Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients.

In 1947 a patient of the Brisbane Mental Hospital claimed he’d been forced to dig up the bodies of around 4,000 patients buried in the hospital’s cemetery. What happened to those exhumed remains isn’t clear. This is the story of Wolston Park’s missing bodies.

The Asylum and its cemeteries

The hospital at Wacol has had several name changes over the years including the Goodna Asylum for the Insane, the Brisbane Special Hospital and Wolston Park Hospital.

Its first incarnation was as the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum’s first inmates (as they were called back then) were taken by boat to the 450-hectare bushland site, west of Brisbane, in 1865.

The Asylum’s first cemetery was in the very flood-prone south west corner of the site (now the Wolston Park Golf Club). Its location on the banks of the Brisbane River was ridiculed by an anonymous contributor to the Queensland Times (25 Feb 1869) who could foresee problems ahead:

“The graveyard is on the bank of the river, and the first flood will take all the dead lunatics down to Brisbane.”

A 1869 Queensland Times article mentions the flooding potential of the Woogaroo Cemetery.
An anonymous contributor to the Queensland Times writes: “Speaking of burials at Woogaroo. The graveyard is on the bank of the river, and the first flood with take all the dead lunatics down to Brisbane. (The Qld Times, 25 Feb 1869, p3)

The writer wasn’t too far wrong and a second cemetery for patients was soon built on much higher ground. But making room for more hospital building development, according to Vicki Mynott of the Richlands, Inala and Suburbs History Group, less than a decade later in 1910, another cemetery was established. This third and final cemetery sat on the northern outskirts of the hospital site, at the end of what’s now known as Wilga St in Wacol.¹

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery
The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery at Wacol which was closed in 1945 to improve the outlook from the new Repatriation Pavilion which was opened on 26 Jan 1948. The remains of thousands of patients were removed from this cemetery over a four-year period by several patients who officials say “volunteered” to do the work.

It’s thought thousands of bodies buried in this third cemetery were exhumed between 1945 and 1948. Newspaper reports say 2,800 bodies were removed, though cemetery records have only accounted for around 200 of those which were moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery.

Qld Times article 29/11/46 - Mass Exhumation of Bodies
A 1946 newspaper article mentions the exhumation of 2800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to “improve the site of a new block being erected for servicemen suffering war effects”.

The remains were moved because the hospital cemetery was considered too close to the proposed Repatriation Pavilion which included three new wards for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.

How many people died at the Asylum?

LOTS. About 50,000 people were patients at the hospital in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s². The hospital was always overcrowded and there are regular mentions of an “acute shortage of female nurses” in the annual reports.

In 1941/42, for example, 2,466 people were patients. Of those, 214 died during the year. 23 of those deaths were within one month of arrival.

The table below shows that in the ten-year period between 1937/38 and 1946/47 there were 1,828 patient deaths.

YEAR TOTAL DEATHS MALE FEMALE % OF DEATHS PER AVERAGE NO OF RESIDENTS
1937/38

192

110

82

11.31

1838/39 174 109 65

9.86

1939/40 180
1940/41

159

95 64 8.57

1941/42

214

115 99

11.62

1942/43

160

88

72

1943/44

167

104

63

1944/45

178 96

82

1945/46

208

104 104

10.79

1946/47

196

112

84

10.17

SOURCE: Queensland State Archives Series ID 201, Mental Hygiene Annual Reports.

With the hospital files locked up tight thanks to the Queensland Government’s Right to Information Laws, there’s no way of finding out more information about these deaths or how many of these patients were buried on hospital grounds. Patients with family who had the financial means were likely buried closer to Brisbane in Toowong Cemetery. Those without family were likely given ‘pauper funerals’ and buried on site until 1945 when the cemetery was closed. Burials were subsequently carried out in the nearby township cemetery, now known as Goodna General Cemetery. And it’s at the Goodna Cemetery where this tale unfolds and it becomes apparent the dead were lost and forgotten in death as they were in life.

The exhumations

There are no available government records that indicate how many patients were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery to improve the site of a new facility for returned servicemen. However, a newspaper article suggests 2,800 bodies were moved.

  • Exhumations took place over four years: 1945 to 1948 to “improve the immediate surroundings of the new Repatriation Pavilion”. (Hon. T A Foley: Hansard, 11 Dec 1946)
  • While licences costing £1 were required to exhume a body from public cemeteries, there was no such licence requirements to move a body from elsewhere. As such there are no official records. (Queensland State Archives Series ID 20957 – Exhumation Permit receipt Books – Correspondence )
  • In the 1944/45 annual report it was reported the “cemetery has been abolished and burials are now done in the township cemetery”.
  • In Parliament on 25 Oct 1945, Secretary for Health and Home Affairs T A Foley reported that two additional grave diggers were hired in the 45/46 financial year.
  • On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Parliament the “work of exhumation is being performed by an employee of the hospital , assisted by four border-line patients who volunteered to assist to do the work”. When asked if he considered it a “suitable activity for the mentally sick”, he responded, “The Director of Mental Hygiene has satisfied himself that the work has no detrimental effect on these patients”.
  • In the 19 June 1947 edition of The Courier Mail, an article disputes claims the patients volunteered. The newspaper says one patient “had to dis-inter and rebury 4,000 bodies from a cemetery “as part of “hard manual labour in the name of occupational therapy”.
  • A front-page article in The Queensland Times (29 Nov 1946) reports, “the mass exhumation of 2,800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to the Goodna Public Cemetery is half completed”. A similar story in The Courier Mail had added, “After removal, a hearse is used to convey the bodies to the Goodna Cemetery, where they are reburied and allotted public grave numbers.”
  • BUT the Goodna Cemetery Trust says the remains of only two-hundred or so patients were re-interred at Goodna and that no records were kept in relation to the positioning of these graves on any of the maps held by the Trust.

