My sister was the only person I knew who took photos at funerals. The snap and whir of her SLR was hard to ignore as it echoed up the aisle from the back of the church. There was never a flash, only the windows offered light to the mourners, but that sound – I’ll never forget it.
She started with strangers, the white-haired shadows we saw shuffling to the church across the road from our house on Sundays. When a hearse crawled along the street and into the carpark, the driver’s face a sombre mask behind the window, she would throw on the black graduation gown that slid easily over anything she was wearing, and grab the camera. An hour later she would return, sighing with relief, like a burden had been lifted.
We thought the phase would end when she came home with her nose red and eyes streaming. She sneezed four times before explaining her new allergy to incense. The priest – or whoever chooses these things in a parish – had changed the flavour, the scent, the spice. The alter boy had wafted it towards her like he knew what was going to happen, and suddenly she couldn’t see. Her dripping eyes blinded her to the mourners bending themselves over the coffin, and she came home in a panic. We presumed it was a fatal flaw for a photographer of funerals.
The next weekend, however, she was back, a cheap wooden peg clipped to her nose as she snapped photo after photo of the rose-laden coffin, walking easily through clouds of incense and past sneering alter boys.
At first, she avoided funerals for the young. The elderly, she said, should be commemorated in death, and families were usually bewildered but not hurt by her presence. The priest, I found out later, would warn the families in advance. I liked to imagine that conversation, and how he would tell grieving adult children, grandchildren, elderly friends wondering when their time would come, that a local woman with ratty hair and a black gown might pop up during the service and take photographs. She was a local character, he would say, a woman with a peg on her nose, whose throat itched from breathing incense but who turned up, week after week.
I joined her a couple of times, for the macabre atmosphere. Once, it was our old school principal in the coffin. She had terrified me in life, and her daughter – who was running the show – had the same voice. I sat at the back, hands clasped between my knees, reliving my lunchtime banishments for minor misdemeanours. Weirdly, it was my presence, and not my sister’s, which confused the family. The daughter frowned at me through her perfect makeup, her nose twitching like she could smell a fake mourner from metres away. My sister snapped the interaction, while I hurried from the church in embarrassment.
Not long after that, my sister took to wearing the peg at all times. One day, she just left it on. Her voice become blocked and nasal, but she never spoke much anyway. Dad, thinking it was a stupid joke, grabbed it off her, and she wailed like the scent of the world was attacking her. The smell of our house – that musty smell that can never be recreated, a perfect combination of the people and the food and the laundry detergent and the flowers in the garden – was too much for her. Dad gave in immediately, patting her on the shoulder as she clipped the peg back on and took a deep gaping breath.
I always wondered how dry her mouth was, breathing through it all the time. I imagined dried saliva coating her teeth, that gritty feeling from breathing polluted air, her tongue fuzzy. But it didn’t phase her, or at least, it was preferable to the option of living in a deluge of smells.
On her thirtieth birthday, after this ritual of hers had been going for a decade, she switched to funerals of children. This is when she got strategic about it, haunting the obituaries online, making notes of the upcoming services in her diary. Mum and Dad were worried, but she could be more persuasive than a woman with a clothes peg on her nose had a right to be.
She didn’t go to all the funerals, there were too many now she had branched out. Sometimes she would just tell me, like the conversation was its own commemoration of the person. The boy who had died falling from his skateboard under a bus. The woman with breasts invaded by cancer, who had carried her child to term rather than submit to treatment. The old man who had bowled a strike at his weekly ten-pin game, and had collapsed during a high-five. They were people from our city, but we knew more about them in death than life.
When she turned up at a funeral for a child, she printed flyers and gave them to people before the service. Not the families, who were comatose with grief anyway, but the people on the fringe. In the middle of the flyer, a photo of herself looking semi-normal, or at least without the clothes peg on her nose; underneath, a simple quote about the importance of remembrance. She specified that it was free, and included her email address. Just in case, sometime down the road of their new normal, they wanted copies of the photographs. As far as I knew, no one ever did, and her room became a trip hazard, then a health hazard, then simply somewhere to avoid, as the photographs of pain piled up.
The last time I joined her was for the funeral of a local politician. He was the Santa Claus of the government: the jolly, fatherly figure who told us when we were acting badly, but spoke like he didn’t actually care. He mainly existed to eat and drink with the city’s decision-makers. He had been around for decades, and was continually elected because it never occurred to anyone to run against him.
The funeral was in the main cathedral, and there was press. The back of the church was cramped with tripods, guys in black t-shirts, endless lanyards. My sister slipped in, wearing her gown and clothes peg, and floated down the aisle. I could hear the muttering from my spot halfway towards the front. They thought she was cheating the system, though how they had mistaken her for one of their own, I have no idea. She crouched, clearly thinking she was invisible, and all the more obvious because of it. I pretended I didn’t know her.
As the alter boy passed me, gusts of smoke poured from the incense holder swinging in his hand. The scent drifted into my nose, softly at first, then with a sudden rage, and with it came that overwhelming sense of faith. I was as atheist as I had ever been, but the smell was like putting on a lab coat and feeling like a doctor: an association impossible to ignore. I wondered – for the first time – whether there was more to my sister’s clothes peg than allergies.
She was less religious than I was, if that was possible. I thought the whole thing was silly, traditions that should have been reasoned away, people that should find better things to do with their time. But she had always seen the evil below it all, the control, the hate, the fury at unapproved behaviour. The unique ability to make people feel like failures. I inhaled the incense, the warmth of the spice heavy in my throat, and wondered if my life was as empty as it suddenly felt, or if that was just the trick of it all. The trick to make me come back.
