Hazel Phillips

The Stiff Room

Care of the body after death: Close the mouth before the body starts to stiffen. If the mouth will not stay shut, you may use tape around the face, under the chin and up to the top of the head. This will become redundant within a few hours and can then be removed. 

My brother Aaron messaged me and his partner: “Dad’s got a new roommate. Bit quiet, don’t think he’ll stay long.” It was too subtle; we both read it literally. But Dad’s new roommate had checked in to the nursing home at 9am, decided he didn’t like his new digs, and checked out again in favour of activating his ticket to the afterlife by 10am. Aaron knew enough about dead bodies to understand what the tape around the man’s head signified: the race to beat rigor mortis. He visited Dad at midday to feed him lunch and that evening his partner met him there separately as they helped Dad eat dinner together. Mindful of the new roommate’s privacy, she tiptoed past the curtain to borrow a chair, not pausing to question why his head was taped up, just striving to be as quiet as possible and not wake him up—and certainly never imagining there might be a dead body in the same room. She didn’t notice the questioning look Aaron gave her and he didn’t want to let slip in front of Dad that he was eating dinner next to a cadaver. When they got home, he asked her: “What were you doing prancing around—he’s a stiff! It’s not like he’s going to wake up.” 

Sunhaven, the nursing home, used to have a separate room for stashing bodies until the undertaker could find the time to come calling. They called it the stiff room. That was back in the 1990s when my mother worked there as an occupational therapist. Sometimes Aaron and I had to go to Sunhaven after school before she finished her shift, and we’d cause havoc, disrespectfully racing wheelchairs and eating chocolate biscuits out of the cracked plastic container at the nurses’ station.  

It had the same smell then as it does now: decay. Tiny little needles of death digging uncomfortably into the sides of the residents as they waited for the end. And now Dad, too, was there, waiting for it to be over. 

“Have they passed the euthanasia bill yet?” Dad would ask me in the early days when he could still communicate. He was a victim of Lewy Body Dementia, which is closely related to Parkinson’s and attacks the body more so than the mind, laying muscles to waste and making essential activities such as getting up to go to the toilet, brushing one’s teeth, and swallowing increasingly difficult. “That bastard David Seymour needs to pull finger and get it sorted.” Dad sounds tough, here, but he was in reality a gentle and unbothered man, only he wasn’t unbothered about wanting to pop off. He’d close his eyes for a spell, open them again and inform me: “I really tried to die that time.” It never worked. 

When he first went into care in 2017, we showed up to feed him every meal: I did breakfast duty, my mother lunch, and my brother came in for dinner. Aaron also helped with toileting and changing sheets. There simply weren’t enough staff to take care of business, and Dad got stressed, and so did we. Months later, he became more mentally absent and spent longer and longer periods asleep or unconscious. I had to leave Auckland and only visited occasionally.  

My brother showed up every day to feed him dinner—which was sometimes just a Fruju iceblock, all he could manage to consume—right until the end. Aaron was so in tune with Dad’s daily physical status that he had been able to pick up on some subtle changes that indicated a turn for the worse, the last decline. He called me every day for a week with updates, and then suddenly: “You need to get up here.” I got in the car in Wellington aiming for Auckland and when I reached Auckland’s Southern Motorway, he called again: “Don’t stop, just go straight in there and see him.”  

I got one last hour with Dad. Then level 3 lockdown was announced and families weren’t allowed in. Aaron occupied himself in those empty spaces of suspended time as we waited for Dad to die, alone, by hand-crafting a coffin, made from Dad’s old stash of recycled native timber, glossy in marine liquid glass varnish with bronze alloy detailing. It even had handles fashioned out of propellor shafts from wrecked boats, four large nuts sized to the same dimensions as Dad’s favourite spanner, and a bronze cross that simply read: ‘John Henry’. The coffin didn’t cost much but was a physical manifestation of Aaron’s love for our father. Once the coffin was finished, Aaron and a friend turned their attention to digging Dad’s grave by hand. The funeral home director said you know that’s when families really loved the person, if they dig the grave themselves.  

When Dad first went into care in 2017, the corporate owners of Sunhaven made $44m profit after tax. If you want to see what immorality looks like, it’s in black and white detail on their annual financial statements. 2018: $9m. 2019: $19m. This profit gets fed back into a company based in Melbourne. It doesn’t stay in Aotearoa. It doesn’t benefit the aged residents of our country, which the company feeds on to create its business. It doesn’t do justice to the hard work of its often minimum-wage workforce.  

The carers’ faces were often creased with worry, their practical soft shoes beating a rapid tattoo as they ran up and down hallways to help their patients. But still, a handful of carers can only do so much in one day with their own two arms and two legs.  

Forty-four million dollars in profit. Profit, while my dad didn’t have anyone to help him get to the toilet in time and often soiled himself. Profit, while my brother took over feeding and caring duties that we couldn’t trust Sunhaven to carry out properly, while they took our money as well as funding from the government. Profit, while Dad lay next to a dead body, thankfully unaware of the fact, so that Sunhaven could use the old stiff room for something that brought them more money. Profit, because that is what we must hold up as important: profit, not people.  

After the dead roommate episode, I paid an extra $650 per month so Dad could have a private room, but I comfort myself with the reminder that he probably wouldn’t have cared too much about the dead guy. Dad wasn’t the type to get upset about much—more practical and less concerned with nuance, he liked the simple, cost-free things in life.  

We went for a swim at the beach the day he died. I think it helped Aaron to hide his tears as he dove through the salt water. I have a recurring reminder in my phone now, set to ping every year on March 2. It reads: “John Henry Phillips memorial swim.” 

Hazel Phillips

Hazel Phillips, a previously unpublished author in the area of narrative nonfiction, is a former journalist turned communications professional. She has published two non-fiction books: Sell!, a popular history of the New Zealand advertising industry, and Wild Westie, a biography of Sir Bob Harvey. She is currently working on her third book, which is a memoir combined with stories from New Zealand's backcountry history, and working on her Masters in creative writing. In her spare time she enjoys multi-day tramping, mountaineering, scuba diving, skiing and lying on the couch.