The photo that changed it all: a funeral, a pact and an outlandish dress.

At the start of most books there’s a dedication page. It includes the name or names of people or things who have inspired the author.

Here’s what appears on The Bottom Drawer Book’s dedication page. These names, the people and their work, hold a special significance for me.

The dedications at the front of The Bottom Drawer Book include Scottish soldier Private Kevin Elliott.

It’s been 10 years since Private Kevin Elliott was killed in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. He was on foot patrol when he was killed in an explosion caused by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Babaji district, Helmand province. He was 24 when he died on 31 August 2009.

Private Kevin Elliott of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

I learned about Pte Elliott’s death when I saw a photograph in an online media article. The image stopped me and my tracks and I found myself staring at it for ages. I clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it. The incredible photograph by Jeff J Mitchell said so much but left me wanting to know more.

Sobbing in a Scottish cemetery was Barry Delaney, a mate of Pte Elliott. The grief in the photo is palpable and the dress is hard to miss. You see, the year before the friends had made a pact. One would wear an outlandish dress to the funeral of the other. It was a novel but effective way those two friends approached a really tough subject. They had a conversation about their mortality, they expressed their fears, THEY TALKED ABOUT IT, and they drank vodka. And this really resonated with me (the conversation, not so much the vodka).

Inspired by the strength and friendship between these two mates, I delved deeper into the story and eventually contacted Pte Elliott’s family.

In subsequent correspondence with his grandmother, I learned Pte Elliott had also told his family what he wanted if he was killed on active service. He told them he wanted to be buried wearing the jersey of his favourite football team and white socks. His wishes were followed.

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND – SEPTEMBER 15: Barry Delaney kneels weeping as mourners gather at Barnhill Cemetery in Dundee, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Best mates

“Kev was like my brother – we would have done anything for each other,” Barry Delaney told the Daily Record newspaper.

We said that whoever died first, the other one had to wear a pink dress with green spots to the funeral – and we shook on it. It was mainly his idea and the more I think about it, I’m sure Kevin knew something was going to happen.

Barry couldn’t find a pink dress with green spots so he chose a green one and added pink socks to make the outfit look sillier.

He told the newspaper: “It’s what Kev would have wanted.”

Barry Delaney as the coffin of Private Elliott arrives at Barnhill Cemetery.
(Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

Who was Private Kevin Elliott?

By all accounts he was full of mischief, a bit of a lad. His commanding officer called him a “lovable rogue”.

He didn’t really want to do that tour of Afghanistan and was due to quit the army. He’d already served in Iraq and Northern Ireland, but he didn’t want to let his mates down so he agreed to do one more tour.

Captain Harry Gladstone said, “I remember talking to him shortly before we left Inverness to deploy to Afghanistan in March. He was dressed in civilian clothes, having been de-kitted, and about to walk out of Fort George back to civilian life when he decided to sign back on. “

“When asked why he signed up again he simply said, ‘I didn’t want to miss the boys’.”

A video made by Pte Elliott’s family after his death.
Via Youtube theSandy2005

Full of cheek

Private Peter Fenton, Fire Support Group gunner called him cheeky:

But you couldn’t get annoyed with him. He was always able to get a laugh in any situation. He would bend over backwards to make sure everyone was all right. “He was hilarious, confident, loyal, and above all charming.

Private Kyle Russell, Fire Support Group gunner, said:

A story typical of Kev was on having a room inspection in Fort George, the Platoon Sergeant opened the fridge to see it full of beer. He told Kev to get rid of it; Kev proceeded to drink the contents of the fridge in front of him and continued for the rest of the night.

“Kev was kind and generous – he lived for the moment. If you asked for a fag, he threw you a packet of twenty. He was a terrible singer but my fondest memory of him was sitting in the back of a vehicle screaming out the words to ‘I got you babe’ at the top of his voice.”

Lance Corporal Ian Bruce, Fire Support Group gunner, said that Kev would stir people up:

Kev was a poser – he loved his body – but underneath he cared deeply about the other people in the platoon. He would try and wind people up but you couldn’t get annoyed with him, he was too nice. He wanted to be active the entire time.

He loved being in Afghanistan and had booked a holiday to Australia for our return. He also wanted a pair of white socks to walk down Dundee High Street pulling the birds! We will all miss him badly.

As part of the incredible Fallen Heroes Project, this hand drawn portrait of Pte Kevin Elliott was given to his family by artist Michael G. Reagan. Michael has drawn thousands and thousands of portraits of soldiers, free of charge.  He says, “Each portrait is intended to show our love and respect for these Heroes and their families”.

The legacy

The photo of Barry Delaney in that lime green dress planted a seed in me that, several years later, sprouted The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan. I wanted others to be like Pte Elliott and Barry Delaney. I wanted people to have that tough conversation about their mortality and funeral plans, in whatever form that may take.

With the fantastic help of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, I was able to get in touch with Pte Elliott’s family. I wanted them to know that their son, grandson, brother, uncle and nephew had inspired something positive and I wanted them to know that, even though I was a complete stranger on the other side of the world, I was thinking of him.

Five years after Pte Elliott’s death, I sent the family my book. Written on the dedication page was “Private Kevin Elliott”. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do so I asked the advice of the army’s bereavement officer. He gave a positive response.

The response

I foolishly opened the card and read it on the steps of the Tamworth Post Office. It was so beautiful, I openly cried.

The card sent to me in 2014 by Pte Elliott’s grandmother is one of my most treasured possessions.

I didn’t really expect a reply but Pte Elliott’s grandmother, Joan T Humphreys, sent me a delightful thank you card.

An anti-war campaigner, Joan has been a vocal member of the Stop the War campaign.

While I will keep most of the contents of that card to myself, including the list of novel things that Pte Elliott wanted put in his coffin, I was so glad to know his family appreciated what I’d done.

Mrs Humphreys wrote, “Your book is delightful. Although it is a sombre subject, myself and many of my family and friends laughed many times during reading it.

“Thank you for sending the book and thank you for honouring Kevin by your dedication to him,” she wrote.

