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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Noel Christian Tovey (1934–?)

SEX: Male


BIRTH PLACE: Melbourne



  • Melbourne: Noel was born in the ‘slums of Carlton’. He lived in degraded conditions until he and his sister Bev were adopted by Arthur Challenger. (p.42)
  • Their experiences in Carlton made Noel and Bev hesitant to move back to Melbourne in 1949. (p.64)
  • Noel’s experiences made him eager to ‘escape’ from Melbourne, and he saved to move to London. (p.197)
  • In 1997, Noel was invited by the Canadian Consulate to a theatre conference at the Playbox Theatre. (p.5) He was hesitant to return to live in Melbourne, and the city evoked many unpleasant memories. However, during the visit he realized that Melbourne was his home, and decided to return.
  • Burren Junction, NSW: Where Bev and Noel lived with Arthur Challenger for five years.
  • Sydney: Noel moved to Manly for physical rehabilitation at the Far West Children Home. He returned when touring in the stage performance, Paint Your Wagon. (p.154) Noel lived in Sydney for 10 years when he returned from London. (p.13)


  • Noel travelled to South Africa, and was struck by the explicitly racial inequality. (p.220)
  • Noel also spent time living on the Greek Island of Ibiza, where he moved with a group of actors to perform in the night club in the early 1970s. (p.217) The other members of the group left when they realized the venture was bound for failure, however Noel decided to “stay and be a hippie.” (p.218)
  • Noel and the Aboriginal cast of The Commission by Heiner Mueller went on an all expenses trip to Weimar Arts Festival in Germany in 1995. (p.228)


  • While living with his parents as a small child, Noel very rarely attended school.(p.28) On the rare occasion that he attended the local convent school, he did not participate actively.
  • When Noel relocated to Burren Junction, his experience of education did not improve. He performed well in school, but was bullied by the other children. (p.43)
  • When Challenger was away, Bev and Noel attended Our Lady of Mt Carmel Catholic School. They both loved this school, and their experience there led Noel to develop genuine religious sentiment. (p.46)
  • At the Far West Children’s Home in Manly, Noel’s education included a lot of therapeutic physical activity. Noel was inspired by an unconventional teacher named Miss Phipps, who shared with her class her love of musical theatre. (p.55)
  • When he returned to Melbourne, Noel had to attend a Catholic secondary school, while his friends attend were other denominations. (p.76) Noel involved himself in school activities in an attempt to be accepted, but was physically, verbally and sexually abused by the other students. (pp.76-77)
  • Noel tried to leave St Michaels for the local public school, reporting to the principle that he was no longer a Catholic. (p.78) He was forced to stay, but soon stop attending school and became a “street kid”. (p.79)
  • In his adult life, Noel came to regret leaving school so young. (p.78) He also continued to self-directed, informal education. When he began to associate with members of the Glaciarium ice rink, Noel used to carry an Oxford dictionary and to read it compulsively. (p.88) When he worked selling newspapers, he would also read the news, so that he could “hold an informed conversation with anyone anywhere in the world”. (p.9)


