An Amateur Undertaking in Australian Mining Town With No Funeral Home

June 20, 2016
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Article from: NYTimes.com

An opal miner with a bushy beard and muddy boots, Ormie Molyneux lifted the dead woman’s thick body and placed it gently in a satin-lined coffin. His son, Timbo, helped. Then they picked up the polished lid and carefully pressed it shut.

Mr. Molyneux was not one to complain. But there were problems on the horizon for the all-volunteer Lightning Ridge Funeral Advisory Service, the town’s only undertakers.

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The first was the woman before him, Valerie Van Emmerik, a thrice-married, rabbit-hunting miners’ cook who had once knocked a man down in a fistfight. She had to be buried, but heavy rains had turned the cemetery to mud and left her grave two-thirds full of water.

And a veterans’ club is kicking the group out of a property it used to house its two hearses, a shed needed to keep them in good condition in the extreme temperatures here.

“It was a kick in the guts,” Mr. Molyneux said.

Lightning Ridge, a sunbaked opal-mining town on the edge of Australia’s outback, has never had a professional undertaker. The nearest one, an hour’s drive away, sometimes refused to come, and hauling a body in a van as it bounced along potholed roads and swerved to avoid skittish kangaroos was a dicey proposition.

So more than 20 years ago, a group of locals decided to do the job themselves, becoming amateur undertakers. Since then, they have buried 450 of their friends and neighbors.

Mr. Molyneux pulled a soft rag from the pocket of his miner’s shorts and polished faint fingerprints from the coffin’s glossy surface. “Ninety-nine percent of the people we bury, we know,” he said. “It’s not easy. Val was a good woman.”

“Everyone knew Val,” said Ian Woodcock, 78, the Funeral Advisory Service’s manager. “She had a hard life. Her second husband wore her out.”

Mrs. Van Emmerik was loaded into the back of a black hearse and delivered to the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club, where her coffin was wheeled to the center of the faux parquetry dance floor. With the cemetery a mud pit, the lawn bowling clubhouse would have to suffice for the funeral service.

Mrs. Van Emmerik and her third husband, Peter, ran a rough miners’ pub, sardonically named the Glengarry Hilton, near a cluster of opal mines. “Peter was the love of her life,” said her son Garry Horley, 61. The eldest of her six children, he had flown across the country from Western Australia for the funeral.

“Val was a terrific painter,” said Paddy Ellis, 67, a miner. “And she was g

“She married a lot of people,” said Barbara Moritz, the manager of the Lightning Ridge Historical Society. “She was a slow learner.”

Nine days earlier, Mrs. Van Emmerik was felled by a massive heart attack at the age of 79.

This was Mr. Molyneux’s 15th funeral in five months. At 57, he is a third-generation opal miner and the second Molyneux to work as a volunteer undertaker, a service his late uncle Bob founded. No one is exactly sure when.

Lightning Ridge, with its small-scale, high-stakes opal mining, attracts a certain type — loners who come to escape society and find their fortune. Miners peg and register claims, stipulated by law at 160 feet by 160 feet, and fiercely guard those claims against thieves.

“You can have the arse out of your pants in the morning and be a millionaire by the afternoon,” said Tony O’Brien, 79, a miner attending Mrs. Van Emmerik’s funeral.

There are 900 houses in the township of Lightning Ridge, but an additional 1,750 camps on the opal fields, where miners often live alone in tents or trailers, unconnected to the town’s water and electricity supply.

They often die alone, and sometimes penniless, another reason undertakers from the town of Walgett refused to come to Lightning Ridge.

The volunteers collect bodies from simple cottages in town, from canvas tents on the dusty pink opal fields and from trailers parked at the edge of pebbly mine shafts. Sometimes they retrieve bodies from the scrubby saltbush brush, where out-of-luck miners retreat to end their lives.

“Summer is the worst,” Mr. Molyneux said. Temperatures rise above 112 degrees, and stay there for days. “It doesn’t take long for a body to fall apart in that heat,” he said, recalling a dead miner whose arm fell off as he tried to pick up the body.

Mr. Woodcock has buried a murderer and miners killed in collapsed shafts.

But mostly, “it’s about heart disease and heat up here,” said Sandra Kuehn, who manages the local doctors’ office. “It’s the smokes and drink that kill them.”

As the service for Mrs. Van Emmerik began, mourners started to fill the bowling club. The Rev. Neville Parish, a retired minister who had been called back for the funeral, asked if anyone wanted to speak.

Mr. Horley talked about his mother’s love for Lighting Ridge. Jerry Lomax, a former president of the Lightning Ridge Miners’ Association, told the story of the time he had been punched to the floor at a miners’ meeting in a dispute over mining rights. Mrs. Van Emmerik, the group’s secretary, had leapt to her feet “and taken the miner out” who hit him.

Mr. Woodcock, known as Woody, had in 1996 raised $33,000 to build a morgue, a sparse three-room building with a linoleum floor, where a dozen silver-handled coffins stand upright in two rows.

There is an air conditioner, a shower, three narrow steel trolleys to carry bodies and a refrigerator, which once stored beer for the local Lions club. Now it sometimes holds club members.

Mr. Woodcock learned the trade from a friend who ran a funeral home closer to Sydney.

“I did a beautician’s course and can do hair and makeup,” he said. “That was important for one burial. The children wanted their mother to look nice.”

There is no embalming service.

Helen Stewart-Crawford, 79, the service’s secretary, takes information like date and place of birth, and names and ages of family members for the government records office.

“Woody deals with people who are insane with fury or anger or sorrow,” she said. “He is a very good listener.”

If a minister cannot officiate, sometimes Mr. Woodcock’s wife, Yvonne, 73, does.

One of the town’s doctors or police officers certifies the death. When there is doubt over the cause, the body is sent to a coroner in Newcastle, 420 miles to the southeast.

The undertakers charge about $2,600 for a complete service, including $600 for the cemetery plot and gravedigger.

“It costs a lot of money to set up the infrastructure to run a funeral business,” said Gillian Manson, a divisional executive officer from the Australian Funeral Directors Association, in Melbourne. “What they’ve got in Lightning Ridge is rare. It’s unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.”

The veterans’ association, the Returned and Services League, wanted more money for their shed than the Funeral Advisory Services could spend. The service owned two hearses, a black Ford purchased in 1980 and a 1963 silver Chevrolet, and needed a place to keep them.

“It’s one more thing,” Ms. Stewart-Crawford lamented.

Mr. Woodcock reached an agreement with the shed’s new owner to store his hearses temporarily, but new premises must be found.

Mr. Parish told mourners there was no chance Mrs. Van Emmerik would be buried straight after the service. A three-year drought had ended with a three-day downpour that had turned the cemetery to mud.

“Mum has broken the drought,” said Mr. Horley.

“Time To Say Goodbye” played over the club’s loudspeakers as Mr. Horley and other pallbearers carried Mrs. Van Emmerik’s coffin back to the black hearse to be driven to the mortuary. Her body would be returned to the refrigerator until the ground had dried out.

Mrs. Woodcock set out plastic trays of egg, ham and tomato sandwiches and hot tea. The bar was opened for beer and wine.

By 9 p.m., some 10 hours after the service began, only a small cluster of family and friends remained. Television sets above the bar blared out weekend sports news.

Mr. Molyneux made his way into the cold night air and smiled. Mrs. Van Emmerik had been given a good send-off.

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