One of many

Private Kevin Elliott wasn’t the only soldier killed in that ambush on 31 August 2009. Fellow Black Watchman Sergeant Stuart Millar also died. Newly married and with a young daughter, he was 40 years old.

As you know, thousands upon thousands of people have been killed at war and their families live with their loss every single day.

Let’s not forget them. Lest we forget.

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 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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

Headstone symbol reveals convict past

Convict 51158 lies buried in Australia’s southern-most cemetery, with an indication of his crime etched on his headstone. The 1882 grave of Richard Mott is the earliest in the remote Cockle Creek cemetery, 150km south of Hobart.

Richard Mott’s grave (which includes a footstone) is in Cockle Creek cemetery, now part of Southwest National Park in Tasmania. His daughter Ellen’s grave sits beside his.

Convicted of breaking into a warehouse and committing larceny in 1844, he was sentenced to 10 years transportation. Richard had previous convictions for stealing three fletches of bacon and breaking a machine for which he had served twelve months.

On his headstone, there is a machinery cog and an emblem of the French Royal Family (the fleur-de-lis). The cog could have something to do with the broken machinery. The headstone was paid for by his French son-in-law which could be the reason behind the fleur-de-lis.

A machinery cog and the fleur-de-lis are symbols on Richard Mott’s headstone.

Richard was sent to Australia to serve his 10 year sentence on board the Maria Somes. The 1844 sea journey to Hobart took almost three months! There were 263 other convicts on board.

Convict records give a detailed description of Richard:

  • “Height [without shoes]: 5’8
  • Complexion: Ruddy
  • Head: Long
  • Hair: Light brown
  • Whiskers: none
  • Eyebrows: brown
  • Eyes: hazel
  • Nose: long
  • Mouth: medium
  • Chin: medium double
  • Protestant
  • Can read a little
  • Farm labourer who can plough
  • Stout made
  • scars on 3rd and 4th fingers of left hand.

Upon arrival he spent the first eighteen months on Maria Island on Tasmania’s west coast. According to government records he committed numerous minor offences, including being “drunk” on October 15, 1852, fine 5/-.

He had been married when he left England’s shores, leaving behind a wife and six children. Even though his sentence was ten years, convicts weren’t given return passage so they were stuck in Australia after they’d served their time. Some might call that a life sentence.

 The practice of remarrying was common among convicts who were unlikely ever to return to the United Kingdom, even though they were still married to another wife.  He was “certified free” on January 6, 1854, having previously made application to marry Rosanna Murphy, which was approved the year prior.  They married in St Joseph’s Church, Macquarie Street, Hobart on June 28, 1855 and had five children.

They were among the first settlers in the Cockle Creek area where Richard worked as a timber worker (a sawyer).

Mott Murder?

On 15 May 1882 Richard was found dead under mysterious circumstances. He was 74.

The following appeared in The Mercury on May 19, 1882:
“SUSPECTED MURDER.- A man named Mott died suddenly a few days ago at Recherche Bay. At first foul play was suspected, and the police went to the length of arresting a man on suspicion of murder; but by a telegram received yesterday, we learn that now  Superintendent Lambert is of opinion that death was caused by heart disease or apoplexy.
An inquest will, of course, be held.

The man arrested and then released was in fact his son-in-law.

Richard was one of the earliest burials in the Cockle Creek cemetery.  Wife Rosanna is also buried there as are two of their children – Ellen who died at age 19 years in a house fire, and Richard Jr. who lived in Catamaran with his wife Alice Doherty, and worked in a local mill.

It was about 8 degrees and dreary in the middle of the day when I visited Richard Mott’s grave. Imagine living and raising a large family in such a cold, remote place?!

Other cemetery residents

Bridget Strong and her husband William and their nine children. She was in her 50s when she died in the 1920s. Her grave at Cockle Creek is surrounded by an iron fence but there is no headstone.
Glimpses of Cockle Creek itself behind two unmarked graves in the Cockle Creek cemetery.
Thomas and Alice Field had four children but only William is also buried alongside Alice, but his grave is not marked. He was cutting timber for the coal mine and was killed when tree fell on him.
The Cockle Creek cemetery contains 12 marked graves and at least 10 others which are no longer marked. The earliest burials date from the early 1880s and the latest from the 1930s. Imagine raising children in such a remote, cold location?

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. Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is the author of The Bottom Drawer Book.

Coffins and company: the coffin club changing lives.

“See you next week… with a bit of luck.”

The cheery and optimistic farewell brought big chuckles from members of the Community Coffin Club in the north-west Tasmania town of Ulverstone. 

Jokes about death and dying are common-place here. The inevitable is approached in good humour.

Every Thursday a bunch of like-minded people get together for fun times, companionship, coffin making and learning. The group also provides a wide range of reading material and ‘death literacy’ resources for anyone who may drop in.

The Community Coffin Club operates out of the Central Coast Community Shed in Ulverstone every Thursday.

Meeting Ed

Coffin club member Ed King and I bonded over Kingston biscuits. A guest of the club, I’d been invited to talk about and my funeral planning guide, The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, and my cemetery wanderings. There’s always cakes and biscuits at these things and Ed and I were happily devouring the Kingstons one after the other.

An artist, sculptor and painter, Ed has been attending a well-provisioned shed to work on his coffin every other Thursday for the past two years or so.

“I’m on my way out,” he declares.

While his early onset dementia leaves Ed struggling to find some of his words as we chat, he’s engaging, witty and warm.

“Sometimes I can’t get up, sometimes I can’t do anything, but today I can talk,” he grins.

Ed King attends the Community Coffin Club where he’s building a boat-themed coffin for himself.

Six hours a week he’s assisted by support worker David and it’s clear Ed enjoys the time they spend together.

They share a love of art and enjoy bouncing ideas off one another.

“I look forward to it,” Ed says earnestly.

“And I look forward to it too,” David replies.

Support worker David and client Ed. Good mates.

They both reminisce and shake their heads about their first attempts to build Ed’s coffin.

“The first coffin didn’t quite work. It was a bit flimsy. We used the wrong wood,” says David.

