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A celebration of Ralf's life

As I took my turn shoveling the loose shale into Ralf's grave I felt an immense sense of achievement. We'd done it! Our own home funeral. The first in the Shire.

And we had done it all. There were no priests, no undertakers, no fancy coffin and hearse, no fake grass and hydraulic lifts at the graveside.

We were self sufficiency in action. Two friends laid out Ralf's body at my home, where he died. Another two made a simple elegant, plywood coffin. The miraculous 2 litre milk bottles of frozen water provided cooling for a day, allowing us to keep his body with us and hold a vigil. The hospital allowed us to use the morgue for the rest of the time. We had my VW kombi van for transport, then a 4 wheel drive ute for the last section up to our own bush cemetery in the trees.

Chrysalis community members had done all the paper work with council, cleared the lantana away and dug the grave by hand. My 'event co-ordinator' sewed up dozens of stark white pennants and hung them from graceful black bamboo poles to decorate the site. Clumps of the same pennants fluttered from the entrance to the property, the track to the cemetery and my studio, where we laid Ralf with flowers and candle light for the final viewing.

It was a community occasion. 2BBB FM, our community radio, spread the word and played a specially selected tribute to Ralf, it's former council reporter and technical whiz.

Ralf had always been a political and social activist as well as a loyal friend and many people trudged up the steep dirt road to say their fairwells. They were waiting for us, on this soft almost-rainy winter afternoon with the quiet beat of a native American drum and the drone of a didge. The brightly coloured crowd spread along the hillside above the grave, looking out through the trees and across the valley - the Kalang valley that Ralf came to 20 years ago to start a hippy commune.

As we took our places below the grave looking back at everyone, I felt as if we were on a stage, part of some solemn performance in that bush setting. A friend led the ceremony - moving tributes and poems. We lowered the coffin into the deep shaley grave and all filed past, throwing in a handful or spadeful of dirt. Then the real shoveling began, first the men of the community, then others joined in - men, women and children - all working briskly until we had the earth heaped back in place. After the sadness and emotion of the days before, it was a great release to be able to do something physical, to use our bodies and shovel that dirt.

Dusk fell and we walked back down to the nearest house to a roaring bonfire, a bring-a-plate feast, music, and to the delight of the kids, fireworks.

The whole event just flowed without a hitch. We even took our own videos and photos.

The successful planning and conducting our own funeral, so many friends coming together, all this gave me an energy that helped through the difficult days to come.

As a community too we gained, for facing death together creates strong bonds. And we were so proud of what we had achieved. Even more so when we tallied up the costs. We spent about $800 establishing the cemetery - a capital investment that will serve Chrysalis community for generations. The funeral itself - a mere $200. And that would have been exactly in keeping with Ralf's own wishes.

In death, as in life, he was still on the leading edge.

Dorin Hart

Dorin's story has been reproduced from The Do-It-Yourself Funeral Book published by Leah Munro, co-ordinator of the Bellingen Shire Bereavement Service. Permission to use the story was granted by Dorin Hart.