The Goodna Memorial

A memorial plaque at Goodna Cemetery
A memorial plaque at Goodna General Cemetery commemorates all those who died at Brisbane Mental Hospital and whose final resting place is unknown. There is no such memorial or acknowledgement on the hospital grounds.
A memorial to those who died at Brisbane Mental Hospital sits in Goodna Cemetery.
More than 55 years after the remains of at least 207 hospital patients were re-interred at Goodna, the original cement grave markers from the Brisbane Mental Hospital cemetery were used to establish a memorial to all those who died at the hospital.
Cement grave markers from Brisbane Mental Hospital are part of a memorial at Goodna Cemetery.
Numbers are etched into each of the markers which originally stood over graves in the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery, less than six kilometres away. The highest number on the grave markers is 2,300.
The Brisbane Mental Hospital memorial sits at the back of the Goodna Cemetery.
The Brisbane Mental Hospital memorial, made up hundreds of small grave markers, is nestled at the back of the Goodna Cemetery. While there are around 200 hospital patients confirmed buried in the cemetery, the whereabouts of those graves is unknown. According to a 1946 newspaper article, there are as many as 2,800 unmarked graves on the cemetery grounds.

“It doesn’t ring true”: Goodna Cemetery disputes reported grave figures.

The Goodna Cemetery Trust does not believe there are thousands of asylum patients buried in unmarked graves within its boundary.

Cemetery treasurer and trustee Helen Gilmour questions the 1946 newspaper article which claims the exhumation of 2,800 patients and their re-interment at Goodna was half completed.

“Maybe the journo made a mistake. Maybe they accidentally added an extra zero and it’s just 280 graves?” she said.

“Given the records we hold, it’s just not feasible.

“The 200-or-so burials are documented in the Cemetery’s register. Why would they not document them all if there were more?”, she asks.

Having trawled through the Parliamentary records of the time, I’ve found no official mention of the number of exhumations.

Ms Gilmour also queried whether it was physically possible for 2,800 exhumations and re-interments to be carried out in four years. Grave digging by hand is hard work and time consuming. It would have required opening 2 or 3 graves per day.

Another question to be asked is simply “why?”.

It is common for cemeteries and graves in Australia to simply be abandoned, with markers or headstones removed, leaving no hint of what lies beneath. I’ve lost count of the cemeteries I have visited where councils in previous decades have had a misguided “clean up” and removed grave markers.

Why were the bodies supposedly exhumed from the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery instead of being left there and the grave markers simply removed? (I’m assuming that’s exactly what happened to the hospital’s first two cemeteries.)

Does it matter?

Does it matter that patients of a mental institution had their graves disturbed and that their final resting place is unknown? After all, these people died between 75 and about 120 years ago. I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.

The Goodna Cemetery trust’s Helen Gilmour said she is often contacted by people who are trying to find where their descendants are laid to rest.

“I get about two calls a week from people looking for family members who were at the hospital. It’s become more prevalent over recent years with the increasing popularity of family trees,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I have to tell them that I don’t know.”

The Woogaroo Asylum's female wards, built in 1866.
The Asylum’s female wards, built in 1866, are still on site. People were admitted to the institution for a range of psychiatric illnesses and, sadly, for a range of conditions that we know now didn’t warrant being locked up. These include epilepsy, post natal depression, anxiety, alcoholism, dementia, senility, stammering (stuttering), cleft palate, syphilis, obsessive compulsive, and simply because they were old and their family was unable to care for them.

If you have any information that may be able to shed light on the hospital’s cemeteries and the location of the remains of patients you’re welcome to contact me via Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au or leave a comment on this blog.
¹ Wacol, Wolston, Woogaroo 1823-2014 (Volume 1). Mynott, Vicki (2014).
² Wolston Park Hospital, 1865-2001: A Retrospect. Mark Finnane (2008).
ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The life lessons of dying children

A South African paediatrician’s insights have attracted much attention on Twitter this weekend. Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of his terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life, and what gave it meaning. As listed on his Twitter page, here are some of the responses:

South African paediatrician Dr Alastair McAlpine (photo via Twitter)
Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of his terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life. (Photo via Twitter)

First: NONE said they wished they’d watched more TV. None said they should’ve spent more time on Facebook. None said they enjoyed fighting with others. None enjoyed hospital.

Many mentioned their pets: ‘I love Rufus, his funny bark makes me laugh.’

‘I love when Ginny snuggles up to me at night and purrs’.

‘I was happiest riding Jake on the beach.’

Many mentioned their parents, often expressing worry or concern: ‘Hope mum will be ok. She seems sad.’

‘Dad mustn’t worry. He’ll see me again soon.’

‘God will take care of my mum and dad when I’m gone’.

All of them loved ice-cream.

All of them loved books or being told stories, especially by their parents: ‘Harry Potter made me feel brave.’

‘I love stories in space!’

‘I want to be a great detective like Sherlock Holmes when I’m better!’

“Folks, read to your kids! They love it,” said Dr Alastair.

Many of Dr Alastair’s young patients wished they had spent less time worrying about what others thought of them, and valued people who just treated them ‘normally’.

‘My real friends didn’t care when my hair fell out.’

‘Jane came to visit after the surgery and didn’t even notice the scar!’

Many of them loved swimming, and the beach. ‘I made big sandcastles!’

‘Being in the sea with the waves was so exciting! My eyes didn’t even hurt!’

Almost ALL of them valued kindness above most other virtues: ‘My granny is so kind to me. She always makes me smile.’