But Ed’s second coffin is coming along nicely. He’s a creative artist so it’s no surprise that there are interesting little twists added to his coffin.

Coffins and company

But, as Ed explains, Thursdays aren’t just about building coffins. They’re about companionship.

“Everyone’s here for the same thing. You have a bit of a laugh. You meet people and you’re all in the same pot. We’re all going down eventually.”

I asked Ed how he’d describe the coffin he’s making.

“Getting there,” he quipped, which received widespread chuckles around the group.

Because he can’t afford a boat, Ed’s coffin has a rudder. Photo: Community Coffin Club Facebook page

“I can’t afford to buy my own boat. So we started to turn it more into a boat than a coffin,” he said, which explains why there is a rudder, made of King Billy pine, at the feet end of the coffin. Or should that be the stern?

The coffin itself is made from a combination of timbers – recycled pallets, a little bit of huon pine, and some wood that Ed had in his shed.  

“I got it for free, it’s oregon pine, beautiful. They were pulling down some old buildings and I got this and put it away for 18 years.”

As well as a rudder at the coffin’s stern, a set of horns will decorate the bow.

There are two shallow holes drilled into the coffin’s bow, just behind where the horns will be positioned.

“They’re for the two pennies. You know, to pay the ferryman,” Ed grins, clearly amused by this creative and mythical addition.

There are horns and holes for two pennies at the bow of Ed’s coffin.
Photo: Community Coffin Facebook page

Ed is quick to point out the help he’s received to build his coffin, er… boat.

“Dave is great, fantastic. He’s the engine of this thing,” he said gratefully.

Knowing his early onset dementia will bring about his death sooner rather than later, Ed faces his mortality very practically.

“I’m going to be cremated and chucked in the ocean, I hope.”

Because of restrictions at the crematorium, the horns and the rudder have been made so they can easily be removed. Ed’s two young sons will be able to keep those.

“David’s got it built so that as soon as it’s time to ‘go under’, they can just pick it up and the boys can take it (the horns and the rudder) with them.”

Shrouded in art

As an artist, Ed has travelled widely and has an extensive body of work from his overseas wanderings.

“I did do drawings in France, Spain and all over England, and all over the world really.”

David explained that Ed will be laid to rest in the coffin, wrapped in some of this artwork.

“A lot of the canvases that Ed painted, lovely churches, cathedrals and things, have a really lovely Gothic feel to them. There’s a lovely lady who’s cutting them up and stitching them together to make a shroud for Ed,” he said.

Ed nods and smiles knowingly at me. Again, he seems chuffed with this idea, chuffed to be sharing it with me, and chuffed to have a mate like David who’s able to help him when the words won’t come.

Ed shows me his awesome coffin.

And support worker David’s more than happy to spend a couple of hours on Thursdays at the Community Coffin Club with Ed.

“The feel of this place and the way they make you feel when you come here, it’s fantastic,” said David.

“And there’s lots of coffee and cakes,” interjects a smiling Ed.

The Community Coffin Club meets at the Central Coast Community Shed at the Ulverstone Showgrounds from 10 on Thursdays. All are welcome.

A gift to the Coffin Club, artist and sculptor Ed has crafted a miniature coffin artwork. A tin soldier rests in the top, there are pennies for the ferryman, a coffin handle, a bell and a drain, plus splashes of paint make it look like it’s been eaten by worms.

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 and funeral planning guide and workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage.

Lisa Herbert has written The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide and workbook.

Funeral trains: All aboard at Sydney’s Mortuary Station

No, it’s not something out of a Harry Potter novel. It’s actually something very close to home… especially if you live in Sydney. Mortuary Station is a reminder of how funerals used to be. It serves as an example of the role of Government in the provision of burial services to the expanding nineteenth century city of Sydney.

Coffins and mourners got on the “funeral train” at Mortuary Station and were transported to cemeteries such as Rookwood further down the line.

The former Mortuary Station building is “aesthetically significant as a fine example of Gothic inspired design attributed to James Barnet, a style adopted for its religious associations in the construction of a funeral station”. Photo: John Wall.

Opened in 1869, the ornate Gothic Mortuary Station is heritage listed. It was renamed Regent Station at some stage and still stands at Chippendale, not far from Central Station, which was once the site of Sydney’s second cemetery. (Central Station was once the Devonshire Street Cemetery, the final resting place of 30,000 people. It closed in 1890.)

Historical significance

Mortuary Station 1872.
Pickering, Charles Percy (NSW Government Printing Office) , State Library of NSW

“The Mortuary Station demonstrates the removal of burial grounds to the outer suburbs of the city and the commitment of the government of the time to allow access to those cemeteries and a greater vision of providing a modern necropolis for the Sydney region. It is associated with attitudes to disposal of the dead during Victorian times in Australia, and in particular with the funeral trains which ran regularly between the city and Rookwood. It remains as the only substantial building structure associated with the operational workings of the original Sydney rail yard. “(NSW Department of Environment)

Not often open to the public, Mortuary Station is a hidden time capsule in the heart of Sydney. Photo: John Wall

According to the NSW Department of Environment, “The building was used as the terminus for funeral trains only until 1938. When the rail funeral business gave way to road corteges and motor hearses, rail services were restricted to weekends and finally curtailed. On April 3 1948, trains were withdrawn and the cemetery line closed. Trains left from the main terminus platforms over the final ten years of the funeral rail service. There being no call for the rail hearse, the Mortuary Station ceased to function in the capacity of its original purpose. 

In 1981 the former State Rail Authority decided to restore the Mortuary Station.
Photo: John Wall

“From 14 March 1938, Mortuary Station was used for the consignment of horses and dogs, and its name was changed to Regent Street Station. From February 1950 it was used as a parcels dispatch, at which time catenary wires were placed inside the rail pavilion and (apparently at this same time) the easternmost arches at either end were removed of ornament on the inner face to allow for the passage of larger rail vehicles.”

Crowds flocked to the Mortuary Station. Transport Heritage Expo 2019 this long weekend, including a former colleague of mine, John Wall. He was nice enough to allow us to see his photos.

