Monday, October 8, 2012


This past Wednesday morning, 3 October 2012, our second counsellor in the Flaxmere Stake Presidency, Moapi Uelese (moh-api wu-lee-see), died of bone cancer.  He was only 42 years old and loved and admired by everyone who knew him.  He left behind his wife, Alieta, and three children (two daughters and one son, his youngest, only 11).  The four days following his death have touched our hearts to the core as we have watched his family show incredible faith and everyone for miles around contributing time, money, and food to help this family through a difficult time.

When we arrived in New Zealand almost a year ago, President Uelese was in the midst of fighting this battle with cancer; and his testimony was so strong.  For those of you from American Fork, he reminded us so much of our precious Boyd Nielsen.  He underwent chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant.  He went from a big strong rugby player to a slow-moving, thin man using two crutches.  But little by little, he grew stronger, and we all rejoiced that he seemed to have beaten this life-threatening cancer.  He looked great after gaining back his weight, not having to use the crutches, and even returning to work.

And then about 4 weeks ago, the cancer returned with a vengeance, and he was only given a few days to live.  He went to hospice for a few days but wanted to return home to be with his family.  He lived a few weeks longer than was he said, "until my family was prepared to let me go."

All President Uelese's friends and family called him "Api"...he was born in Samoa but raised in Auckland.  His parents had six children, 5 boys and 1 girl, and their aunt raised them as Mormons.  All five boys served missions, and all six children were married in the Temple.  Surprisingly, Api's parents are Presbyterian; the father is actually a Presbyterian minister, but they did not object to their children being raised LDS.

Because Api and his family had lived in New Zealand so long, his funeral primarily followed Maori customs (and maybe Samoan, too, but we don't know what their customs are).  The very day he died, his body was taken to the Te Aranga Marae (see previous blog for Anzac Day), where friends and family could come pay their respects.  Every night for those three days, services were held to honor his memory, where different people spoke.  Each speaker, by custom, is followed by a musical number. At night the casket was taken back to their home and then returned the next morning. This went on for three days, and during this time, everyone who was there was fed breakfast, lunch, and "tea" (which we call supper).

It is amazing to see how the Maori/Samoan families handle the death of a loved one.  The casket sits on the floor of the marae with mattresses all around if the family desires to stay at the marae overnight, which the Church discourages.  However, during the day as family and friends come by, they often sit right down by the coffin, talk to the deceased, stroke his or her head...and it all seems so "comfortable".  Even when we have been at marae viewings where it is a grandparent who has died, even the youngest grandchildren gather around their "nanny" or "grampa" and caress them, read to them, take naps beside them.  They seem to have a simple understanding that death is a part of our journey in this life, and though it is sad, we will only be separated for a short time.

Then on Saturday, 6 October, there was a family memorial at Api's home, where the casket was finally closed (karakia, prayer and service at home), then the hearse drove through the prison grounds where Api had worked for 12 years as a guard and was loved by both his workmates and the prisoners.  Api had been overwhelmed when his workmates volunteered to be beaten up to raise funds for his cancer battle.

This is the hearse arriving at the Bridge Pa chapel, where an honor guard from the prison was there to show tribute to Api.

Workmates at attention as the casket is carried into the chapel.

Api's brothers were his pall bearers.  His father, Faatalimaua Uelese, is the white-haired gentleman in the sunglasses.

The thing that was amazing about this whole week was that, at each of the services for Api, his wife spoke, family members (including her) sang, his children spoke, and you knew that they really understood the meaning of "forever families" as our Plan of Happiness teaches.  One of Api's final requests, because he knew that so many non-LDS would be at his service, was that there be LDS missionaries at every door of the chapel, so that people could ask questions and learn more about the Church if they desired.  Api himself had served a mission to Australia Brisbane from 1989-1991 and had always said they were the best two years of his life.  Including Elder Farnes and me, there were 12 fulltime missionaries there to greet people at the doors as they arrived.

The Mangaroa Cemetery is located right next to the Hastings Prison, and Api wanted to be buried as close as possible to the prison fence, so he could continue to keep watch over them.
His brothers, lowering the casket into the gravesite, where afterwards, the family and friends, toss in flowers, and then shovel the soil onto the casket and complete the burial. We had never seen this done, and it was hard to watch his wife and children put the first shovels on the casket.  They do not use vaults in New Zealand.
At the marae, at the chapel, and then at the gravesite, various groups would do haka chants, which are very strong and honor the deceased. There are lots of various haka chants, so we've seen them at weddings and at funerals.  The third man in is one of President Kezerian's counsellors in the mission presidency, President Anthony Morley.

Here is a lone man doing a haka right at the gravesite prior to it being covered.

Flowers from President & Sister Kezerian and the Area Presidency...though when the picture was taken, these flowers were 5 days old, and some flowers had been removed to toss onto the casket.  When someone dies, it is common to send flowers, although most of them are artificial.  But it is also common to give a "koha" (or donation to the family to help pay for the funeral expenses).

A year from the date of the death, the tombstone will be "unveiled" at the gravesite.  We have not seen this ceremony yet, but we understand it is a big event, and the whole family will gather again.

After the funeral, EVERYONE, not just close family or out-of-town guests are invited back to the marae for a "hakari" (or supper).  During this week, I'm sure that close to 1,000 people were fed.  It must be a huge expense, but people come from all over to donate food, and there are so many workers in the kitchen.  No calls for help ever need to be's just understood that you feed the multitude just as the Savior's absolutely amazing.  One sister told me that, just as Christ lay in the tomb for 3 days, Maoris gather around the family for 3 days prior to the funeral, and "that's just what we do".  They have hospitality and love down to perfection.  We have learned so much from them.

Also of interest is the positive effect this experience had on our young missionaries who participated in this funeral and also attended some of the services during the week.  One of them commented that, although he is used to teaching about the Plan of Salvation and the happiness the Gospel can bring to families, he had never lost a loved one, but this week he saw the Gospel in action.  Watching this good family, he saw the peace the the Gospel teachings can bring in the lives of those who have lost loved ones.  Several of the missionaries commented on how this good family had strengthened their testimonies.
The Uelese family (L-R):  daughter Shaqaila (18); wife Alieta (Tuimaseve); son Khalael, (11); President Moapi Uelese; and daughter Roshan (14)
(L-R):  Api's mother, Ma Italia Uelese; wife, Alieta Uelese, Moapi Uelese, and father, Faatalimaua Uelese.
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith".
2 Timothy 4:7

UPDATE:  One month to the day that their son died, 3 November 2012, President Uelese's parents were baptized into the LDS Church.  Miracles DO happen, and they continue as this good family shares their testimonies and their faith with everyone.  Their musical talents are amazing, too, and they are planning a trip to the United States in September 2013 to participate in musical firesides in Salt Lake.  Hopefully, we can lure them to come to American Fork, too!