Books and reading

Confounding and intriguing: ‘One Last Dance’ by Emma Jane Holmes

As I read this debut by Emma Jane Holmes, it occurred to me that perhaps everyone should read a book like this. Not necessarily this exact book, but a book that confounds and challenges a closely held belief about some aspect of the world.

This was one such book for me. Let me explain why.

The subtitle of one Last Dance is this:
My Life in Mortuary Scrubs & G-Strings.

So, this is no memoir of an ‘ordinary’ life, lived in the clear daylight. Much of the author’s working life has been spent inside, behind closed doors (a mortuary and funeral home) and also a nightclub, where she worked nights as an exotic dancer under glitter balls and low stage lighting. This is where the G-strings come in, obviously.

I have always been uncomfortable with what I have regarded as the exploitation of women under the male gaze. I acknowledge that there are women from the adult industry who have begun to speak out about what they do and their role, defying the stereotypes of oppressed women. But my discomfort lingers and that is why I found this book to be a confounding read.

I also found it engrossing, sometimes amusing, often touching.

Emma Jane tells of her happy childhood on a farm in rural Australia, her loving family, and her childhood pull toward things to do with death. As a child she buried dead animals she came across on the farm and created headstones for them. She explored cemeteries. Her much loved Nan’s death and funeral propelled her into thinking about a job in the industry that had cared for her Nan after she died.

Unusual, right?

Her thinking about dying and death led her to regard it as a beautiful part of life. She approached her eventual work in the funeral industry as a necessary service but also an opportunity to make things better for the grieving people left behind.

Her memoir includes so much detail about what happens when a person dies, how the deceased are collected (from hospitals, mortuaries, private homes, accident sites and aged care homes); how staff of a funeral home prepare a body for burial or cremation; the wide array of choices available to loved ones as to how to say a final goodbye (and some of the more unusual choices she’s observed); the protocols around Western-style funerals.

Always, Emma Jane speaks of the clients (both the deceased and living) with utmost respect and recognition: of the life that person lived, of the mortality of us all, and of the sadness experienced by loved ones. I loved her accounts of talking to a deceased as she prepared them, or the little extra tributes she’d offer.

As someone who has attended quite a few funerals in recent years, including that of a parent, I can only hope that the people looking after those loved ones had a similar approach to their role.

Inevitably, there are stories of things that can go wrong; of black humour as a way of releasing stress; but also of the camaraderie and support that workers offer each other.

After a difficult divorce, Emma Jane found bills and debts mounting and she looked to the adult industry, initially anyway, as a way of earning quick money to shore up her finances. Overcoming her initial hesitation she threw herself into her night time role as exotic dancer with the same enthusiasm as she did her day job. She found it to be, in a strange way, a kind of respite, an escape from the world and a way of healing.

That is absolutely not how I would expect a woman who strips for money to describe her experience.

Exhausting? Yes, especially after a full day’s work as a funeral director. Degrading? According to this author, never.

Dancers are just regular – actually, extraordinary – ladies who walk down the street, shop at the grocer, stand in line with the rest of us at the chemist. Just like Death, exotic dancers are all around us. I pine for the day society stops turning their noses up at the adult industry. I wish for people to not be so quick to judge a woman just because she dresses in sequins after dark.

One Last Dance p264-265

While Ms Holmes eventually gave away her dancing work, her thoughts on what her dual experiences gave her summed up beautifully here:

…Death taught me to live my best life. I came to appreciate the smallest of things, like a fresh cup of coffee and the sound of wind at night. In any moment I could cease living… Death has enriched my soul in the most beautiful way and has strengthened my soul like I never thought possible…
But Madison {her nightclub stage name}…she’s taught me I can be pretty. I can be powerful…She’s taught me how fit I can be and that my body looks damn fine with abs. Madison has taught me that I don’t need a spouse to help me in life if I choose singledom; I can pay my own way.

One Last Dance p279

An oppressed, exploited woman? I don’t think so. And if I was to die tomorrow and find myself in the care of Ms Holmes in her funeral director’s suit, I would be fortunate indeed.
If you read and enjoyed The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, I’m certain you will be equally intrigued by this insight into two different worlds.

One Last Dance is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021. My thanks to the publishers for an opportunity to review the book.

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