Ornate symbolism

There is much symbolism at Mortuary Station. This sandstone ornamental etching depicts an hourglass and metaphorical wings, a symbol that human existence is fleeting, and that the “sands of time” will run out for all of us.

The ‘winged hourglass’ is a common eighteenth century symbol overseas. It’s not often seen here in Australia so I’m thrilled to see one preserved on the walls of Mortuary Station.
Photo: John Wall
It looks like something you’d see when taking the Hogwarts Express on platform 9 3/4, doesn’t it? Photo: John Wall
Mortuary Station is only remaining example of a Victorian railway funerary station in Australia. She’s gorgeous! Photo: John Wall

Mortuary Station is open this long weekend in Sydney (10/6/19)as part of the Transport Heritage Expo.

The old and the new. Photo: John Hall

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

More Aussie deaths this winter to boost Invocare’s profits

Australia’s largest funeral provider has today told shareholders that things are looking up in 2019. Yes, death numbers are on the rise!

Yay, the flu!

Yay, a cold winter!

In a performance update to the Australian stock exchange, Invocare, says “the soft market conditions had started to improve, with the number of deaths beginning to revert to the long-term trend”.

What’s the long-term trend? This chart taken from today’s presentation to shareholders shows it clearly. Look at the solid orange line. They were last year’s deaths. The doted line is the five year average which is what Invocare shareholders will be pleased to know is returning.

More deaths = more revenue. Yay!

Invocare (IVC) owns many, many, many funeral businesses, cemeteries and crematoria across Australia, Singapore and New Zealand. The best known funeral brands are owned by this huge company – Simplicity Funerals, White Lady, Guardian. Here’s a list but this is growing all the time. Here are the company’s most recent acquisitions. You’ll note many of these were small town, family businesses:

What does this tell us?

Invocare’s statement to the ASX and its presentation to its shareholders tells us there’s money in funerals. BIG MONEY. While Invocare’s profits were down last year because of fewer deaths (damn that warm winter!) and some business acquisitions and renovations, the company made more than $41 MILLION profit. These are the highlights provided to shareholders today:

Be prepared. Do your homework now.

Funeral directors have a very important job. They provide a great service to us when we’re at our most vulnerable, when we’re confused and when we’re grieving. No-one can deny the significance of their role.

But funerals are big business too. Do your homework, be prepared, shop around. Perhaps even visit your local funeral director and ask questions before you need their services. Get to know them. Get to know what services they provide and for what cost. Understand what services you need and don’t need. Demand transparency. For example, do you really need the funeral director to print the order of proceedings for $250? I’m pretty sure one of your family can whip it up on their laptop and print 50 copies at home for $30.

With a little knowledge and understanding, when the time does finally come, you and your loved ones will be prepared and the process of organising a funeral (and paying for it!) won’t be so confronting.

Tell your family what you want

Give permission for your family to buy a cheap coffin and spend the money they save on a holiday or lots of booze for the wake. Let them know you don’t want a big fuss. Or tell them that you do! It’s your funeral. Have it your way. The key is simply communication.

Books like The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan can help with this conversation. It’s a colourful and informative workbook that lets you write down what kind of a funeral you want, if you want to be cremated or buried, what music you’d like played, whether you want the church involved, and even what you’d like to wear at your own funeral. (Personally, I will come back and haunt anyone who buries me wearing heels!)

The book is an Australian publication and sells online for $18.95 delivered. More information are thebottomdrawerbook.com.au.

The Bottom Drawer Book author Lisa Herbert.

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

What a visit to my local mosque taught me about Muslim funeral rituals.

It wasn’t what I was expected when I arrived at my local mosque. Beside the entrance to the mosque was what looked like a mortuary. A regular visitor to funeral homes and mortuaries, it wasn’t a new sight for me. But what was a mortuary doing at a mosque?

The cleansing room at the Oxley Mosque.

During an open day at my local mosque yesterday (30 March), hundreds of visitors were shown all aspects of the mosque and had all their questions about Islam answered. Yes, we were even shown what I thought was a mortuary. It was described to me as “the cleansing room”. I’ve since learned it’s proper name is the Ghusl room.

When a Muslim dies, his or her own community is responsible for the funeral process. It is their duty. Cremation isn’t allowed in Islam. And time is of the essence as Muslims are buried as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24 hours.

The process involves three steps: washing and shrouding the body (Ghusl and Kaffan), the Funeral prayer (Janazah Salah), and the burial itself (Al Daffan).

Washing of the body takes place on a stainless steel table of sorts. Not all mosques have a ‘cleansing room’, but many do.

Just as the living cleanse themselves physically before entering a mosque to pray (washing their extremities, their face, their mouth), the cleansing ritual of the deceased (called Janaza) is an intrinsic part of Islamic tradition.

Ghusl procedure

Only people who are adult Muslims can wash the deceased. And it’s stipulated that they must be an honest and trustworthy person. The person doing the washing must be of the same gender as the deceased. For a child, either men or women can carry out the Ghusl.

The washing ritual has many components but I’ll just stick to the basics here.

The washer cleans the body with water and soap, starting with the head (hair, face and beard in men), then the upper right side of the body and then the left side. After that, the lower right side is washed before washing the lower left.

The hair of a deceased woman is washed and braided in three braids and placed behind her back.

The washing of the body is done at least three times. If needed, more washes are carried out in odd numbers eg. five, seven. The final wash uses camphor or perfumed water.

The body is then towel dried and the shrouding begins.

The Kaffan (shrouding)

The deceased is then wrapped in several sheets of material (three for males, five for females), most often cotton. Just like the washing process contains ritual, so does the process of shrouding. Each of the sheets has a special name and use.

Once the bodies have been wrapped, the sheets are then tied with pieces of cloth or rope. There’s one tied above the head, one under the feet and two after the body.

The Funeral Prayer

As a non-Muslim I’m not even going to pretend I know enough about Salatul Janazah to write about it. All I know is that the deceased is prayed for after the body has been washed and shrouded. No praying takes place during cleansing process itself.

