The unclaimed: the ashes left waiting in Sydney’s Wayside Chapel

In the charity’s storeroom sit the cremated remains of seven former visitors – unclaimed, contested or forgotten. This is the story of three of them

Mark was a member of an online witches and vampire community and liked to wear a bit of blingy jewellery. He really liked his friend Joe’s cooking. Gordon always had a can of Jim Beam in his hand and a flaring temper but, until he was evicted for anger management-related issues, he kept his public housing flat spotless. Marianne loved it when the volunteers did her hands and nails.

Jon Owen talks to them sometimes, Mark, Gordon and Marianne, sitting as they do in their urns on a purple-fabric-swathed table in the store room just off his office. “I often find myself chatting to them,” says the pastor of the Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Potts Point. If the day’s particularly bad, Mark, Gordon and Marianne remind Owen that we all only live for, like, five minutes and, whatever it is that’s troubling him, he should just “let it go”.

Mark, Gordon and Marianne are three of seven people killing time in the store room: their ashes in pauper plastic boxes waiting for their families to stop squabbling over what should become of them, or waiting to be picked up by families that never arrive, or waiting for a memorial service that family members might not attend.

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“This growing community of the unclaimed has a hold on my heart in ways that are hard to describe,” Owen wrote in a recent edition of his newsletter, the Inner Circle. Dozens of readers wrote to thank him for keeping the unclaimed company in death.

In life, the Wayside community services worker John Walters knew Mark, Gordon and Marianne better than most. It was a privilege, he says, to have been able to walk beside them, learn a little of their lives.

Mark, Gordon and Marianne

The flamboyant “Mark”, for example, whose story must be told alongside that of “Joe”, his long-term “street brother”. Mark was 55, Joe a few years older. When Mark woke one morning in March in the city accommodation they were holed up in while their Redfern public housing flat was being repaired, Joe was dead.

Mark called Walters almost immediately; he was with the police and distraught. In the days that followed, Walters spent hours at Wayside sitting and talking to Mark while his body shook and he sobbed. “He was saying, ‘I miss him, I miss him. I need him to be around. He’s been such a part of my life for so long. I don’t know what to do.’”

Before they got their flat, the men had spent years homeless, couch surfing, sleeping rough, but together. They were regular visitors to Wayside. Walters thinks Joe might have once worked at restaurants. Joe liked to eat at cafes. Mark was into vampire culture. They both liked to watch movies and YouTube clips and talked about going to Europe to visit Joe’s family.

“They were always very polite,” Walters recalls, although sometimes they would bicker between themselves, often about their jewellery. “That’s my ring, why’s he wearing my ring, why’s he got my gold necklace on?”

A few weeks after Joe’s death, Wayside took a call from a woman in the UK, apparently the “queen” of Mark’s online vampire community. She said she was worried because Mark hadn’t been online for some days. When the police visited the Redfern flat, they found him dead too.

Autopsies found that both Joe and Mark died of natural causes. Perhaps, muses Walters, Mark died of a broken heart.

When a Wayside visitor’s life ends, either through natural causes or misadventure, it often falls to Walters to put the pieces together. He liaises with agencies including police, the coroner’s office, Housing NSW, plus Southern Cross Funerals, which, if funds are unavailable (as was the case when Mark died) organises for a body to be collected from the morgue, cremated and returned to Wayside in an urn.

Other times, if money is there for a coffin and some trappings (perhaps the NSW Trustee and Guardian can release some dosh from the deceased estate) there is a funeral. For example, in 2019, Gordon was sent off with a can of Jim Beam on his coffin and the Angels’ Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?

Tough, tall and bearded, banned from the offices of Centrelink and other agencies for his aggression, Gordon was found dead on a friend’s couch. A heart attack. “You wouldn’t approach him, really – the way he looked and the way he sometimes spoke. But underneath, he had a very soft heart,” says Walters, who finds the good in everyone.

Gordon’s ashes remain on the purple-swathed table in the store room near those of Marianne, who died a year or so before him.

She slept rough with her partner, Frank, sometimes in Centennial Park, sometimes in Woolloomooloo under the railway bridge. There was strife, alcohol, substances, hints of domestic violence, and agencies had taken their kids away years back.

The obstacles for Marianne were impossible. She spent time in acute mental health wards. She wanted her kids. “She was a beautiful, beautiful soul but inside she was very traumatised,” says Walters, who accompanied Frank to the morgue to identify his lover’s body. Frank collapsed on the cold floor in grief.

Frank and Marianne’s mother didn’t get on. The mother brought the couple’s child in her care to the Wayside funeral – Frank hadn’t seen his child in years and they talked and held hands – but afterwards the adults argued over a destination for Marianne’s ashes. So they remain on the table in the store room near Mark’s; the dispute is ongoing, although untended.

A reconnection

Walters says there are multiple reasons why urns containing Wayside visitors’ ashes might remain uncollected. “Families can be estranged … they could have come from broken homes, they could have come from drug use at home, or sexual abuse … and their families have just moved on and done different things and they’ve disconnected and never been able to reconnect.”

Eventually, a half-sister of Joe was located. They had been estranged for years but she organised her half-brother’s funeral away from Wayside. After Mark died, a search began for his people.

This is what was discovered: Mark grew up gay in a country town. A brutal homophobic assault led to him fleeing to the city and a lifetime of disability. Three times, he changed his name by deed poll. Around 2014, Mark first visited Wayside. “He was an eclectic character,” says Owen. “He was seeking a community that was more accepting of who he was. He was just looking for love and acceptance.”

Mark’s father was eventually found, an elderly man still living in the country. He hadn’t seen his son in decades. What happens in the mind of a man between his son’s country childhood and his son’s city death?

In the midst of lockdown, Housing NSW staff took the father on a Zoom tour of his son’s city public housing flat. The father asked that he might keep this and that, some photos for a start.

The father wants to come to the city when restrictions are lifted for a Wayside memorial service.

Until then, Owen tries to keep the peace in his store room. Two of the people in urns had issues. “They didn’t get along very well on this side of life … so I’ve slowly introduced them to each other and done a bit of mediating.” And two of the unclaimed were Rabbitohs fans. “I had to break the bad news to them; it wasn’t an easy conversation.”

Names have been changed.

If this story has raised any issues for you, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

Contributor

Stephanie Wood

The GuardianTramp

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