‘Jonny gave me half his sandwich when I didn’t eat mine. That was nice.’

‘I like it when that kind nurse is here. She’s gentle. And it hurts less’.

Almost ALL of them loved people who made them laugh: ‘That magician is so silly! His pants fell down and I couldn’t stop laughing!’

‘My daddy pulls funny faces which I just love!’

‘The boy in the next bed farted! Hahaha!’

Laughter relieves pain.

Kids love their toys, and their superheroes.

‘My Princess Sophia doll is my favourite!’ ‘I love Batman!’ (All the boys love Batman).

‘I like cuddling my teddy.’

Finally, they ALL valued time with their family. Nothing was more important.

‘Mum and dad are the best!’

‘My sister always hugs me tight’

‘No one loves me like mummy loves me!’

“Take home message: Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them. These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details. Oh… and eat ice-cream,” writes Dr Alastair.

The doctor later tweeted why terminal or very sick kids like ice-cream so much.

A few reasons, he says.

a) the cold helps with the mucositis (inflammation of the mouth and gut from chemo)

b) sugar raises the pain threshold

c) ice cream is just awesome.

🍦

 

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

 

 

 

‘Coffin swapping’ discussion highlights changing views on funerals.  

Meet Maree Bolding. She’s a funeral celebrant and a passionate volunteer at the Central Victoria crematorium. Yes,  while many of her friends may volunteer at the local hospital,  Maree spends her free time at the crematorium in Bendigo, doing her bit to give the deceased a respectful and loved farewell. 

Maree Bolding stands in front of Remembrance Parks Central Victoria's cremator.
Maree Bolding stands in front of one of two cremators at Central Victoria’s crematorium. A passionate volunteer at the Bendigo facility, she says it’s a privilege to be trusted with a loved one’s final journey.

I use the term ‘loved’ because, as Maree gave me a tour of the cremation facilities, it was obvious she loves what she does and is committed to treating the deceased like they would be treated if they were still alive.

“I call them by name. I talk to them.

“I’ve been given a big responsibility to care for these people on behalf of their families,” she said.

And care for them she does. Upon leaving the crematorium there was little doubt that I wanted someone like Maree to attend to someone I cared about. She offered great care to people who could no longer speak for themselves.

Unfortunately it seems not all in the funeral industry share the same ethics.

There’s a damning allegation that has thrust Queensland’s funeral industry and lack of regulation into the spotlight and has reaffirmed the general population’s scepticism about an industry often thought of, rightly or wrongly, as deceitful and manipulative.

The Courier Mail broke the story of a coffin swap by a Qld funeral director on Jan 11.

Rockhampton funeral director is accused of ‘coffin swapping’ – taking the deceased out of the $1,700 coffin her family purchased for the funeral and then putting her in a cheap coffin for the cremation. Let me be clear here: Not only is this appalling, it is also illegal. The funeral company involved has denied any wrong doing

The story of this alleged dodgy behaviour by a small funeral business has received widespread coverage and has seen thousands of people taking to social media to voice their disgust. I’ve been following those online conversations and this is where is gets interesting.

1.      People are appalled

Overwhelmingly, people are saying how atrocious allegations of coffin-swapping are. No surprise here.

Many are saying they had always suspected such a practice was common-place. I’m not convinced of that. However, my chats with funeral directors have made it obvious that some of them believe it does happen. Interestingly on ABC Radio today, Darren Eddy from the Australian Funeral Directors Association said he’d never heard of “coffin swapping”.

2.      Distrust of the industry

Without a doubt, Facebook comments reveal a widespread and deep distrust of the funeral industry. No real surprise there either. It’s unfortunate because the industry as a whole is trying harder than ever before to be more transparent. But it only takes the odd rogue operator to render those efforts null and void.

3.      People have NO idea about the price of coffins.

Much of the online discussion revolved around the price of the coffin and why anyone would want to burn such an expensive, $1,700  coffin.  Well,  $1,700 is actually not an expensive coffin. To be honest, it’s on the cheaper side.  Many people said they don’t want to be wasteful and they’re happy to be buried in a cheap pine box. Great! Let’s just hope they tell their families their wishes for a cheaper and more environmentally conscious option.  (I’ve written The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan for that very reason.)

Hardwood coffins can easily reach the $10,000 mark. Sure, they’re beautiful but is it practical to burn or bury such expensive bits of wood that took decades to grow? Many people think it is and that’s why funeral directors offer these high-end coffins as options.

4.    People are open to the idea of rental coffins. 

Not many funeral directors offer this option but rental coffins are actually a thing.  Tobin Brothers,  for example,  offer a “chipboard inner capsule encased in a solid timber outer shell,  which is removed prior to cremation”. You might think a rental coffin might be an inexpensive option.  Wrong.  Tobin Brothers offer the option for $1,700. 

5.      Would Government regulation stop “coffin swapping”?

No. I’ve written about the confusing state of the Qld funeral regulations in a recent blog. The legislation is a quagmire and the hands-on operations of funeral directors and crematorium operators are widely unseen. We simply don’t know what happens behind closed doors.

Cemetery and crematoria infrastructure in Qld is either run by Local Government or private enterprise. There’s no consistent or over-arching regulation that keeps an eye on these. In Victoria however, crematoria are run by Trusts, with the trustees appointed by the State Government. This means there’s no real incentive or opportunity to operative unscrupulously to make a quick buck.

Does the Qld community want more State Government regulation when it comes to cremations? In this case, the online response seems to indicate that the answer is YES.

Remembrance Parks Central Victoria.
Unlike Qld, Victorian cemeteries and crematoria, like this facility in Bendigo, are run by Trusts set up by the State Government.