The body or bodies are placed in front of the person leading the prayer.

It’s preferable that this is done outside the Mosque or the Musallah (prayer room). The prayer is said silently by the congregation and there are certain times of the day that the prayer should not be said (eg. from sunrise until the sun is fully risen).

Muslims aren’t buried in coffins

So why are there coffins in the Ghusl room?

In Australia, all bodies are required to enter cemetery grounds in a coffin of sorts. A body in a coffin is also easier to handle and transport than just a shrouded body. So the coffins I saw have been re-used countless times to take the deceased to a cemetery where the body is then removed from the casket for burial.

Burial.

This is where things get hands on. The body is put into the grave by the deceased’s male relatives.

According to Queensland’s Muslim Funeral Services the body should enter the grave from the direction of where the feet will be (ie. from the rear of the grave). And the body should rest on its right hand side (supported by sand, for example) so the deceased’s face will face towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia (technically it faces the Qiblah – the direction of the sacred shrine of the Ka’bah in Mecca). Once in the grave, the ties or ropes around the head and feet can be untied.

The body is then covered with wood or big stones so that soil will not be directly put onto the body when the grave is filled in.

In the photo below you’ll note the ladder and the aluminium grave boards that are placed around a freshly dug grave to provide a safe and secure foundation for graveside services. I took this photo in the new Muslim section in Brisbane’s Mt Gravatt Cemetery. The ladder is obviously used to get the men out of the 1.7 metre grave after they’ve laid their relative in the grave.

According to Islamic teachings, Muslim graves are not to be extravagant. It is permissible to put up a small headstone of sign on the grave to identify it.

While Christian graves often point east to west, Muslim graves run north to south to allow the deceased to face Qiblah – the direction of the Kaaba (the sacred building at Mecca).

Muslim graves running north to south in the foreground, Christian graves facing east in the background. Mt Gravatt cemetery, Brisbane.
One of two Muslim sections in the Mt Gravatt Cemetery in Brisbane.

A WORD OF THANKS

I’d like to thank those who welcomed me so enthusiastically to the Oxley Mosque yesterday and answered my questions. Two weeks ago, the day after the Christchurch shootings, I had laid flowers at this same mosque. Subsequently the mosque opened its doors to the community as a way of saying thank you for its support during such a terrible time, and to teach people about Islam.

Just like death, the more we learn about it, the more accepting of it we become.


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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Author and journalist Lisa Herbert wants to make death and dying less confronting for all.

Old Uralla Cemetery: more than just bushranger territory

There’s a bit of a celebrity in Old Uralla Cemetery in the New England region of NSW.

Resting there is Captain Thunderbolt, Australia’s longest roaming bushranger. Fred Ward and his horse were eventually shot by a off-duty policeman in 1876, putting an end to decades of robberies.

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Captain Thunderbolt’s grave is right near the entrance to Uralla cemetery.

While Thunderbolt’s grave is a reminder of Australia’s bushranging and criminal past, there’s other history on show at the cemetery.

Unusual iron headstones.

There are at least three iron headstones in this cemetery, all on children’s graves.

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While not unheard of, iron headstones aren’t often seen in pioneer cemeteries. My curiosity was sparked and my assumptions were confirmed after a quick history search of Uralla. There used to be a foundry in the small town. Not just one, two!

An iron foundry was established in the town in 1875 by Henry Goddard so it’s no surprise why there are these headstones in the cemetery. The locally poured castings would have been cheaper than the traditional stone headstones.

You’ll note there is a lamb cast in two of the three headstones. Its symbolism means innocence.

Henry Elbe died in 1886 aged 14 days. Cast in iron is on his headstone is “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of heaven”.

Footstones galore

Just as uncommon as iron headstones are the footstones on display in Old Uralla Cemetery. There are several examples of them at Uralla.

A headstone and footstone at Old Uralla Cemetery.

Footstones are exactly what they say they are – stones that are positioned at the foot of the grave, just like head stones sit at the head of the grave.

The headstone is the primary grave marker. The footstone usually includes the initials of the person in the grave. Occasionally it will include the year of death. Some think the footstone gives makes the grave look like a bed. Like many markers in Australia’s older cemeteries, some footstones have been removed simply to make the cemetery grounds easier to maintain (One thing less to have to mow around!). That’s why I was delighted to see about half a dozen footstones in Old Uralla Cemetery. It’s something you don’t see every day.

Very uncommon. A headstone and two footstones at Old Uralla Cemetery indicating there are two people buried here.

A grave mistake!

Here’s another thing you don’t see every day in a cemetery. A typo from 1884!

Oops.

The R was originally left out of Barnden. Harriet is buried beside her stockman husband George (died 1907), her son George Jnr (1909) and his wife Betsy (1916).

Note the olive wreath on Harriet’s headstone. While olive is said to symbolise peace, a wreath can represent a symbol of eternal life, with no beginning and no end. (For more cemetery symbolism read last week’s blog here.)

Hard times

Like all old cemeteries, there are some graves that remind us of the harsh times of the past. This headstone tells a very sad tale of parents who lost their three children over 11 years.

The Murray family grave.

Matilda Murray was pregnant with Chester when 2 year old Arthur died in 1886. She was late in her pregnancy with Colin when Chester then died, aged 10. And then just a few months later, Colin died, aged 3 1/2 months.

Sadly these sorts of headstones are common in Australia’s pioneering cemeteries. Times were very tough in the late 1800s.

Don’t fall for the cemetery celebrity trap.

While Thunderbolt the bushranger might get top billing at the cemetery, there’s so much more to see. His grave is right beside the cemetery’s entrance so it’s tempting to visit his grave and then leave. Old Uralla Cemetery has so much more to offer and offers a real insight into the New England’s pioneering history.

Thunderbolt’s grave is only metres to the right of this entrance but there’s so much more to see at Old Uralla Cemetery.

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist, author and cemetery wanderer.

Cemetery symbolism: what do the shapes, engravings, and symbols on headstones mean?

Branches, flowers, animals, urns, hands, letters, crosses and a myriad of symbols decorate graves across the world. But what are they and what do they mean?