  • Noel had numerous odd jobs where he was still at school, including collecting empty bottles and old newspapers. (p.78) When was 12 he sold newspapers outside the public bar. (p.6) His employer was a sexual predator. “Luckily” he was warned beforehand. (p.7)
  • Noel claims that his “career as an actor and a conman” began while living at the Far West Children’s Home. While sleeping on the verandah, he would convince passers by to give him ice cream and hotdogs. (p.59)
  • When he was 12 he left school, and “became what is know today as a street kid”, stealing and having sex with other ‘street kids’ while paedophiles watched. (p.82)
  • When he was 14, Noel got a job working in a Willow tin factory, working from 7.30am to 3.30pm and getting paid 13 pounds a week. (p.88)
  • Noel became a ‘rent boy and man about town’. (p.83)
  • When Noel was 15 he worked selling newspapers for the Collins Book Depot. Mrs Payne, the manageress, liked him and promoted to full-time shop assistant. (p.100) Noel enjoyed working in a bookshop, and met interesting people who cultivated his interest in literature and theatre. (p.103)
  • Noel was fired from Collins Book Depot for feuding with a senior salesman. (p.118) However, by that stage he had also acquired friends such as a Frances Curtis and Rachel, who had encouraged him to become a performer. Noel got his first paid performing role in 1954, when he danced in Paint Your Wagon, (p.148), which toured in Sydney and Adelaide (pp.149-151)
  • When Noel returned to Melbourne following the tour, he got a job at Mac’s Home Furnishing company
  • Noel had to resign from Mac’s when he got a position as the understudy for the principal dancer in Bells Are Ringing, which was followed by the production On the Move, and Salad Days. (pp.170-176). Performing was not a reliable source of income, and Noel had to supplement his acting income working as a cook as a coffee lounge called ‘Prompt Corner’. (p.194)
  • In 1960, Noel was paid 22 pounds for revue on ABC radio. This was his highest paid performance, and his saving all went toward funding his “escape” to London. (p.197)
  • In London in the 1960s, Noel’s theatre career “really took off”, when he was asked to choreograph The Boy Friend (p.217).
  • In 1969, Noel “devised, directed and choreographed” the drag revue, Birds of a Feather, in London. (p.189)
  • In 1970, Noel opened L’Odean, a gallery specializing in in twentieth-century decorative art. By 1980 it had become on of the “top galleries” in London. (p.211)


  • Noel was “devout Catholic” during his childhood years, and wanted to be an altar boy. (p.11) Noel attended benediction every Friday, and could recite catechisms and sing the mass in Latin. (p.11)
  • Noel often turned to God in search of explanation for the tumultuous nature of his childhood, however he found little consolation.
  • Noel’s attraction to Catholicism increased significantly when he attended Our Lady of Mt Carmel Catholic School.
  • Noel’s negative experience at St Michael’s secondary school increased his skepticism about the existence of a loving God, and his “absolute belief in the Church and God” began to waver. (p.77)
  • Noel’s faith returned again when he was living as a ‘street kid’, and he confessed his involvement in the criminal and sex industries to the priest. (p.83)
  • This renewed faith provided consolations during this difficult period of Noel’s life.
  • Noel’s fluctuations in faith, depending upon his life circumstances, continued throughout his life. For example, when partner and mother died within the space of a year, he claims that he was “tired and resentful of the world and God.” (p.217)
  • Later in life, Noel also developed a strong affinity with Aboriginal religious belief. This was despite the difficulty he had being accepted in the contemporary Aboriginal community.
  • Noel believed his ancestors have provided him with strength and support throughout his life, particularly when he was contemplating suicide in prison. (pp.16-17)
  • Noel considers Magpies to be his “totemic self…the embodiment of my ancestral spirits” (p.12) and describes his mother’s death as transition to the “Dreamtime”. (p.216)