6. The discussion: people are talking!!

If nothing else,  this claim of coffin swapping certainly has people talking, and that’s a good thing.  Thousands of people have taken to social media and given the issue measured thought and are openly taking about what they want for their funeral and sharing their own experiences of the funeral industry. It’s revealing that the discussion about the inevitable isn’t necessarily seen as morbid these days. Times are changing and people want to be better informed. 

Where to now?

With dark stories like coffin swapping around, how can you ensure your beloved family member gets the farewell you want for them?

Start by doing your homework. Meet your funeral directors. Ask for a tour of their facilities. Do this with some mates now, instead of at a time when you’ve lost a loved one, are grieving and not making clear decisions.

Just like you’d research a bathroom renovation and get quotes, do the same with several funeral directors.  I’ve not met a funeral director yet who wouldn’t welcome a potential client’s questions.

 In Queensland there’s a voluntary Code of Conduct that aims to ensure funeral directors are transparent and ethical. Ask if they’re signatories to that Code. Also, are they members of the Australian or their state Funeral Directors Association?

While this alleged “coffin swapping” incident is horrifying, don’t let it dictate your entire view of the funeral industry. There are passionate people like Maree Bolding who consider it a privilege to care for your loved one on their final journey. I’m positive she’s not the only one.

There are many coffin and casket options to suit a wide range of budgets. Discuss with your loved ones what type of coffin you want before the time comes. That way, they won’t feel like they have to spend 10K on your casket.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The grape-ful dead: A wine with body fit for a funeral.

A grave is usually where a dead body lies, but not this grave. This grave is full-bodied, alcoholic and tasty and, like the green funeral movement, it’s working towards becoming as natural as possible.

I stumbled across GilGraves wine in central Victoria, not far from where it’s grown, and loved the simplicity of its label and the way it’s made.  It’s perfect for a ‘death over dinner‘ scenario or perhaps an upcoming Halloween party. And if you’re unsure about having that third glass of wine perhaps the label might help solve your dilemma: “Life is not a dress rehearsal!”

GilGraves is an organic wine grown between Bendigo and Heathcote is central Victoria.
Putting the cask into casket.  This wine label reads “Life is not a dress rehearsal”. GilGraves is an organic wine grown between Bendigo and Heathcote in central Victoria.

Ken Gilchrist’s vineyard is at Axedale, near Bendigo, where he grows four grape varieties with his wife Kaye Graves. (Hence the GilGraves name). Developing the vineyard in 2011, GilGraves now has 2,550 vines.

Ken and Kaye produce what’s called “low intervention” or natural wine. Their grapes are grown in an organic vineyard and during the wine-making process nothing is added except for a bit of sulphur just prior to bottling.

“So what you’re tasting is basically just the fruit, rather than oak or additives that are usually introduced into wine. It’s not wine you would cellar, it’s wine you open and enjoy!” he said.

“It’s going back to the early wine-making practices of the French, Italian and Spanish centuries ago when they didn’t have any chemical additives.”

Growing grapes organically isn’t without its challenges. Ken works hard to control any mildew without chemicals and grazes Dorper sheep among the vines to keep to keep any weeds in check.

More than a fad.

Back-to-basics wine-making has only emerged in Australia in recent years and Ken believes conservative wine critics have slowly come around to the idea of natural wines, realising it’s not just a fad.

He said it’s the young people who are driving demand for the emerging low intervention wine market because they take a real interest in the origins of the food and drink they’re consuming.

Ken Gilchrist holds a bottle of GilGraves Shiraz.
Ken Gilchrist hopes to increase his wine production from the two tonnes of grapes he grew last year (1,600 bottles) to 10-12 tonne when his vineyard matures. That’s around 9,000 bottles of wine.  He says because GilGraves wine is natural and doesn’t contain any preservatives it’s best to drink it within a couple of years of purchasing.

So, just as there’s a growing demand for a more natural funeral where no embalming chemicals are put into the body or lacquers and glues used to make the coffin, there’s also an increasing demand for simpler and natural wines.  It seems Australians are keen to get back to basics. And that’s worth raising a glass to! Cheers!

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

 

 

 

“Killed by a blow from a whale”: The tragedy of the Kelly family. 

One son drowned,  one son died via a whale blow, four of their siblings didn’t see their first birthday, and another died when she was just 14. That was the fate of the seven Kelly children. 

The Kelly tomb in Hobart’s first cemetery tells an intriguing yet devastating tale of the extraordinarily difficult way of life in Australia’s pioneering days.  

Hobart Town was one of the great whaling ports of the  southern hemisphere.
Hobart Town was one of the great whaling ports of the  southern hemisphere. James Kelly, who died in a whaling accident, is remembered in the family tomb in Hobart.

The children’s father,  James Kelly, lived to be 66 but, despite being very successful, his latter years must have been a lonely existence. Not only did he lose all of his children, his wife Elizabeth died when she was 33. Described by historians as an “energetic explorer who circumnavigated Tasmania in an open 5-oared whaling boat, James Kelly named Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast. A skilled seaman and successful whaling entrepreneur, Kelly became pilot and harbourmaster for the Derwent in 1819”.

The Kelly tomb in Hobart's St David's Park.
The nine members of the Kelly family are remembered on the four sides of the Kelly tomb in Hobart’s St David’s Park which was Hobart’s first cemetery.
Thomas Kelly's tomb inscription
Thomas Kelly died in a boating accident on the Derwent River, one year after his brother was killed by a whale. 
Elizabeth had lost five children by the time she died in 1831, aged 33.
Elizabeth had lost five children by the time she died in 1831, aged 33.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Eddie Mason from Scone repairs broken headstones.

