From the afterlife, the restless dead speak. The Coffin Confessor is their delegate – in his hoarse, rugged voice, they deliver their final words to whoever needs to hear them. Sometimes, this message is one of love; words that, for whatever reason, the departed couldn’t or didn’t say. Sometimes it’s to tell the git bluffing his way through the eulogy to shut the f*ck up.
As far as he knows, Bill Edgar is the only one in this unusual line of business. It’s not a job he ever imagined he’d take on. He just happened to fall into it. A dying mate asked him to interrupt his funeral and call out the ceremonial bullshit and brazen hypocrisy that would’ve had him turning in his grave till kingdom come. The word got out – there was a guy who would do just about anything for the dead.
Some people were outraged by Edgar’s audacity. Some people loved it.
As the calls came in, the Coffin Confessor was born, and he’s been helping people ever since – not just by crashing funerals, but by attending viewings, sweeping homes of secrets, leaving loving condoms in bedrooms… all manner of requests, really. “Nothing’s off limits,” Edgar tells me over the phone. A common request from clients is that he visit them in the morgue and prick them with a pin. “People are just terrified of being buried alive,” he explains.
The most fun he’s ever had on the job? The time he crashed a will reading.
“The whole family was sitting around gloating about what they were going to get and they got nothing. That was gold. They were the worst, despicable vultures. They were in this lady’s room, going through her stuff, and she wasn’t even dead.”
In Edgar’s new book of the same name, we meet some of his former clients, and get a sense of his unyielding loyalty in carrying out this final transaction. There’s the gay bikie, coming out of the closet from the coffin. The lovely old gentleman who needed a sex dungeon nuked before his kids walked in. The ‘part therapist, part hooker’, whose last wish was to shout a round of drinks to the men she’d taken care of.
The Coffin Confessor could have been a book just about Edgar’s line of work. A good book, too. You get a uniquely devastating understanding of humanity from the all-important messages people aren’t able to express till they’re ash or underground. But the work is one hundredfold more powerful for being a memoir, too.
“I needed people to know that I didn’t just decide to rock up and crash funerals,” says Edgar. “It wasn’t like that. It was something within me that I’m capable of doing because of my upbringing. I needed people to know what my upbringing was.”
In alternating chapters, Edgar shares his heartbreaking story of an incredibly tough life. From a young boy, he was abused, neglected and betrayed by all the people and institutions that were meant to keep him safe. With predators acting with impunity at home and at school, he took to the streets, where he used all the resources and smarts he had to fight to survive. Inevitably, he wound up behind bars and – chance had it – in one of the most notorious jails in Queensland, Boggo Road.
That Edgar has not been destroyed by his trauma is astonishing. It’s something he owes to his wife, who he got together with at sixteen.
“She never let me blame myself or forget. It’s a lucky thing we found each other so young.”
Even today, aside from his children, he doesn’t let anyone else get close. There’s too much risk. “I don’t have friends. I have millions of associates but I don’t have friends,” he says. “My wife says ‘You’re such a people person. Everybody loves you!’ ‘Oh yeah? They can f*ck off’.” He chuckles.
While he avoids the type of bond that makes outsize claims upon his private self, his compassion for other people is at the centre of all he does. In a separate line of work, he exercises it too through Freedom From Debt Collectors, a company he set up after being a debt collector himself and get a foul view of all the obscene tricks the industry plays on the vulnerable.
More than anything else, he knows the harm that silence can do. As an adult, he started the Lost Boys of TSS Facebook page for students who had, like him, been sexually abused at his old school (the page has over 3,000 followers). Though reading The Coffin Confessor when it was finished was hard for him (“I went to some dark places”), writing it wasn’t. With #metoo, he saw women coming forward with their stories of sexual abuse. He knew there were thousands of men who had their own stories. Shame was keeping them silent, but the costs were devastatingly high.
“I went, you know what? I’m not the kind of man to hide from anything,” says Edgar. “I’ve been in situations that have scared the hell out of me, they’ve caused me nightmares. I’ve fought some of the hardest men in Australia. I’ve been on the streets. I’ve done some of the hardest things. And people then go and say, ‘You’re coming out and saying that, is that really something you should do?’ Yeah. It is.
“To talk about abuse, I don’t find that a fear thing. It’s opening the door for other men to come forward. It’s not weak.”
Publishing his story has been an affirmation in this way for him.
“Writing the book has made me come to terms with what my wife has always told me since I was sixteen: it wasn’t my fault. It’s reiterated that. It has made me sit up and look at myself and go, ‘you know what? Here’s a bit of a pat on the back, Bill. You’ve got there. Don’t give up.’
“It’s not something I’ve ever done before. But I’m going to do it.”
Since becoming the Coffin Confessor, Edgar’s reputation – as a man of integrity and grit – gradually spread. But it wasn’t until he got a Facebook message inviting him to come on Good Morning Britain in 2019 that his business really took off. After the show, he got 4,000 requests in a single night.
“My email just crashed,” says Edgar. “Since then, I probably get 10 or 50 people email or call every week. Ninety per cent of them aren’t even dying – they’re just worried about dying, and not getting the chance of passing on a message to their loved one.”
While COVID has impacted his work in the sense that he can’t always get to the places he needs to be because of travel restrictions, his business has actually picked up. The virus has forced people to confront their mortality in a way they’ve haven’t had to before.
“I get saying to people: ‘when you leave the house, you say goodbye to somebody, and you die – have you left a message for them? Is there something written and left in the sock drawer or wherever, telling them that you love that person? Is there anything you’ve left? A eulogy, a note?’
“People don’t, because they fear death. But they shouldn’t. We’re all going there.”
By Kate Prendergast
The Coffin Confessor by Bill Edgar was published with Penguin Random House Australia in July 2021.