Let’s look at some I’ve seen on my cemetery wanderings.

Angel dropping flowers – Menindee, NSW

The grave of a young boy and girl who drowned in Menindee in 1835.

In Menindee, a town on the Darling River in NSW, an angel drop flowers onto the grave of young siblings Patricia and Edward (Ted) Power. The 9 and 7-years-olds were taken to the river by their mother and governess to paddle but quickly got out of their depth and encountered a quick current and 18 inches of weeds. Their bodies were found almost six hours later. They were the only children of Mr and Mrs Pierce Power of Haythorpe Station.

The angel is a symbol of spirituality and it’s said the hand pointing downward symbolises sudden death or mortality. Perhaps the flowers are blessings being spread. Angels with wings symbolise the ascent of souls into heaven.

Obelisk – Bundarra, NSW

An obelisk in Bundarra cemetery, NSW.

Sadly there are eight children between the ages of 6 weeks and 10 years and 22 year old Laura Baker memorialised on this Anglican monument. The children were the sons and daughter of George and Mary Baker. The died over a 19 year period between 1868 and 1887. Originally seen at Egyptian temples, the obelisk is a common monument all over the world. When erected in cemeteries, they signify eternal life.

Broken chain, finger pointing down – Coolgardie WA

Robert Foweraker’s headstone (left) includes a hand pointing downwards and a broken chain, Coolgardie Cemetery, WA Goldfields.

Robert Foweraker died of typhoid fever aged 24 in 1896, a common cause of the death among gold prospectors at the time. The broken chain symbolises the death of a family member. The finger pointing down is said to represent mortality or sudden death and is the hand of God reaching down for the soul. The pointing hand and the chain are often used separately.

The Calvary Cross – Toowong Qld

The Calvary Cross – Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane.

The Calvary or Latin Cross is the plainest of the crosses you’ll see in a cemetery. You’ll notice there are three blocks on the base. These represent the climb Christ made to Calvary where he was crucified. The three steps are said to be a reminder of faith, hope and charity. Some say the also represent the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.

The Celtic Cross – Toowong, Qld

The Celtic Cross after sunset at Toowong cemtery, Brisbane.

Celtic crosses have their arms enclosed in a circle. They were most often used by those of Irish heritage. The circle (ring or nimbus) symbolises eternity. Many believe St Patrick devised the first Celtic Cross, combining a Christian cross and the symbol of the sun which was worshiped by pagans. There are two theories behind the inclusion of the sun. One is that it was used by St Patrick to encourage pagans to Christianity. The other is that cross envelopes the sun to show that Christ is superior to the pagan sun gods.

The Eastern Cross – Toowong, Qld

Several Eastern Crosses – Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane.

This cross is the symbol of the Eastern Orthodox religion. Orthodox crosses have three bars. is that They symbolise the cross Christ was crucified on.
The most popular theory about its meaning is that the top bar is the title board – the sign above Jesus’ head, the middle bar is the bar on which Christ’s hands were nailed, and the bottom, sloping bar is the footrest.

The Greek Cross – Menzies, WA

This headstone in the WA Goldfield’s town of Menzies depicts the Greek Cross and clasped hands.

There are two obvious symbols on this headstone. The cross’ arms are of equal length in what’s called a Greek Cross. It’s connected to eastern European cultures.

Clasped hands.

In the middle of this cross is the ‘clasped hands’ symbol. This can appear in a few forms. If you look at the cuffs, you’ll note the hand on the left has a frilled blouse cuff so that represent a woman. The right cuff is a male and the male is holding the woman’s hand. It represents a marriage or relationship and the person who died holds the hand of the other. The headstone’s inscription explains the relationship between the husband and wife.

The Fleuree Cross – Wilcannia, NSW

Several Fleuree crosses and two Calvary crosses at Wilcannia Cemetery, east of Broken Hill, NSW. (Note the cross with what looks like a dollar sign. See I.H.S below)

Also known as the Gothic cross, the Fleuree cross has three arms with floral or flared ends depicting three petals (the fleur-de-lis), said to resemble the French lily. The petals are said to represent the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity.

The Rock of Ages – Karrakatta, WA

The Rock of Ages, Karrakatta Cemetery, Perth.

This is based on the original drawing that accompanied a hymn called ‘Rock of Ages’ written by Anglican Reverend Augustus Toplady in 1763. A couple of variations include a woman hanging to an anchor or pillar.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

Ivy – Bundarra, NSW

Ivy bordering the headstone of Daniel and Mary Ann Baker, Bundarra Cemetery, NSW northern tablelands.

I had to look twice at the border of Daniel and Mary Ann Baker’s grave. Is this a grapevine or ivy? Grapes and vines are an obvious reference to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist or when wine is sipped during communion. I think this headstone however is bordered by ivy, symbolising undying affection and fidelity.

Doves and olive branch – Bundarra, NSW

A dove and olive branch on 1888 grave of 41yo Mary Darby at Bundarra on the NSW northern tablelands.

The dove and olive branch aren’t necessarily always seen together. Doves are a well known symbol of love and peace. It also symbolises purity, resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Olive branches are representative of peace and hope. It’s said a dove carried an olive branch to Noah’s Ark as a sign of hope and to show the water level was falling.

Clothed urn – Wallabadah, NSW

Anything draped indicates sorrow or mourning. Wallabadah Cemetery, NSW.

An urn usually represents the soul or mortality. The cloth draped over it symbolises mourning.

I.H.S – Laidley, NSW

These three letters from the Greek alphabet spell out the first half of ‘Jesus’.
Picture by Taniah McMillan. Laidley Cemetery, Queensland.

Letters from the Greek alphabet are not uncommon on headstones. Here Iota, Eta and Sigma spell out the first three letters for ‘Jesus’. In some cases, the letters are overlaid (see earlier photo of several crosses in Wilcannia).

Sea shells – Lombadina, WA

Graves in the remote Dampier Peninsula community of Lombadina are littered with shells.