The volunteer headstone repairer: Eddie Mason’s cemetery passion

Spending days working hard and alone in a cemetery may not be everyone’s idea of fun but, for Eddie Mason, it’s a passion and a favourite past-time.

As I wandered through one of Scone’s many cemeteries I noticed Eddie tending a grave. He was wearing a tool belt and moved backwards and forwards around the broken headstone.

Eddie Mason from Scone repairs broken headstones.
While I usually visit cemeteries to learn about those buried there, every now and again I meet someone above ground who is just as interesting. Eddie Mason volunteers his time to repair headstones in Hunter Valley cemeteries.

Eddie Mason spends much of his spare time fixing headstones in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, particularly at Scone’s old Anglican cemetery. And a lot need fixing there.

Developed on black soil farming land in the mid-1800s, the cemetery regularly gets inundated with water and the earth moves considerably. That’s not ideal for a graveyard and the evidence lies in cracked headstones, crooked graves and toppled monuments. Visitors also have to be careful not to trip in one of the many dips on the cemetery grounds.

Wonky monuments and broken headstones at Scone Cemetery.
The black soil of Scone cracks and undulates depending on the season, leading to grave movements and damage. Irrigation from neighbouring farmland seeps into the cemetery and it floods when the rains come.

A Scone local and with ancestors arriving on the First Fleet, Eddie has found lots of his own family members in the cemetery. But he hasn’t been able to locate the grave of his great grandmother who, at age 92, was the ‘oldest lady in the town’.

“She used to live at the other end of Kelly St. It’s the Coles carpark now. She used to watch everyone. She knew everything about the town, they tell me. ”

Like so many of Australia’s older cemeteries, there are many unidentified or unmarked graves. I’ve visited several cemeteries that have been subject to ‘clean ups’ over the years and have had historic markers and headstones or footstones removed, usually to make mowing and cemetery maintenance easier.

Eddie’s search for Rebecca Eveleigh’s grave is not over though, even turning to satellite images of the cemetery to identify burial plots.

“I found seven Eveleighs I didn’t even know where buried here,” he said.

Little Elsie

Eddie’s current project is that of the grave of little Elsie Maud Ball. Next week it will have been 129 years since she died. She was one year and nine months when she died in 1888. Her headstone has broken off its base and has cracked in half.

Elsie Maud Ball's grave at Scone's old Anglican cemetery is 129 years old.
Elsie Ball’s headstone is being repaired by Eddie Mason, who volunteers his time to fix historic graves.

Eddie said it’s often the graves of children that are most neglected.

“There’s a lot of children’s graves everywhere I go and they’re the ones that get ignored the most, probably because it’s painful for the families at the time.”

His own family experienced that grief. Eddie’s great aunt buried her young son in the cemetery.

“When he died they left Scone all together and never came back. They went to Tamworth.”

Hard work but rewarding

Eddie said he gets a lot of enjoyment from piecing damaged headstones back together, but admits it can be hard work.

“I dig up the headstone’s sunken bases and if I can level it I can put the headstone back on then and it’ll hold it.”

He points to a big headstone about 10 metres away. He’d dug the base out in the rain which softened the ground.

“That took all day to get that out of the ground. I had a crowbar and everything. It was raining then. But Elsie’s, which I did last week, it’s (the ground) so hard.”

The repaired grave of Percy Nicholson and Louis Nicholson in Scone's Anglican cemetery.
When repairing a grave, Eddie Mason first digs sunken base out of the hard ground. He levels the base and is the able to fix the headstone. It took a day in the rain for Eddie to dig the base of this grave at Scone’s old Anglican cemetery out of the ground.

Like much of New South Wales, Scone hasn’t had good rain this year and it’s causing the black soil to dry out and crack. Having visited the cemetery many times over the years, Eddie’s able to gauge the season by looking at the cracks in the ground.

“Usually my great grandfather George Eveleigh gets cracks right out the front and they even opened up his grave last time. But once it rains the soils shuts up again.”

“So I say ‘how are you going, George?’” Eddie chuckles.

 

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The century-old gravestone of Joshua and Clara Bowd has been repaired by Eddie Mason.
The century-old gravestone of Joshua and Clara Bowd has been repaired by Eddie Mason. The heavy marble headstone was broken into six parts after falling from its base.

 

​Burial at sea in shallow waters: Only in the Territory

Only a few Australians are buried at sea each year and, when they are, they’re farewelled in deep water where they’re unlikely to float into a shipping lane, wash ashore, or get caught in a fishing net. Not so in the Northern Territory.

While Federal legislation demands bodies be farewelled at depth more than 3,000 metres, the Territory’s designated sea burial site is outside the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction. Located 30 nautical miles from Darwin in the Beagle Gulf, the water depth is only about 60 metres. The area, known as the “North Gutter”, is also well known to the Territory’s keen fishermen. (So fishos, it’s probably a good idea to avoid 12° 05’S 130° 36’E, that is 357° true 18 miles from Charles Point).

“Very few” burials have been approved in the Northern Territory and it’s likely no more will be. The Cemeteries Act is due for a bit of a shake up, with a new Cemeteries Act expected to be enacted in 2018. A position paper titled Outline of a Proposed New Cemeteries Act proposes that sea burials be banned in Northern Territory waters, simply because there are no waters deep enough.

Ministerial approval is needed to be buried at sea and a connection with the ocean needs to be proven.

Burial at sea is a complicated affair. The NT Government has to give permission for a sea burial and, in light of the impending changes to the Act, that’s unlikely. And not everyone can be buried at sea. The person must have had a proven connection with the ocean, eg. they must have been a fisherman or a sailor etc. Just because they spent every sunset watching the sun go down over the water from the Nightcliff foreshore won’t be enough to get Ministerial approval.