  • Pentridge Gaol: Noel was sent to Pentridge Goal for three weeks in 1951, after he pleaded not guilt to the ‘abominable crime of buggery.” (pp.15, 124) The experience of incarceration was harrowing, and Noel considered suicide. (p.16)
  • Narrabri Goal: Where Arthur Challenger was taken after being charged with raping Noel’s sister Bev. (p.61)
  • The Australian Council: Awarded Noel the Commonwealth Indigenous Fellowship in 2000. (p.17. Tovey mistakenly refers to this body by the name of its predecessor, The Australian Council for the Arts)
  • The Victorian Welfare Department: The Welfare Department was a constant feature in Noel’s early life, as they made infrequent visits to his home, removed two of his siblings, and eventually placed him in the Royal Park Depot.
  • The Welfare Department oversaw Noel’s transfer to the care of Arthur Challenger, without taking his criminal record into consideration. (p.68)
  • Salvation Army: Noel’s parent would take him and Bev to the Salvation Army every Christmas, for clothes, presents and food. (p,28)
  • Royal Park Welfare Depot for Girls and Boys, Parkville: Where Noel and Bev were taken in 1941. (p.31)
  • Far West Children’s Home, Manly: A charitable organization, established by a Methodist missionary to assist children from remote regions with physical impairments. Noel was taken because of his knee injury in 1944. (p.48)
  • In 1946, Noel was allowed to return to Burren, however he was required to return for further treatment in six months. (p.63) He never received this second round of treatment, and Noel lived with pain in his right knee for most of his life (p.63).
  • When he visited a specialist in the 1960s, he was told that he never should have become a dancer, and that he would have to end his career or risk becoming a cripple. (p.63) Noel ignored this advice until the pain became unbearable. (p.63)
  • National Ballet School: Where Noel took his first ballet classes. (pp.111-112)
  • Borovansky Ballet Company: Where Noel studied after he left the National Ballet school. (p.114)
  • AIDS Trust: Noel volunteered his time to their training clinic after the death of his partner Dave from an AIDS related illness. (p.223)
  • Eora, the Aboriginal College of Visual and Performing Arts: A branch of the NSW TAFE, where Noel worked with Aboriginal students when he returned from London and decided to immerse himself in the Aboriginal community. (p.224) Noel considered his experience at the Aboriginal College of Visual and Performing Arts as a “baptism into the community by fire.” (p.226) He was forced resign, after refusing to allow three girls to come to class under the influence of marijuana . (p.226)
  • Noel was disappointed by the unrealized potential of Eora, which he claims “should have been the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Indigenous learning”. (p.227)
  • New South Wales Benevolent Society: Invited Noel to participate in their Sydney Leadership program. (p.239)
  • Riverina Theatre Company and Aboriginal Cultural Institution: The two companies that Noel organized to perform a joint production of State of Shock: a play about violence and drinking problems in the Aboriginal community. (pp.238-289)
  • Shepherd’s Park Detention Centre: A prison where Noel organized a performance of State of Shock for the Aboriginal detainees.  (p.240)


  • Noel was trialed for homosexuality in 1951, at time when same-sex relationships were still illegal in Australia. (p.7)


  • The first seven years of Noel’s life, before he was taken to Royal Park Welfare Depot, was marked by “starvation, maltreatment and deprivation”. (p.30)
  • In October 1941, Noel contract diphtheria and had to get his tonsils removed. (p.33)
  • In 1944, Noel developed knee pains. He didn’t inform any adults because he stuttered at the time, and thus didn’t like to talk. Eventually, the pain became unbearable and he was taken to the Far West Children’s Home for treatment. (p.48) Noel had to wear a splint and undergo physical therapy. (p.53)
  • At Far West Children’s Home, it was discovered that Noel was a carrier of scarlet fever. He passed on to one of the girls in the Home, and was subsequently put in isolation. (p.59)
  • Noel contracted gonorrhea after being raped by a group of boys following his homosexuality trial. He tried to self-medicate, but was eventually forced to see a doctor. (p.130)
  • Having suffered from sexual and physical abuse from most of his life, Noel became a depressed and nocturnal adolescent. (p.94)
  • Noel continued to suffer from bouts of depression and panic attacks throughout his life. After directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he became depressed because he felt let down by his “own people.” (p.233)
  • In 1998, he suffered from depression again while directing the aborted production Stolen, and was medicated. (p.234)
  • After working with a therapist in 1987, Noel was diagnosed with a disassociation complex, as a “safety mechanism” for enduring the ordeals he had been put through. (p.39)


