Embalming – no ‘right’ choice: conversations with Noeline Moenoa 

Noeline is a friend with whom I stayed on a couple of occasions when I was in the midst of interviewing people for a proposed book on how we might re-imagine or re-embrace death. We got into interesting conversations, so there were times when I reached for my voice recorder. Here I share several snippets that touch especially on embalming.

Snippet 1

What you were just saying reminded me of Ian, who didn’t believe there was anything on the other side. One day we were out; I knew that he was sick, and he knew too, but he wasn’t going to say anything about it. He asked me if I loved him, and I said yes, that I did, and the next question that came out of my mouth was, “What is it that you want said at your funeral?” It was so just there, and I was a little bit surprised, but he didn’t seem to jump at the question. He just said, “I want to remembered for helping, for trying to make things better”. I then asked him what song he wanted, and he told me the song, which we did track down and play for him. 

Although he didn’t believe there was anything on the other side, I remember saying to him “It’s just like for you, how you take Ethan [the dog] and you just go walking in the bush; that’s where you find your passion and your serenity. It would be just like that. Every time I think of him, it’s always him and Ethan, walking together somewhere out there. 

Is Ethan on the other side?

Yes, he went a week before Ian did. 

Oh my goodness. So he went in preparation really.

A week to the day. It was pretty amazing. But his death really broke Ian, that his best mate had gone. I remember when we were doing family pictures (to put up in the house) and I said to Ian, “Find me a picture of you and I”, and he gave me a picture of him and Ethan (laughs) so that’s what I put on his coffin, the picture of him and his dog. And it seemed appropriate coz they were both within a week of each other. 

That’s perfect.  Wherever someone is ‘with soul’, even if they wouldn’t put it that way – wherever they are in a place of serenity, that’s a way of describing death, as you did so beautifully for Ian. 

For him it was the bush.

I really felt that in him when I knew him. There was a longing to get back to somewhere, in the South Island – to a very different kind of lifestyle. And you gave him that.

I’ve always felt bad that the first thing I said was to ask him what he wanted said at his funeral.  It meant I knew.

Yes, I understand that . . . and you gave him a great gift. When people are dying, especially if they have no sense or belief that there is anything after death, there’s often a lot of fear around, ‘How will I be remembered? Will I even be remembered?’ So I have the feeling that your asking the question will have allowed Ian to relax a bit in his final few days, knowing that his life was not wasted, and that he would be remembered in a way that he had done his best to live. 

Snippet 2

I was telling you about my interview with a funeral director and his attitude to embalming, and I imagine I was on my high horse about how we need to get used to what death looks and smells like . . . .and you said: “It could be upsetting for those left behind to have to deal with the person looking different”. So, yes, he does have a valid point. I can be a bit confrontational in my attitudes!

But, Margie, would you want to be shrouded?

Yes, yes. I definitely wouldn’t make an issue of it with my family, but it would be my choice.

I can remember when I was in the UK, and I was leading workshops. The workshop was called ‘What Makes a Funeral?’ It was to help people look at their own funerals, to be familiar with what you have to think about ahead of time, to be more ready to assist in a family situation or with neighbours or friends, and to do a bit of looking at their own death as well.

The last segment of the workshop was about beginning to imagine your own funeral, so I thought I’d better dream into mine. In my imagination I was shrouded and on a plank.

There was a guy, he’s one of three people who have now created an alternative funeral service in Frome where I was living. At the time I was leading these workshops he said to me, “I’ve got four pairs of bright pink shoes, if ever you want them”, and I think the conversation ran to the possibility of my pall-bearers wearing them. (I called my funeral celebrant work at that stage Pink Coat Funerals, so that will be why.) I thought that was a fabulous idea.

So I could see in my mind’s eye my body carried, just on a plank with a shroud, from my home to the hall, about a kilometer through the town, preferably with a band. This chap’s wife played the squeezebox and sang French songs, and sometimes others joined her.

But then there’s this beautiful piece of music that can still make me cry. It’s a very solemn piece, Gabriel’s Oboe by Morricone. I wanted to be carried into the hall to this piece of music, very slowly, and then come to rest. Now that I think about it, it would be more appropriate to have more solemnity and reverence in the music on the way to the hall, and some jollier music to leave by.

So, definitely shrouded on a plank. And it was to wake people up! ‘Oh, there’s a dead body!’ But this funeral director, he’s gentler than me!

Is it Louisiana where they have bands going with the procession of the funeral, and dancing? That always intrigues me.

I imagine so. Someone sent me a YouTube clip. The coffin was rocking, and barp-de-barp-barp on the trombones! That was New Orleans.

My sister said she wants really good music playing, like rock ‘n roll – music she can dance to; and she wants to be buried in her nightie because she’s planning to sleep and not wake up! Interesting that she wants to be buried. I decided I’d go with cremation – easier for the family – and I didn’t feel I needed to be somewhere that my kids can come and visit, because for me I want them to know that I’ll be with them in spirit, so I don’t want to be put in certain place. I have talked to them about how I want to go, that I want to go very simply, but what I really do want is to have a sausage sizzle at the end of my funeral, in a park. They reckon it’s not possible, but I thought, ‘Well it’s my funeral!’ Maybe it’s just that nobody’s yet done it, but that’s really what I want.