Despite Territorians soon not being able to be farewelled in NT waters, sea burial may still be an option though, albeit a long way from Darwin. People can still be buried in Commonwealth waters as long as they Federal Department of Environment has issued a permit under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act.

So can I just push dear ol’ Grandpop off the front of the tinny in his favourite fishing spot?

No. If and when you do get a permit to bury Pop at sea, you’ll need a certified commercial vessel to drop him off at the GPS co-ordinates that are very clear on the permit. While some countries reportedly allow for Pop to be in a weighted coffin with holes drilled in it, Australians are wrapped in a shroud, a heavy cotton or canvas wrap, which has weights sewn into it to make sure Pop sinks quickly and stays in the depths.

Dying at sea

A UK Government publication called the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide is a universally accepted manual for laymen (non-doctors) working on board a ship. Chapter 12 refers to the treatment of “the dying and the dead” on board a ship. It’s a fascinating read but not for the faint-hearted. It gives directions on how to conduct an autopsy and gives advice on the disposal of a body at sea if required under “exceptional circumstances”.

Here’s an excerpt:

“There should be three to four slits or openings in the material to allow the gases of decomposition to escape and prevent flotation due to trapped air…

“If the ship is small and there is heavy sea, precautions must be taken to ensure that the body will not be prematurely lost.”

Preparation and communication.

Burial at sea is just one way to farewell Pop, and it can be tricky.  To make the process easier and to help the chances of successfully getting a permit,  it’s best to prepare while Pop is still alive.  It’s a good idea for Pop’s wishes to be clear,  either in his will or written down in a book like The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action planHaving a clear direction from Pop that can be shown to the Minister may help during the approvals process.  When a surfer died in Western Australia last year, he had left clear directions about what he wanted.  In a moving ceremony he was farewelled by his family 23 nautical miles off the coast of Albany, his shroud weighted with 100 kilograms.

While sea burials are uncommon, with preparation, they can be done. One can only imagine just how special an off-shore ceremony might be. 

 

Lisa Herbert is a former NT journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and light-hearted workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Are you sure you want to die in Queensland? Getting the facts on funerals.

Dealing with a death in the family is hard. Trying to make sense of Queensland’s death-care and funeral rules and regulations is pretty difficult too because it’s all a bit of a confusing mess.

Ahead of Dying to Know Day on August 8, a day to bring to life conversations about death, dying and bereavement, I’ve spent days trawling through Queensland Government legislation, calling councils, chatting with cemetery operators and funeral directors, contacting hospitals and even visiting my local cop shop.

Here’s what you need to know about funerals and burying dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan*.

(*Joan is a made-up person; a little feisty grandmother who always wore floral dresses, swore a lot, enjoyed gardening, drove an old Corolla and drank cheap whiskey.)

1. Qld’s legislation regarding death care, funerals and cemeteries is a confusing mess.

Queensland doesn’t even have stand-alone legislation governing burials, cemeteries or funerals. There are more than a dozen Acts that make small mentions of them here and there but even combined they don’t provide a lot of guidance. Unlike most of the other states, Queensland has a confusing web of rules, regulations and blaring omissions. The Law Reform Commission attempted to work through some of those in its Review of the Law in Relation to the Disposal of a Dead Body  in 2011 and recommended lots of changes to Queensland laws and regulations but none of that has come to fruition.

There used to be a Cemeteries Act but that was repealed in the mid-1990s with the intention of introducing fabulous and thorough legislation soon after. But it all got too hard and cemetery and burial responsibilities were hand-balled to Local Government. While local councils have done a good job initiating their own local laws and managing this stuff, inconsistencies remain between local government areas.

2. Signing up to Queensland’s Funeral Industry Code of Conduct is voluntary.

Funeral directors around the country are working hard to redeem themselves after some pretty damning reports and inquiries in which the industry was accused of a lack of transparency and taking advantage of vulnerable people. These days there is a Queensland Funeral Industry Code of Conduct which aims to protect customers and ensure they are not pressured into buying products and services. This voluntary Code also endeavours to “ensure clients fully understand what is and is not included in the funeral plan or package they purchase” and “provide clients with accurate and timely information about the range and price of their services and products, including low-cost options”.

Not all funeral directors have signed up to this Code of conduct. And unlike states like New South Wales, funeral directors in Queensland don’t even have to be licensed.

So how is the quality of care afforded to dear ol’ Aunty Joan and her family regulated?

Um… It’s not.

3. Funeral services are bloody expensive and so are burials.

An increasing number of funeral directors now display funeral packages and their costs on their websites which makes shopping around when you’re grieving much less challenging. As well as funeral brokers, there are also some funeral comparison websites that can help find the type of service and price you’re after. Some of those websites are run by industry, others are not.

One of those independent ones is GatheredHere which has a database of costings for about 700 funeral options and companies around the country. Website founder Colin Wong said the site had 8,000 visits in June, proving the internet generation now expects online product comparisons and reviews.

“They’re accustomed to it and the demographic now demands it. ”

Colin said he established the website because he wanted to protect vulnerable consumers.

“I want them to know there’s a range of options, cost-effective options. And a funeral service is different and separate to the disposal of the body.”

Colin has broken down funeral costings in this great article on the average cost of an Australian funeral. (You might need a glass of wine to help you read it – there are some big numbers in there!)

Country funerals and interments are much cheaper than in the city, mainly because real estate is much cheaper. Mark McGowan oversees 12 cemeteries for Southern Downs Regional Council. He tells me the average cost of a full funeral service and burial in Warwick Cemetery is between $10,000 and $13,000.

Cemetery plots cost thousands of dollars
Cemetery plots cost thousands of dollars. Headstones and monuments aren’t cheap either.

