City divided as a symbol laid to rest

IN THE age of reality TV, anybody can be a celebrity. And in the age of modern electronics, anybody can film one – never mind the manners. Just ask Kim Nguyen, who sat prayerfully through a funeral service that was foreign to her while ordinary people she had never met tried to snap her with still or video cameras held in the palms of their hands.
Her front-row position, with son Khoa and others, protected her for the first part of the service. But when the crowds lined up for communion and blessings from the priests, a throng developed in front of her.
Dozens wanted to express their condolences in person, but some had also come for the spectacle and were keen to immortalise their own small fragment of it. It took several minutes of quiet but firm instructions from presiding priests to hustle everyone back to their places.
That’s what happens when a person becomes a symbol for a cause; when a family’s tragedy has been media fodder for weeks; when incense swirls over the coffin the way controversy has swirled around the person inside it.
While those in the cathedral celebrated the life of the convicted drug smuggler they believed had been reborn on death row, many outside it were angry at the attention Nguyen Tuong Van’s case has drawn.
“Bill from Broadford” told the ABC announcer Jon Faine yesterday: “I’m absolutely disgusted by this hysterical worshipping of Nguyen . . . One-minute silence, praised by lawyers, attendance by politicians at the funeral, for a convicted drug criminal? . . . People are just conveniently skipping over the consequences of the actions of these people. They’ve done it for greed and profit and they don’t care how much suffering they bring back to Australia. So why should they be treated like they’re war heroes?”
A taxi driver ferrying a passenger to the church service was similarly irritated. “I got sick and tired of hearing about it in the media,” he grumbled. “He knew what the rules of that country were. You do the crime, you do the time.”
But the issue for many in the cathedral was that Nguyen was not allowed to do the time but was hanged at 25. His death – or the cause of fighting the death penalty – yesterday attracted an extraordinary cross-section of Melbourne: Hindus in saris, Muslims in veils, a Catholic philosophy lecturer, an Orthodox priest, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes.
Irene Wilson, a grandmother studying theology, had travelled 350 kilometres from Mount Beauty for the service. She said she wanted to “pay my respects to Kim and Khoa and Bronnie and Kelly”, and to show that Australians have a sense of compassion and mateship.
“Australians have put their hearts on their sleeves as people of conscience,” she said.
Reta Kaur, an ethnic Indian who came to Australia from Malaysia, said she was there to protest against state-sanctioned violence and said Singapore was “a city of stone with hearts of stone”.
Polish migrant Stan, who did not wish to give his surname, said, “He was a young man, and he made a mistake, of course, but it’s too strong a punishment. There are people who smuggle tonnes of heroin and are never punished for it.”
It is probably fair to say that Melbourne has not seen this kind of mobilisation against the death penalty since the demonstrations against the hanging of Ronald Ryan, which took place in 1967. Ryan’s funeral, though, did not allow for public rallying; he was buried in unconsecrated ground near the Pentridge Prison hospital with a brief 10 minutes of prayers. The only mourners present were his priest and his jailers. Like Ned Kelly – the other son of this state who is famous for finishing his life on the gallows – Ryan was Catholic.
In a strange twist, so was Nguyen. His family are Buddhist and they attended a Buddhist service for him in Springvale on Tuesday night. But Nguyen had converted to Catholicism on death row in Changi prison, and he was farewelled yesterday with all the pomp of an establishment Catholic: one cathedral named for the patron saint of Ireland, 23 priests dressed in the white robes Nguyen had requested, and even a bishop, Mark Coleridge.
The death notices and the order of service for his funeral listed Nguyen’s first name as Caleb, the name he took for himself when he was baptised. It means bold and courageous, Father Peter Hansen told the congregation.
Nguyen had been “the baby on death row”, his friend Kelly Ng told the congregation.
Lex Lasry, Nguyen’s QC, said Nguyen had changed enormously in the time he faced death. “He was no martyr. He was no hero . . . But in the last two years, selfishness gave way to selflessness, lies gave way to truth and indulgence gave way to spirituality, and anyone watching that couldn’t help but be moved by it.”
Kim Nguyen dabbed her eyes with tissues through most of the service. Mr Lasry’s wife, Elizabeth, sat beside her, stroking her arm or shoulders in comfort. When it came time for the unfamiliar prayers, Mrs Nguyen held her hands in prayer position and bowed her head, accepting whatever it was that this culture and religion were offering her.
In the same procession, a man with an Irish face struggled to keep his lower lip from trembling. A Mediterranean grandmother bent to kiss the coffin, wiping away a tear. An Indian man came up to accept a blessing.
Nguyen’s death has done more than unite many Australians against the death penalty. It united them in their sense of what it is to be Australian.
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First published in The Age.