The most succinct summation of Helen Kelly possibly came from a cemetery worker Labour MP Trevor Mallard ran into in the toilets before Kelly's memorial service yesterday.

That worker told Mallard: "she cut through the bullshit and spoke common sense."

The service at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington was attended by Government ministers, a mayor, councillors, some diplomats, Labour leader Andrew Little and MPs from all sides.

But it was mainly an opportunity for the workers and unionists Kelly had worked for and with to thank and farewell her after her death from cancer a fortnight ago.


They did not linger on her death, but rather spoke of her life.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard began with a message from former Prime Minister Helen Clark, quipping he had "two similarly bossy" Helens in his life. He then gave an emotional address, talking about his own friendship with Kelly whom he had known since she was a child.

"Unlike many people, when I made mistakes she didn't head for the hills. She was there."

Kelly's husband Steve Hurring spoke of Kelly's ability to make and keep friends, saying it was a marker of her character that many of those friends were involved in her care after she was diagnosed.

He recalled her dedication to work with some amusement, speaking of a holiday on the Kepler track during which Kelly would take the opportunity to post to social media whenever there was coverage.

Union banners hung from the balconies and the service was peppered with workers' songs such as Joe Hill and Bread and Roses. Don McGlashan sang Anchor Me and Kelly's son Dylan sang.

Helen Kelly's son Dylan singing during her memorial service at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Helen Kelly's son Dylan singing during her memorial service at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Many of the stories related to Kelly's work for workers by the friends she made of them.

Actor Robyn Malcolm recalled her time working alongside Kelly over the Hobbit dispute.

"[It was] a particularly gnarly and nasty affair. But I would go through the whole thing again, because of the principles behind it and the friendship that came out of it."

Malcolm also spoke of the other campaigns Kelly had driven - for meatworkers, farm workers, the Ports of Auckland workers, and the attempt to get accountability over the Pike River Mine disaster.

Ged Kearney, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, recalled travelling to Fiji with Kelly in the coup years after concerns about the treatment of Fiji's trade union movement.

Fiji's Attorney General had publicly warned them against coming.

"I can say by the end of the four or five hours that we were detained by the Fijian authorities I was so sorry for the Fijian authorities. They had no idea how to handle this strong, determined, but interminably polite, New Zealand character."

Kearney also spoke of Kelly's visit to Australia to farewell her and her friendship with Kelly.

"We've heard a lot about what Helen was, but I certainly know what she wasn't. She was not vain, self-interested or selfish. She was not dour, she was never boring. But most of all, she was not afraid."

Kelly herself got a chance to get the last word via interview clips played on a video. In that Kelly spoke of the need to be kind.

"What I've learned from my life is that kindness goes a long way. I want people just to be kind."

Of course 'kind' doesn't mean being a pushover and at points of the service the most uncomfortable people in the hall were undoubtedly Government ministers Michael Woodhouse and Chris Finlayson.

It seemed appropriate. After all, Kelly dedicated her life to making governments uncomfortable. She would not have wanted it any other way.