4. Now that I know how expensive funerals and burials are, do I have to have a funeral?

Finally, some good news! No, you do not have to have a funeral and you’ll be surprised by the growing number of people taking that option.  To cater for that there are now lots of funeral directors happy to provide a very simple body disposal service.

After 15 years in the funeral business, and disillusioned by the huge cost grieving families had to pay to farewell their loved ones,  Tim Button and mortician wife Casey started Just Cremate Me.

“It pissed me off watching so many funeral companies make so much money. It was wrong to charge grieving people like that,” he said.

Just Cremate Me is a small south-east Queensland business set up to offer a cremation service, including transport and a family viewing. Families can also help wash and dress their loved one in Tim’s parlour (which looks like a comfy lounge room) before Aunty Joan is driven to a crematorium in a cheap, cardboard coffin. The family later picks up the ashes from the crematorium and then quite possibly takes a trip around the world with the money they’ve saved by not having a funeral. (Thanks Aunty Joan!) One of Tim’s unattended cremations costs $1,250 – about a quarter of the price of a really basic funeral service.

The popularity of an inexpensive, simple cremation has even surprised Tim. After just one year in operation, Just Cremate Me cremates 40 people per month, and Tim says the reasons behind his service’s popularity isn’t necessarily financial.

“Some people just don’t see the need for an expensive funeral. Sometimes families are overseas or interstate and only get together once a year so it’s at that time when they will hold a memorial for the person.”

“I’ve cremated multi-millionaires,” said Tim Button.

Watching the rise in demand for the direct cremation model is David Molloy from the Queensland Cemeteries and Crematoria Association. After nearly 30 years in the funeral business, he believes the importance of a funeral should not be underestimated.

“Without one, the grieving process isn’t able to start. A funeral doesn’t bring closure. It brings opening,” said David.

But he’s quick to point out that a funeral needn’t be a formal event held in a chapel or cemetery.

“It could be held at someone’s house. It’s a ritual, a memorial, a chance to simply talk, tell stories, laugh and cry. It’s for friends as well as family,” he said.

5. Do I have to use a funeral director?

No, but with so much confusion around Queensland’s rules and regulations it sure makes it easier. Do It Yourself death-care and funerals are not unheard of and there is certainly an increased interest in taking care of dear ol’ Aunty Joan home for a vigil instead of sending her away with a stranger.

The paperwork is pretty straight forward. You need to register a death and apply for the death certificate with the Department of Justice and Attorney General.

HOWEVER, the problem you might encounter is that some cemeteries will only liaise with a funeral director, not Aunty Joan’s daughter. For example, the 12 cemeteries managed by Brisbane City Council will only deal with funeral directors. It’s a different story on the Southern Downs where the Brethren religious community organise their own funerals.

6. Can I put dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan in the back of my ute?

Yes, you can.

Weekend at Bernie's was a 1989 black comedy.
Weekend at Bernie’s is a 1989 black comedy in which one of the main characters is dead.

While it might seem like a scene from “Weekend At Bernie’s“, you can transport dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan in the back of your ute (or the Corolla) in Queensland. While the New South Wales legislation clearly outlines its rules for the private transport of the dead, Queensland rules and regulations are a bit of a debacle in this space.

It’s cut and dry in NSW — you can transport a body as long as the journey is less than eight hours and Aunty Joan isn’t infectious. I’ve had coffee with one lady in NSW who moved a man’s body from an unhelpful funeral director’s premises to a house for a home vigil using an old van, four blokes and a door.

Yes, a door.

In Queensland, the Coroners Act makes no mention of private body transport; neither does the Cremations Act. The Public Health Act briefly makes mention of not spreading an infectious disease. Section 236b of the Criminal Code makes it “an offence for a person, without lawful justification, to improperly or indecently interfere with, or offer any indignity to a dead human body”. That seems to leave itself wide open for interpretation and that’s why I sought clarification at my local police station.

“That’s revolting,” was the response from the woman at the counter when I asked about the private transport of Aunty Joan. So I made a more official inquiry to the Queensland Police Service and received this response:

“The QPS is not in a position to answer these questions – this depends on individual circumstance and it is not something that QPS has come across at this time and as such is a hypothetical.”

The consensus among the industry folk I’ve chatted with is that the private transport of bodies is allowed, though one did admit that funeral directors are probably better equipped and therefore are able to do it in a more dignified manner. But, in another example of the confusion and ignorance in Queensland’s rules and regulations, some hospitals will not release a body to anyone other than a funeral director. That’s despite it being “legal for any person that has the authority to control the body to take physical possession of the body as long as the death was not from an infectious disease”. (Section 3.2.2 It’s Your Funeral Report, Sandra van der Laan, Sydney Business School).

7. Bodies at home and home vigils.

The subject of death, dying and funerals was only until recently very taboo. Of late there has been a noticeable shift in thinking and people are looking to take more control. But there’s still a long way to go. Mackay funeral director Belinda Hassan said, “As a society we’ve been conditioned not to deal with death. We become immune to it.”

She told me many people want their loved one taken to a funeral home soon after they die in the home.

“They want them out of sight as soon as possible,” said Belinda.

But not everyone wants to shift dear ol’ Aunty Joan off to a funeral home as soon as she dies in front of the telly. Home vigils can offer families a personal and private opportunity to say goodbye and connect with family members and friends during a time of grief.

A body can be kept in the home for a few days, often laid out in the bedroom or lounge room while life goes on around them and loved ones come and go. Obviously the body may undergo some changes during that time and the air con will have to be turned on, but people who do take part in home vigils report it to be a very positive experience.

Shop around and prepare.