Shells are often used to decorate the graves of Aboriginals and Islanders.
I took this photo at the cemetery in the remote Lombadina community, north of Broome. The local Bardi people are ‘salt water people’, people who have a great affinity for the sea. For thousands of years the ocean has been a source of food and spiritual significance for the Bardi people.

Shells also appear on non-indigenous graves, Gum Flat cemetery, NSW.

One of the popular theories about sea shells on graves originates in Greek mythology where Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was born from sea foam and then was carried to shore in a sea shell. Regarded by some as a source of life, the hard shell protects a soft, living being. This can be an analogy for someone who’s died: While a human body may be devoid of life, the soul continues to live.

“Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and fertility her counterpart, the Roman goddess Venus. The myths say she was born from sea foam and then reached the shores of the earth in a sea shell. The shell was regarded by pagans as a source of life. Though the outside of a shell is hard and inanimate, the inside is soft and alive which can be an analogy for a human who passes away. The body’s dead shell is only a covering for the soul that is alive within.”

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Author and journalist Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer and blogger.

Digital death: Facebook takes memorial accounts a step further if you die.

Facebook remains ahead of the pack when it comes to managing the social media accounts of those who have died.

With well over 30 million dead people still on Facebook (and predictions there will soon be more dead people on Facebook than those alive), Facebook has today added an extra layer to its memorial pages. I’ll get to that soon.

First, let’s go back to basics.

What happens to your Facebook page if you die?

When you die a family member or your executor can request your Facebook page be either deleted or memorialised. They will have to provide proof to Facebook that you have died, most likely with a death certificate.

Having your page memorialised means your friends can still post on your wall and the page can then become a place of mourning or remembrance. (But that’s only possible if your privacy settings allowed them to post on your wall in the first place.) Your page will look similar to what it always has, though the word ‘remembering’ will be displayed next to your name.

A memorialised page offers Facebook friends a place of remembrance.

No-one will be able to log into your memorialised account and, importantly, your memorial Facebook page won’t show up in the ‘people you may know’ section, nor will your friends get a reminder about your birthday.  

Legacy contacts: Giving a trusted friend a bit of control

Four years ago Facebook introduced what’s called Legacy Contacts. This is when you nominate a friend to manage parts of your account if you die. Don’t worry, they can’t access your messages in Facebook messenger and they can’t delete any unflattering photos of themselves that may be on your page.

Your Facebook Legacy Contact can pin a post on your page eg. your funeral details. They can also change your profile and cover photos and respond to any new friend requests.

How you nominate your Legacy Contact seems to differ depending on whether you’re on your desktop or using the App on your phone, but it’s not too hard to find.

On my desktop this morning I’ve clicked on ‘Settings’, then ‘General’, then ‘manage account’.

On my android phone, I’ve gone to ‘Settings and Privacy’, then’ Settings’ then ‘Personal Information’, and then ‘manage account’.

Legacy contacts are easy to set up. Picture: Facebook News

More information about Legacy Contacts HERE.

The latest: Tributes

Today Facebook has given your Facebook friends and your Legacy Contact a bit more power to add content to your memorialised Facebook page.

Users have started received notices about Facebook tributes.

Tributes is a space on memorialised profiles where your Facebook friends and family can post stories, commemorate your birthday, and share memories. Facebook has just begun rolling out this feature so you might not see it on all memorialised profiles yet.

Posts made after the date your page was memorialised are now included in the tributes section. The introduction of this tributes section seems to have come about in a bid to separate the timeline posts you made while you were alive and the posts that have since been added by your mates after you passed away.

Facebooks says, “We do our best to separate tribute posts from timeline posts based on the info we’re given”.

It also gives someone (your Legacy Contact) the ability to control what’s being said on your timeline – just in case cousin Jerry
gets really pissed one night and posts what he REALLY thinks about you and your family and the affair you had with his sister.

Your nominated Legacy Contact can change who can see and who can post tributes. They can also delete tribute posts or remove any tags of you that someone else has posted.

Decision time

Sure, you’re probably not going to die anytime soon, but it’s not going to hurt to get a little prepared. So, you have to decide what you want done with your Facebook page when you die.

Once you’ve decided TELL YOUR PARTNER OR A FAMILY MEMBER or you can write what you want in The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan, written by yours truly. It’s a colourful read with lots of practical information and room for you to write your funeral wishes and life’s reflections.

The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan allows you to pen your funeral wishes and life’s reflections.

So get to it. What do you want to happen to your Facebook page when you die?

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert is the author of funeral planning guide ‘The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan.”

Where are the graves? A quick guide to natural burials

Look at the photo below.

Can you see them?

The two graves?

Two grave mounds lie beneath eucalypts in Queensland’s only natural burial ground.

Alberton is a relatively new natural burial ground. There are no headstones or grave markers. A coffin isn’t necessary. And bodies are buried shallower than conventional graves.

Grave depth is important when it comes to returning a body to the earth. Natural burial favours the analogy of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

So how do you find your loved one’s grave?

GPS coordinates.

No, I’m not kidding

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The Alberton Natural Burial Ground is in bushland halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

I took these photos at the Alberton Cemetery, half way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, not far from Yatala (of Yatala Pies fame). The burial ground is surrounded by farmland, mainly sugar cane fields.

There are no true standalone natural burial grounds in Australia, but there are a handful attached to established cemeteries.  It’s a good start.

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The Alberton natural burial ground is part of the Alberton Cemetery which was established in the late 1800s. Several early graves belong to German migrants and there are several farmers of that German heritage still in the area, many growing sugar cane.

Conventional graves are at one end of the two hectare block, natural burials the other. Burials in the natural burial ground are dug to 1.2 metres. Graves in the cemetery are dug to 1.8 metres.

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The traditional Alberton cemetery is in the foreground. The trees in the background form part of the natural burial ground.

There’s a beautiful sculpture at the entrance to the burial grounds. Loved ones can choose to attach a small memorial plaque to it.

Can I plant a tree on the grave?

No. The council responsible, City of Gold Coast, is encouraging a natural bushland environment to grow on and around the graves. Random tree plantings will disrupt the natural ecosystem.

Is natural burial a cheaper option than a burial in a standard Gold Coast cemetery?

