Napkins and corpse fluid at Mt Maunganui

We're all destined to die, eventually. Most of us prefer not to think about it too much. Chris Paton of Dunedin, on the other hand, chooses to surround himself with reminders of our grim finality; morbid mementos of human mortality, which he describes as "beautiful".

I've known Chris for about six years. We met as flatmates and become fast friends, living in a damp and mildewed four-bedroom flat in Auckland's Mt Eden.

The living spaces were filled with Chris's collectibles. Skulls, gas masks, and assorted funeral memorabilia - it was Halloween all year round.

Our Mt Eden Flat affectionately named "Greyskull".
Our Mt Eden Flat affectionately named "Greyskull". Photo credit: Newshub

At one stage we had three coffins in the living room, another in the garage and one more in the back of Chris's hearse - a 1963 Cadillac Superior Crown Sovereign in matte black.

Getting a ride to the party in that thing was a great way to make an entrance.

Then there was the embalming table - a stainless steel slab on a heavy steel frame, which doubled as a booze shelf during our Friday night drinking sessions.

The embalming table was one of Chris's many unusual Trade Me purchases.

It had been owned by a funeral home in Tauranga, so there would be a bit of a drive in his dad's ute and some heavy lifting at either end to pick it up. But, it was summer, and I was keen for the road trip.

The Trade Me description listed the table as "used" but assured us it had been out of commission for about seven years and most importantly, it was clean.

We had a chatty three-hour drive, including the burger stop at the Waikino Station Cafe in Waihi, I think I had something with chicken.

It must have been around 2pm that we arrived at the Tauranga funeral home where the table was last in service.

The owner, a middle-aged man in casual dress whose name I can't recall, took us on a short tour excluding the embalming room, which was either unfortunate or fortunate, depending on how you feel about the sight of corpses.

The tour finished up in an expansive, dusty workshop.

Unfinished custom-cut panels were lying here and there, waiting to be assembled into long pentagonal boxes of particle board and wood trim precision cut and assembled to order - a custom-built-casket factory.

The finished caskets and stacked materials lined the walls, with half cut panels and dust-laden machinery spanning the shop floor.

Over in one corner was the embalming table.

It was being stored under an old baby-blue bed sheet, fine sawdust clinging to it in its seventh year of retirement.

The Trade Me listing for the embalming table.
The Trade Me listing for the embalming table. Photo credit: Trade Me

Our tour guide whipped off the sheet to expose a clean, shiny, stainless steel slab with a lipped edge and a large drainage hole at one end sitting atop a white-painted steel, peddle driven hydraulic-lift base. A cold, hard gurney. I suppose just one of several stops we make after death on our final journey into the ground.

Chris backed his dad's ute in and we lifted the stainless slab off of its heavy steel base and onto the flat bed of the ute. It felt a bit greasy to the touch. My mind wandered for a moment and I considered what that texture might have been, but ultimately reasoned that it could have been anything, not necessarily biological.

As we turned it over I noticed drips of a creamy translucent liquid thickened and set on the underside of the table's outer rim. Embalming fluid perhaps? There was more lifting to be done so I opted not to consider it any further. 

Once the stainless slab was loaded we lifted the steel frame, with one of us at either end, over the ute's lowered rear gate. There it was again, that same greasy feel. This time longer drip trails of the same creamy coagulated substance were visible all the way down the frame's outer struts. Best not to think about it too much, I decided. 

We thought it would be sensible to remove the frame's wheels in order to stop it rolling around while sitting upright for the drive back to Auckland.

Chris undid the first nut with a spanner and removed an axel, sliding the wheel out of its mount. We both saw it at the same time... small built-up deposits of rich red-black sludge in the gaps around the wheel bearing, usually hidden from sight by the wheel mount and probably protected from any attempt at cleaning throughout its service life. That rich dark reddish colour was a little harder for me to reason away.

Once everything was loaded, tied down and secured we wiped our hands on some fast food napkins from the glove box and drove directly to the beach at Mt Maunganui, where we waded a short way into the water, scrubbing away what the dry napkins couldn't with saltwater and sand, then back to the ute to get on the road home.

The drive back to Auckland was a little less chatty. We didn't talk much about the various shades of mystery goo we'd encountered while shifting the table but Chris resolved to give it a thorough clean with some heavy duty degreaser once we got it back.

We had the luxury of wearing yellow rubber dish gloves while we unloaded it at the other end, but I still felt a strong compulsion to thoroughly wash my hands.

Chris got to work immediately with a garden hose and assorted cleaning products. He was at it for a long while, at least until the daylight faded.

The next morning, after a night outside to dry off, I found the table in the living room, pushed up against the wall by the deck doors.

Three coffins in the living room at Mt Eden flat.
Three coffins in the living room at Mt Eden flat. Photo credit: Newshub

It took a couple of weeks to get over the mild feelings of dread that niggled at me every time I passed that table on my way out for a smoke but after a while, I simply stopped caring about it and before long it was being used as a serving table because of its proximity to the barbecue.

Something about seeing it crowded with plates of various meats just seemed to make sense to us, I guess.

Chris moved to Dunedin a few years back and I try to get down there to visit whenever I can. He always has some strange new and rare artifact to show me, or a story about the unique and interesting people he encounters as a collector of oddities.

Through our friendship I've been exposed to a seemingly hidden world of the bizarre and fascinating, and even a few of the eccentric collectors and characters you'd expect to meet indulging a hobby such as Chris's.

On my most recent trip I got to see cross sections of a plastinated pigs hoof, courtesy of another Dunedin local, a professional prosector and plastinator.

Cross sectional Plastinated Pig's Hoof.
Cross sectional Plastinated Pig's Hoof. Photo credit: Newshub

I also met Chris's latest acquisition, Wulf - the stocky black cat now sharing his 1960s church conversion home.

Chris is himself, a unique and uncommon find. Friendly, welcoming and always dressed in black. Of all the friends we collect on our long journey towards death, Chris is definitely among the strangest and rarest I have found, and certainly one of the most fascinating.