  • “Mumma”: Noel’s mother had what he describes a “hard life.” (p.25) She had work in a toy store, as a housemaid and in a brothel, and had limp from a childhood bout of polio. (p.25) Mumma had five children with Noel’s father, all of whom were removed for varying lengths of time by the Welfare department. (p.26)
  • Noel described his mother as a “periodic alcoholic”. (p.8) This meant “two to three weeks of total alcoholic oblivion and one week of feeling crook and drinking endless bottles of lemonade that I bought for her on tick from the corner store.” (p.8) Mumma abandoned Noel and his sister Bev when he was still an infant, and they were collected by Welfare Department, and later adopted out.
  • By the time he returned to live with his mother again in 1949, Noel had suffered from years of abuse at the hand of Arthur Challenger, and had “stopped trusting her and people in general a long time ago.” (p.71) While Mumma was initially sober, her alcoholism soon continued to make Noel’s life miserable.
  • When Mumma was sober she cooked Noel’s favourite meals, offered advice, and disciplined him. (p.90) However, her sobriety was never permanent, and Noel lived in constant fear of her next binge. (pp.89-90)
  • When Noel began performing, Mumma took an interest in his career, and came to all his opening night. (p.173) Gradually, Noel began to forgive his mother for his childhood trauma, and delighted in sharing his passion with her. (p.91)
  • When she was older, Mumma could no longer handle alcohol, and her binges “lasted days instead of weeks and were not as destructive.”(p.160) During this time, Noel “got a glimpse of what life might have been for all of us in a world without alcohol.” (p.160)
  • Noel’s father was a street singer and organ player of English-African descent, who died in 1944. (p.48) He made a living by performing in minstrel shows, (p.23) and he used and sold cocaine (pp.17-18)
  • Noel has very few memories of his father, except for his beautiful singing voice. Noel believes that this may have affected his career as a performer. (p.18)
  • Mumma used to tell Noel about his father illustrious heritage, as part of a famous vaudeville act, however he was skeptical of these stories. (p.18)


  • John Pease: John was Noel’s first serious partner, and the first man with whom he felt comfortable sexually. (p.188) Noel describes the decision to move in with John as “life changing”, as he had to learn how to make sacrifices for another person. (p.159) Noel believes that his relationship with John was ruined by his own emotional immaturity, and the fact that he was still recovering from his childhood trauma. (p.159)
  • Noel eventually moved out, although a few years later, when he had matured some, he claims they “discovered a suitable level on which to enjoy our relationship.” (p.188)
  • Noel and John’s romantic relationship eventually faded out, however they remained close friends. (p.197) Noel later apologized to John for the way he had conducted himself in the relationship.
  • Kenn Brodziak: a director whom Noel started a secret relationship with in 1956. (p.204)
  • Patricia Michael: Noel met the well-known actress Patricia in 1961. They moved into together in 1970, and had a “long and happy relationship” until 1970. (p.213)
  • Barbara: A young girl who worked washing dishes at Prompt Corner, who Noel convinced to move to London with him in the early 1960s. (p.197)
  • Despite his preference for men, Noel proposed to Barbara on one of their regular walks around the Botanical Gardens. (p.197)
  • Barbara’s parents tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her from marrying Noel, after discovering his criminal record. (p.205)
  • Barbara and Noel had a daughter together, named Felicity. (p.235) The couple separated soon after, when Barbara fell in love with a stage manager. (p.246) Noel took Barbara’s announcement of her affair very badly, and their relationship was irreparably damaged.
  • David Sarel (Dave): Noel began a relationship with Dave in 1970, when they meet while he was performing in Oh! Calcutta. Dave and Noel opened a stall in Antiquarius market on Kings Road selling 20th century decorative art together, and this venture later turned in the L’Odean gallery in Chelsea. (p.212)
  • Dave had his first homosexual experience with Noel, who claims that he was “totally smitten with his innocence and honesty.” (p.213) Dave was the only person in London who knew the full details of Noel’s background. (p.220)
  • Noel and Dave made significant earnings through the L’Odean gallery, which they enjoy spending together: Dave got plastic surgery, and they ate at expensive restaurants and attended exclusive parties. (p.214)
  • When Dave developed an AIDS-related illness, Noel gave up work to care for him. (p.215) After nine painful months of “watching him die”, Noel said farewell to Dave in February 1986.
  • Noel’s bond with Dave continued to console him, even after death. (p.248)


  • When he left prison, Noel had an affair with a woman whose name he has since forgotten. He arranged an abortion when she fell pregnant, because he didn’t want children, however it turned out to be a false alarm. (p.133)
  • Barbara and Noel had a daughter, Felicity. (p.235) When Barbara admitted to Noel that she was in love with another man, Noel returned to London, leaving his daughter with her mother. (p.236)
  • Felicity came to live with Dave and Noel in London when she was 17, because she had been fighting with her mother. (p.237) Two years later, Felicity asked Noel to pay for drug rehabilitation.
  • Noel arranged and paid for her marriage, which lasted only year. When next he visited Melbourne, Noel and Felicity had a fight. (p.237)
  • According to Noel, Felicity’s life went “all down hill” from there. Noel heard from her infrequently when she was intoxicated and abusive. (p.238)