But home vigils aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Dealing with death and grief is a personal journey and there are people who can help guide you through the process. For most, it starts with a funeral director. Don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions. Ask for an itemised quote and check out if they funeral director you’ve called has signed up to Queensland’s Code of conduct. And remember, just because you decide not to spend $15,000 on dear ol’ Aunty Joan doesn’t mean you didn’t think she was the best aunt ever.

An even better way to make the funeral decision process easier is to discuss your wishes before you or a family member dies. It needn’t be a long or morbid discussion and it will help clear up any confusion when the time comes. I wrote a book called The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan that’s practical, colourful and filled with dad jokes to help make that happen.  Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed, which most likely won’t be anytime soon.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan cover
The Bottom Drawer Book is your after death action plan. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit in its pages until they’re needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No fowl play at Mackay toy shop offering life lessons ahead of Dying To Know Day on August 8

I’m stoked to see a popular Queensland toy shop bringing the difficult subject of death to life ahead of Dying To Know Day, an annual day of action aimed at encouraging discussion of death, dying and bereavement.

Catering for people whose lives and interests aren’t all fun and games, former school teacher and owner of Let The Children Play in Mackay, Ally Blines, said dealing with grief and death is something that’s often not talked about, with devastating consequences.

“It’s dealt with behind closed doors and it needn’t be the case. We need to be open and supportive of one another during difficult times,” said Ally.

Not far from shelves stocked with colourful toys, educational games and children’s books sits a range of reference books on subjects such as dealing with grief, parenting, autism, Asperger’s and even funeral planning.

Ally thinks Dying to Know Day on August 8 is the perfect opportunity to broach the subject with family.

Launched in 2013, the D2KDay initiative by the Groundswell Project encourages people to improve their death literacy and to get informed about end of life and death care options such as dying at home, and to be better equipped to support family and friends experiencing death, dying and bereavement.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care reports that Australia has been characterised as “a death denying society where many people are reluctant to consider their own mortality and talk with their families about what their wishes are for the end of life”.

Ally was awesome when approached to stock my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.  She jumped at the chance, calling it “a fantastic resource and workbook for those keen to be organised ahead of the inevitable”.

Ally Blines at Let the Children Play toy shop in Mackay
There’s more than just toys at this Mackay toy shop. Ally Blines stocks books on grief, funeral planning, parenting, autism and Asperger’s etc.

Bereavement is another potentially difficult subject catered for at the Ally’s toy shop In Mackay.

The work of Mackay widow Deb Rae is popular. She has penned ‘Getting there – grief to peace for young widows’ when her young husband passed away. It’s a book that Ally believes resonates with so many aspects of life.

“We have elderly men who lost a wife 20 years ago turning to her words.

“And one of my own children was quite ill during their key teenage years and it was only when I read Deb’s book that I realised I had been grieving for the loss of those years and my expectations for that time, even though my child was fine and had moved on.”

“Deb’s book is mainly bought by people who are buying it either directly for a friend who has lost a partner or for themselves to help them understand that friend’s experience.”

Ally said she hopes people who walk through the doors of Let the Children Play leave not only with their children’s needs catered for, but also their own.

“It’s important we all address these kind of subjects, even though it may be a little confronting,” she said.

Dying to Know Day is a good excuse to bring up the subjects of death, dying or bereavement up with people in your life. There are lots of activities planned in many parts of the country. Check out www.dyingtoknow.org for events.

I’m speaking in Bendigo as part of a jam-packed morning of activities, including a crematorium tour. Details here.  Would love to see you there.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative, practical and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Cultural sensitivities: Why aren’t we saying Dr G Yunupingu’s first name?

News of the death of the extraordinary and talented Dr G Yunupingu broke overnight. He was 46.

Born in a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal community and blind from birth, he taught himself to play guitar upside down (he was left-handed, you see) and eventually sold more than half a million albums, becoming the highest selling Indigenous artist in history.

But some media reports (and I) aren’t mentioning his first name, nor are we showing an image of the musical genius who sang his way into many hearts in his native Yolngu language. Why aren’t we posting photos or writing his full name? Well, there are important issues surrounding the naming of Indigenous Australians who have died.  The ABC’s editorial policies sums it up nicely.

“Bereavement practices vary in different communities and regions. There is often sensitivity to seeing and hearing the name, image or voice of Indigenous people who have died. The naming and depiction of recently deceased people is often prohibited under customary law and the mourning period may last for weeks, months or years. There may also be a preferred way of referring to the deceased person.”

In a nutshell, it’s up to a member of Dr G Yunupingu’s family or the elders of his community to determine how he should be referred to. Late on Tuesday night, just hours after his passing in Royal Darwin Hospital, Dr G Yunupingu’s record label released a statement breaking the sad news and referring to the deceased as Dr G Yunupingu.

“Skinnyfish Music and Dr G Yunupingu’s family ask for your respect at this time”.

So, until the family directs the media otherwise, the wonderfully talented and gentle Dr G Yunupingu should be referred to as just that.

And may he Rest In Peace.

 

*UPDATE 20 DEC 2017: STATEMENT FROM SKINNYFISH MUSIC REGARDING GURRUMUL YUNUPINGU

The final funeral ceremony for Gurrumul Yunupingu occurred on Friday 24th Nov at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island.

The passing of any Yolngu person is usually accompanied by strict traditional protocols which preclude the use of the deceased’s name. The immediate family of Gurrumul have been clear throughout the grieving process that the contribution he made and continues to make to Australian and Yolngu cultural life should not be forgotten.

The family have given permission that following the final funeral ceremony, his name and image may once again be used publicly to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly.

The family thank the media and the Australian public for their support and respect throughout this period.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative, practical and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.