money?
Well I turned to funeral directing. It was the next thing on my list. So I banged on a couple of doors, I needed to get a job. What terrible timing. Yes, I was almost finished! However, shit happens as they say. So I banged on the door of ‘Fountains funerals’ and eventually did some work experience for two weeks; I discovered that I really enjoyed it and they hired me full time. That’s where I took care of all of the behind the scenes stuff.
What was that behind the scenes stuff exactly?
As funeral directors we are responsible for everything from the time of death to the disposal, it’s horrible that they call it that but they do – whether it be by burial or cremation. Basically everything in between. We kind of liken it to a wedding planner, but with a funeral (laughs).
That’s a nice way of putting it.
Yes and the behind the scenes stuff includes what you do with the body, the make-up. Sometimes people don’t die in particularly nice ways, so there are many things you have to do to make them look peaceful.
Is it common to have open-casket funerals in New Zealand?
Yes, it is. We pretty much embalm everybody which I think is much nicer actually, because I don’t want the last memory of my mother to be like… you know. When you die, all of your muscles relax. There’s even a muscle to keep your jaw closed, your eyes closed.That thing in the movies with closing people eyes is not true.
They always open up again?
Was there a particularly difficult case that you encountered? Perhaps an accident?
Well there are several cases where you can’t embalm. For example, if someone has tuberculosis, there are spores in their lungs, so when you push their chest they will come out and then you get TB so obviously you don’t do it. It doesn’t die with the carrier, whereas HIV does, so we can embalm them.
There was a particular case I remember. A 23 year old man who was drunk fell asleep on railway lines. Lucky in a lot of ways because he didn’t feel anything, but the body was shocking… It was recognisably human, but every bone in his body was crushed – like a carpet or rug, you could literally roll him up… Obviously we didn’t, but you could.
(Laughs). I feel bad for laughing, but that was brilliant.
It was really difficult because trying to explain to the family that you can’t view your son is a really difficult thing to do. Viewing gives some sort of closure and realisation that they have actually gone. And this poor mother wanted so badly to see her son, but I couldn’t show her. She asked if she could at least hold his hand, and I had to say that there actually was no hand to hold. It still tugs at the heart strings a bit.
Do you attach a sense of humour to the work?
It is a coping mechanism, a way of avoiding the hurt that we see. Nobody should really have to see this stuff. Some use alcohol, some use drugs, but mine was humour. The home I worked in was great, everyone was so humorous.
For instance, I remember one day we were all making up caskets, putting the handles on etc. We had the radio on and the song ‘Highway to Hell’ by ACDC came on so we all started dancing and singing. This family came in to arrange their funeral early and they could all hear us! The funeral director opened the door and said, “could you please turn it down”, but the family said “no, look at them! they’re having fun. Let them go!”.
Have you seen the TV show Six Feet Under?
I have and it is similar actually. The humour is very similar, although I have never stood over a body smoking pot!
And what do you know about the funeral business in the Czech Republic?
I’ve studied it, unfortunately I think it’s pretty communistic – if you even have one to begin with, they’re usually only 25 minutes long, the director talks briefly and then there is just music, CDs playing. It’s nobody’s fault, this is all they have known. The percentage of people who don’t have funerals is very high. Because funerals are so old-fashioned here, nobody wants one. I would love to bring a different kind of funeral to the Czech Republic.
How would you change them?
Definitely more personalised, not just using a template and changing the name. I would make it more about the person themselves, involving the people who are attending the funeral. It would be more focused on what they need with music the person liked and so on. It shouldn’t be a cold, dreary affair, it’s a celebration of one’s life. It depends on the situation.
Have you ever had any strange requests for funeral music?
Yes, I had an 80 year old lady who loved Def Lepperd. All of her bingo lady friends were listening and thinking this is the wrong song surely. I had another lady who planned her own funeral, and she chose the song ‘The Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash.
And what song would you like at your funeral?
Well, I think it’s changed a lot over the years. I used to want ‘It’s my Life’ by INXS, but probably now it would be more along the lines of ‘Learning to Fly’ by Pink Floyd.
Is there a special kind of person that is drawn to this job?
I think so. Some of the people I have known and met, I would hate to think what they were capable of if they didn’t do it. I’ve met some embalmers and thought; this must be some kind of release for you. As a director we deal more with the family, but embalmers are in a concrete room and only see bodies. But, obviously I’ve met some very nice embalmers as well.
Who organises a funeral for a funeral director?
Their friends. It’s a funny thing because I’ve been to one and it was filled with funeral directors. Are they critical? Oh definitely, most definitely. That reminds me, I was actually unfortunate enough to lose a guy that I was dating. His mother called me and asked me to do the funeral. I regret not doing it actually, because it was shodily done.
I can’t imagine what that must have been like… So Brook, time for our People in Prague questions. How would you describe Prague?
Beautiful, historical, old, hmmm cultured.
If you could go back or forward in time, where would you go and what would you see?
It would be interesting to see what future Prague has, in terms of how people will be, whether they will be more friendly. I mean I have been pretty lucky, not too many problems. But when it is bad, it’s very bad. It would be interesting to see how Prague will be in 10 or 20 years time and I’m interested to see what the economy will do too.
Me too, and who would play you in a movie about your life? Your story already sounds like a movie actually.
I think George Clooney (laughs). He would look good as a funeral director with the grey hair, not that I have grey hair! What do you miss the most about home? My friends, family, fish. I really miss seafood.
Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photo by Ryan Keating-Lambert.