  • Mary Hardy: Noel’s childhood friend, along with John Muirhead. (pp.6-7)
  • Their friendship was renewed before Noel’s trial, when they met at an audition. (p.142) They both moved to Sydney, and spent all their free time together. (pp.153-154)
  • Clarrie: a member of Noel childhood ‘mob’, (p.9) who remained his friend when he became involved in theatre and largely associated with women. (p.157)
  • Beverly: Noel older sister, who his lived with in Carlton. (p.26) Noel’s parents left him in Bev’s care when she was just seven, and he developed a strong attachment to her.
  • Noel was distraught when he and Bev were first separated at the Royal Park Welfare Depot. Bev used to find ways to sneak into the boy’s wing to visit and console Noel. (p.31)
  • Noel and Bev were both adopted from the Royal Park Welfare Depot by Arthur Challenger, and both suffered physical, sexual and verbal abuse at the Burren Junction School and in their foster home. (pp.42-43) While Noel was glad to escape Arthur Challenger’s house when he was sent to Far West Children’s Home, he was hesitant to leave Bev behind. (p.49)
  • Due to their mutual shame, Noel and Bev did not share their experience. This silence severed their once tight bond. (p.69)
  • Mr Arthur Challenger: An associate of Noel’s father, who adopted him and his sister Bev in 1941. (pp.36-38) Challenger was considered the “town weirdo”, and parents in the New South Wales town of Burren Junction warned their children to stay away from him. (p.42)
  • Noel developed a deep and sustained loathing for his guardian, who was punitive and sexually abusive. (p.42)
  • Noel embraced the opportunity to leave Challenger’s home and move to Manly for physical rehabilitation. (p.35) Whilst Noel was at the Far West Children’s Home, Challenger was arrested for raping Bev. (p.68)
  • As a child, Noel took pleasure in thinking about the violence revenge he would inflict upon Challenger. (p.44, 45)
  • When revisiting the documents 60 years later, Noel was surprised to find that the feeling of hatred he once harbored was replaced by pity for Challenger. (p.54)
  • Aunt Daphne: Arthur Challenger’s sister, who Bev and Noel would stay with when he was moving sheep to Sydney. (p.46)
  • Grandma’: Arthur Challenger’s mother, who treated Noel and Bev very well, but also didn’t prevent her son from abusing them. (p.66)
  • Despite this, Grandma was the sole source of reliable love and care Noel’s early life.
  • Tommy: Noel’s friend when he was a “street kid”. (p.79) Tommy was deaf, and they communicated in a self-devised language. (p.79)
  • Tommy was picked up by the police, and Noel never saw him again. Noel was later inspired by Tommy’s legacy to learn sign language and work with deaf actors. (p.80)
  • Frances Curtis (Chesca): a co-worker at Collins Book Depot who took Noel “under her wing.” (p.102) Chesca introduced Noel to gay culture, philosophy, literature and fashion (p.103) and encouraged him to take up ballet. (p.109)
  • Chesca left Melbourne shortly after Noel performed in Paint Your Wagon, and he lost contact with her. (p.203)
  • Rachel (Ray): A Jewish friend that Noel made through Chesca, who looked after him when he was broke and encouraged him to become an actor. (p.107)
  • Brian Finemore: the future curator of National Gallery of Victoria, who taught Noel about art and served as a style icon. (p.113) Finemore was homosexual, however unlike many other men in his life, Brian never made any advances on Noel.
  • John O’Toole: A man who took an interest in Noel, and took him to study at the Borovansky Ballet Studio. (p.114)
  • John provided Noel’s bail money when he was prosecuted for homosexuality, and shelter during the trial (pp.124-126) Their friendship waned after he was released, because of Noel’s shame, (p.129) but was revived soon after. (p.133)
  • Hayes Gordon: an actor who inspired Noel when he saw him performed in Kiss Me Kate in 1952. Noel offered Hayes his services as a dresser in exchange for acting classes. (p.162) Gordon taught Noel the Stanislavsky method of drawing from personal experience.
  • George Carden: a choreographer who encouraged Noel to move to London, and offered him a job there. (pp.192-193)


