Bringing them home

The journey has begun for the downed. The scene of a dilapidated old freight train pulling out of a station doesn’t give high hopes for dignity to be maintained in death. Having said that life wasn’t respected in the first instance, so one wonders why would dignity be respected. As they make their way home, to their final resting place, one hopes dignity will be bestowed.

The hard part for families is the wait. There will be great pressure to identify the bodies quickly and release them. As the bodies will start decomposing quickly, forensic identification is mandatory. The disaster victim identification teams will want to be absolutely certain that they have the right people, and their parts, and they are going to be released to the right people and taken home to be laid to rest. Anger and frustration, prefaced by the question ‘why can’t you…”, is prevalent.

Some will want to bring them home, conduct an accompanying vigil. This must be extraordinarily hard, being on the plane, knowing that your loved one in is in the cargo hold, when they should be sitting in the seat beside you.

The challenge will be as the bodies are identified and returned home to avoid an undignified circus on their return. I was involved in repatriation of bodies in both the Bali bombings and the Boxing Day Tsunami. Two things stand out for me from Bali. We met the first person to be repatriated from Bali at a special hangar in Melbourne airport. Because it was the first person to be brought home, it was a particularly politically sensitive situation. As a “senior” government official, I was instructed to be at the airport to be part of the reception team and support the family. Part of the challenge was that not only was I there, but also Australian federal police, federal government officials (who wanted to place the Australian flag on the coffin), the Victorian coroner’s office, Red Cross and Victorian council of churches volunteers, airport staff , funeral parlour and Kenyons staff (responsible for bringing bodies home). Quite a circus.

Two members of the family were there to meet the coffin, and there were at least 15 of us. It was terrible overkill, partly for political purposes, and also partly because we thought we were doing the right thing. The federal government official made some cringeworthy comments “on behalf of the prime minster etc” most of us melted into the background, realising we were cramping the family’s space, and not really respecting their privacy. The family looked bewildered. Once their brother was transferred to the waiting hearse, they beat a hasty retreat. The federal government official, like some scene out of a bad Hollywood movie said enthusiastically something along the lines of ‘well that went well, didn’t it”

A similar scene greeted a father and brother accompanying their daughter on her journey home, and this time they were less than enamoured at being greeted by such an entourage. The eminently sensible AFP agent and I locked eyes. Afterwards she took me aside and said ‘we need to talk”. It didn’t take us, with the coroner’s office, long to sort out that we would only have three people, an AFP agent, the coroner’s office, and a personal support person. A much more dignified and sensible response.

Quite often the desire to do the right thing ends up overwhelming the people we are trying to support. Instead of two left feet, deft footwork and a light touch is what is required.


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