And that should be absolutely possible, Noeline.


Snippet 3

Can I take you back to your Dad, Noeline?


You and your sisters had been dressing your Dad, is that right?

I have a feeling it was the boys who actually dressed him, but we went in to see what he looked like – if he looked acceptable in what he was wearing. I remember they put him in a suit. I don’t know why, because he hadn’t worn a suit for quite a few years, but he had a tie on and was all buttoned up. Then the funeral director asked my eldest sister to bring his teeth. Neither she nor my other sister wanted to put his teeth in. I think it was because . . . you know how the mouth gets quite stiff. I think they didn’t want to deal with that. But the funeral director put his teeth in.

That’s when I had a freak-out. As soon as the teeth went in his whole face changed and everything sort of looked protruding. All I could see was a gorilla face, how they have this big part here where everything sticks out. And honestly, I hit the roof. I was surprised; I was swearing and everything, and I’d never talked to my sisters like that, them being older than me, and having respect for them. I couldn’t believe how I went off the handle, but that wasn’t Dad to me. It was actually very freaky. They could see how serious I was, because they don’t often see me angry about anything. So they asked the funeral director to take them out. As soon as the teeth were taken out it was like something inside me just calmed back down. And it was like, ‘Now I know who you are; you’re Dad’, and it was acceptable to see him like that.

And this is because he almost never wore his teeth?

Yes. When he first got them, he was very proud of them because they were big and very straight and he’d had very straight teeth and a beautiful smile. That was fine for him to smile, but he found he could never eat with them in, and sometimes when he talked he had trouble getting his tongue around the sounds, so he only ever had his teeth in when he went to a meeting, and as soon as he came home he took them out. So I was much more used to seeing him without them than with them.

And it was exactly like that with Mum. This memory just came back tonight. I remember they put lipstick on her and blue eye shadow. That was not Mum. In all the years I’d known her, 28 years, I never once saw her wearing lipstick or eye shadow. Again, she looked very foreign, and again I hit the roof about it. It’s weird, I hadn’t ever thought about those experiences, but they’ve come back, clear as a bell.

The memory I don’t have is of dressing my grandnephew. I know that I apparently did it, but I don’t see it.

How old was he?

He died just before his first birthday. They called it a cot death, but he wasn’t in a cot. I don’t remember having anything to do with that funeral, and yet my niece told me I did it. The only thing I can think is that it must have been so deep, because it would have been the first time I had to do a baby. I guess the memory is blacked out.

A traumatic memory.

Yes, traumatic is the word. If he was still alive now he’d be coming up to 15 years old, yet it’s only a couple of years ago that I learned about what I’d done.


Snippet 4

I remember, too – what you were saying about embalming and how the face changes and the person doesn’t look dead any more . . .

I remember when Ian died, and we had him on the bed, probably until about the next afternoon, and this woman came who is sort of an embalmer, but does things naturally. She was saying we’d need to get icepacks to put around the body, and close the curtains to keep the room cooler, and have something for the flies . . . and by the time she was talking about flies and smells, and because he had died with his aorta bursting, you could already see that the body was deteriorating very quickly. I think in my mind it was too much to cope with. I’d been lying on the bed beside him, and I was aware of the way his mouth was open, and the stiffness – rigor mortis had set in, and he didn’t look like Ian. He kind of looked like those spooky pictures you see of zombies on the cover of magazines.

I remember when they took him away, as much as I wanted him back at the house, when they actually brought him back, I wouldn’t go into the house to see him. I never said to my son how I felt, but he went in with the undertaker and they undid the top of the coffin. He had a good look at Ian, and came out and said to me, “It’s alright, Mum; you can go and have a look at him. He looks really peaceful and he looks like Pop”. It was lovely that he knew it was a concern for me. When I went in, the coffin was open just about that much, so I made my way slowly along the wood. I didn’t want to come quickly up to his chest. And when I saw his face, he really did look like Ian – his face was all full and plump and the colouring that they’d done on him was a lot like what he left. I was so pleased; so pleased that for three days I danced in the lounge with him in the coffin beside me.

Oh how wonderful.

Yeah, I played his favourite country music and danced and danced and danced like he was there. I was waltzing around the lounge, and in my mind I could feel him waltzing with me.

Noeline, that was a really, really good reason to embalm. I can be a bit black and white about it, but I can see that that was a very good use of embalming – hugely important.

I was the one who wanted to go natural, so I found somebody who did, but when she told me about all that was involved, and the fact that he was already in the state that he was in, and would deteriorate really quickly, it was too much to deal with. And given what else was going on in our household as well . . .  He came back and he looked like he was sleeping, really. It just opened things up – gave me that freedom. The fact that I wanted to dance with him was weird, because when he was here, he didn’t much like dancing. We could never really waltz together, because he was an old-school waltzer and I wasn’t. He was very light on his feet. Every time we tried to waltz together I’d be standing on his feet because I didn’t have that flow. He made it look simple.

But you danced beautifully with him when he was dead!

You know why? I knew this at the time. It’s because I had the control of leading. I was in charge of the dance. I remember thinking, “Now I get to do the leading”.

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