Abuse and survival:

  • Noel details his experiences of deprivation and abuse: he was neglected and abandoned by his alcoholic parents, physically and sexually abused by relatives, guardians and strangers, and stigmatized and excluded at school.
  • Noel also describes the practical and psychological coping mechanisms that enabled him to endure this trauma, and to develop his own career.  From a young age, Noel learnt to disassociate himself from his circumstances. This enabled him not only to survive exploitation, but also profit from his sexuality.
  • Noel also used his hatred of the perpetrators of this abuse to sustain him, and he fantasized about retribution.
  • Noel also learned to cook and clean for himself at a young age, (p.77-78), and modeled his speech, manners and presentation on middle-class people he began to associate with. He was able to conceal his background from them, and to assimilate into Melbourne’s artistic society. (p.87)

Racism and Racial Identity:

  • Since childhood, Noel racial identity had been a source of confusion and exclusion.  He was frequently described as a “little black bastard”, (p.11) or a “dirty abo” (p.43) and was bullied and physically abused by other boys in the schoolyard.
  • This treatment followed him into the workplace, and as a result he became extremely sensitive to racial slights.
  • Noel’s skin colour was also a source of anxiety for him when began to liaise with middle-class Melbournians.
  • However, while Noel identified strongly as a victim of white Australia’s residual racism, he did not identify strongly with a specific ethic group.
  • In his later life, this lack of affiliations came to concern Noel. When he returned from London, he decided to educate himself in contemporary and historical Aboriginal culture, and immerse himself in the Aboriginal community of Sydney.
  • Noel became increasingly influential in Indigenous arts and theatre. (p.23) The Sydney Theatre Company asked him to direct an all Aboriginal production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Olympics Arts Festival (p.233), and actor John Howard asked him play an Aboriginal character in Somewhere in the Darkness in 1996. (p.231)
  • Noel learnt a lot about the resentment that many contemporary Aboriginal people still harbored, which he funneled into his production The Commission, which was protest against the celebrations of the Australia Day. (p.228)
  • Because of his professional experience, Noel became a respected Aboriginal representative to the broader Australian community.
  • However, Noel admits that he was not warmly welcomed into the Aboriginal community itself. Noel describes his attempt to gain acceptance as a “long and at times arduous and painful” process, due to the differences in his life experiences and attitudes. (p.223)
  • After a number of frustrating experiences in Aboriginal theatre, Noel claims that he lost the “desire to direct any more indigenous plays or project.” (p.244) Noel celebrated his mixed ancestry, but also accepted that, despite descent and spiritual affinity, he was not a member of the contemporary Aboriginal community.


  • Noel narrates the gradual process by which he came to understand and accept his homosexuality. While he had been repeated abused by men as a child, he was ignorant of the existence of same-sex relationship. (p.103) He also did have strong feeling for men when he was young, which he attributed to the sexual abuse he had suffered. (p.106)
  • Noel physical attractiveness made him the object of homosexual advances, and he took advantage of this. (p.106) However, he claims that he was able to have sex with men, without considering himself homosexual, because he had come to see sex as a means to an end.  Noel claims that this attitude was shared by the boys he met when he was imprisoned for homosexuality.
  • It wasn’t until Noel began to associate with artists and performers in Melbourne that he came to realise that strong feelings for members of the same sex was natural and common. However, at that time he was still unsure of his own sexual orientation, and he continued to have relationships with women, including marrying Barbara.
  • Despite his traumatic experiences growing up, Noel eventually surprised himself by fully loving and trusting another man.  (p.248)
  • Noel protests the way in which his sexuality compounded the discrimination he was subject to on the grounds of race and class.
  • Noel also sympathizes with the plight of the many repressed homosexuals who he became familiar with during his days as ‘rent boy’.


Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Tovey, Noel Christian (1934–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


25 December, 1934
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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