There were photographs of that funeral in the paper the next day, of course. My sister saw them and scoffed. They were recording the event for posterity, she – I imagined – was making art from it.
The day my mother died, it didn’t occur to me that she would take photos of the funeral. I was too busy feeling sideswiped by a life I had come to find painfully predictable. The night before, I had wished for something unexpected to happen. I had been numbed for months, years. Decades, maybe. The phone call came while I stirred half a teaspoon of sugar into my porridge, and I couldn’t help thinking I had wished this on my mother. Of course, in reality, it was the old man who couldn’t see over his dashboard who was to blame, but emotion has never been never guided by logic.
The hospital was too bright considering it was dark outside. We sat in three plastic chairs, staring at the wall in front of us, while doctors made our mother presentable before we saw her. The smell of disinfectant crept into my pores, and I thought about asking my sister for the spare peg she kept with her at all times. Until I noticed she had already clipped it on her own nose. The two pegs sat one behind the other, like lovers riding a horse. Her skin was pinched red. Crying without a nose doesn’t work very well, and the only sound she could make was a strange honking, like her throat was a horn. I took her hand but she shook me loose, and continued honking alone.
A week later it was the funeral. Dad, like me, hadn’t considered the photography. It’s not top of the list when organising a funeral service. The websites designed to help you remember what to do are missing that extra bullet point saying: make sure no nutjob takes photos.
My sister and I sat together in the front row, but my eyes were too blinded by tears to take much notice of her. I didn’t even feel her warmth disappear from my side. I was gripping my father’s hand when behind us came that snap and whir. A murmur swept through the congregation followed quickly by a ‘shhh’. I didn’t realise I had stood up until the priest stopped speaking, his eyes on me. She was at the back of the church, in her stupid black gown, the two pegs pinching her nose into red blossoms of broken veins.
‘Stop it!’ The words were supposed to be quiet, just me to her, but it was a shriek of anger. She jumped, almost dropped the camera. Then she raised the lens towards me, and pointed it at my face. I stormed down the aisle, yelling incomprehensible words, hearing that snap and whir as she documented my fury. I was a lion charging towards the idiot journalist who waits just a fraction too long, her dedication to her art making a sacrifice of her life. My hands reached out. I was going to kill her for making this day, like every day, about her.
I didn’t know Dad was behind me, but he took my arm just in time. Tears streaming down his face, he shook his head at me, like I was the one doing something wrong. At the sight of his pain though, I no longer cared. My anger was spent, tranquilised by the reality of the moment that had crashed through me with Dad’s touch, sharp as a dart. It was my mother’s funeral, and it was my sister’s mother’s funeral.
We retreated up the aisle, the snap and whir behind us, and folded ourselves into our seats.
I never thought of those photos again. I never wanted to remember that day, or who I had been. How, for a second, I had forgotten who my sister was and had thought only of what I needed: quiet, privacy. I was in awe of those families to whom she was a stranger, families who let the woman with the clothes peg on her nose photograph them on their worst day.
I never went to a funeral with her again, after that. She didn’t suggest it. She stopped telling us where she was going, and started changing into her gown once the front door had closed behind her. We weren’t fooled. Dad and I would look at each other, that look of the last sane family members. Then Dad would go into the garden, Mum’s old watering can hanging heavily from his hand, to feed her roses. I would retreat to my room to write, the words a barely adequate balm to what was inside. Was it turmoil or emptiness or anger? I could never tell. Sometimes though, it had a tinge of incense to it.
At my sister’s funeral, the church was too quiet, like we were all waiting for someone to take up her camera and start photographing her day. The priest spoke softly, sweetly. He didn’t mention the clothes pegs. I had words to read, but found I couldn’t. I stood, looking at the smallest group of mourners I had ever seen, and wondered how many people’s photograph she had taken in her life. How many images had she captured of people who now had no idea that she was dead? I said goodbye, and kept my words to myself.
Later, at home, I squeezed into her room. The piles of boxes were not as chaotic as I expected. They were neatly labelled, and I found what I was looking for easily. There were fifty photos of me, at every step I had taken down the aisle. My face twisted and red in anger at what I had for a sister, my mouth gaping with words I couldn’t remember. And then Dad, catching me, his face panicked through his tears, taking my arm, whispering to me. His eye caught the camera as we turned, sharing a secret with my sister. He understood her, I had just been pretending. Then, the two of us, retreating, Dad’s arm around my shoulders, our bodies cowed.
‘What’s that?’ Dad was in the doorway. I pushed the prints towards him, fanning them out on the dusty carpet. I wondered if he could face that naked pain. His eyes skimmed them until the last one. He crouched to see it better.
She had zoomed in. We were at the top of the aisle, about to crumple into our seats. Dad’s arm was still heavy across my shoulders, mine grasping at his back as though worried he was going to leave me stranded. Above our heads, clouds of incense from the pots held by the altar boys. Like our heads were on fire. Dad snorted. A giggle welled up inside me. My fury had caused us to combust in front of my mother’s casket, that’s how it appeared. And all the while, the small congregation faced forward, hands held neatly in front of them. Like polite spectators watching a lion enclosure at feeding time. No one acknowledged the sister at the back of the church, taking the photographs, or the sister who had momentarily forgotten why. They were pretending my sudden anger was normal, natural, and only the gusts of heavily scented smoke signalled there was something they were missing about the picture.
Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and now lives in Birmingham, UK. She has been published or has work upcoming in Meanjin, Mechanics’ Institute Review, the Nottingham Review, Litro, Crack the Spine, and others. She is writing her fourth-time-lucky novel while working at University College London.