No. 

Currently a plot at the Alberton natural burial ground will set you back $4,282. 

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Hearses enter the burial ground via this gate. The trees you see are the natural burial ground. Farmland surrounds the cemetery.

The use of coffins and funeral directors.

Here’s the weird bit.  While you don’t have to buried in a coffin in the Alberton natural burial ground, in Queensland, you do have to be transported to the grave in a coffin. Go figure. 

Fortunately there are cheap cardboard capsules available that will do the job (usually used for no-frills cremations). You might have to ring around a few funeral directors to find one who’ll sell you one. 

As for the burial itself – instead of a coffin – you can bury your loved one in a shroud made of a natural fabric such as calico, cotton or hemp.

A burial shroud is laid out a Death Doula workshop in Brisbane.
A burial shroud is laid out a Death Doula workshop in Brisbane. They can be expensive – about $1200 – but there’s no reason you can’t make your own.

In Queensland, you don’t have to use a funeral director to bury your loved one, but some local councils sure make it hard if you don’t want to use one. You need to engage the services of a funeral director to bury your loved one in Brisbane City Council cemeteries. And on the Gold Coast there is no local law that says you need a funeral director to bury your loved one in a cemetery there BUT, according to the City of Gold Coast, “if someone considers undertaking a funeral, we will require the person conducting the funeral to provide a copy of their $20,000,000 public liability policy naming the City of the Gold Coast as an interested party on the policy”. 

You’ll also need other documentation such as a risk management plan and a safe work method statement. The City of Gold Coast says it “assesses other requirements when a request is received on a case by case basis”.

(It seems odd, does it? FYI, here’s a link to an earlier blog in which I explore the state of Queensland’s funeral industry. Warning: The industry and Qld’s regulations are a debacle.)

No chemicals

The theory of natural burial is to let nature take its course and return your loved one to the earth. Chemicals aren’t welcome in this process so embalming is out of the question. Chemicals used to preserve the body such as formaldehyde can be toxic and persist in the environment.  Many coffins are made with lacquers, glues and paints. They’re not welcome in a natural burial ground either. Only biodegradable coffins, shrouds and urns can be used.

Low maintenance

Modern cemeteries are often highly maintained, particularly lawn cemeteries, and require pesticides, fertilisers, high water use and mowing to make them look presentable to families.

Natural burial grounds don’t need that, other than a bit of weed control.

For more information about the Alberton natural burial ground go to the City of Gold Coast website

Are natural burials the next big thing?

Considering there’s only a handful of graves in the bushland at Alberton, the idea of a natural burial seems to be slow catching on. Maybe because people don’t know it’s an option? Maybe the location is too far from families? Perhaps Australians aren’t ready green funerals?

What do you think? Would you consider a natural burial?

 

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

Telling stories from the grave: Gold Coast teen’s memorial becomes a technological world first

Strolling through a pretty memorial park nestled between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, I stumbled across technology that will revolutionise how the stories of the dead are told and how the deceased are remembered.

Gold Coast teen Lucas Millott died suddenly from a heart condition aged 15. His memorial is at Eco Memorial Park in Stayplton, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

In between the headstones, plaques, photos, flowers and trinkets at Eco Memorial Park at Stapylton, there was a headstone that had a little white plastic-looking disk stuck to it. The disk is Bluetooth-enabled technology which enabled me to get to know Gold Coast teen Lucas Millott via an App I’d just downloaded on my phone. Sadly Lucas died in class last September.

The Memento is fitted with a Bluetooth beacon which connects to the modUrn App to reveal the story of the deceased. It provides a central place for photos, videos, voice recordings, music, documents – all sorts of things.

The little disk is called a Memento and it’s fitted with a Bluetooth beacon that relays information to the modUrn App (more about modUrn in a sec). Lucas’ parents and friends have uploaded photos, videos, documents and text on to the App. When someone like me comes within five metres of the memorial or grave, that information becomes accessible on my smartphone. But, as someone who’s not connected with Lucas or his family, I could only see a handful of the information that had been uploaded onto the App. Lucas’ family have the final say on who can see what. Just like social media, the information can be either public or private or a mix of both.

I took some screenshots of what I saw when I logged on to the App as I stood at the garden site of Lucas’ memorial:

Who was Lucas?

Sadly Lucas made the news when he died in class at Ormeau Woods State High School last September. The 15yo suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which can cause sudden cardiac death in one per cent of those with the disease.

Lucas liked technology and gadgets. Headphones sit on his memorial stone and his love of his Xbox is written on his memorial plaque. It makes sense that his grave is the first in the world to be using what’s called a Memento (developed by an Aussie company called modUrn).

Lucas would have been 16 a couple of weeks ago so his friends, family, classmates and his dog Leila attended a memorial day for him. Photos from that day have since been uploaded to the App.

Lucas’s mum Agneta Millott says it’s great that anyone who visits her son’s memorial will be able to see life events and photos of Lucas.

“I’m hoping that whoever goes there can scroll through the photos, enjoy great memories of Lucas and sit there with a smile on their face.

“Seeing new updated stories and new images from his friends and also messages when others are visiting Lucas’s memorial in the future is going to be great”, said Agneta. 

Who’s behind this technology?

Followers of this blog and my Facebook page know that I’m a cemetery wanderer who likes to give a voice to those who can no longer speak. Cemeteries can teach the living such valuable lessons about the past and this technology offers a very cool way of doing that. I’m in no way affiliated with this company but I am very excited by what I’ve seen.

As soon as I got home from the memorial park I rang the young creator of the Memento for a chat. Sonia Vachalec is a photographer by trade. (Just hours before I rang her she’d signed a deal for this technology to be distributed in three countries including the USA. SO COOL – a little Aussie company doing big things – the concept has been created, developed and manufactured here in Australia.)

Sonia’s dad died when she was in her 20s and her stepfather died five years ago. She had stacks of their photos, voice recordings and videos lying around. “I was hoarding so many things,” she admits.

Sonia wanted to collate all her memories in one spot “so there was a time capsule to capture the essence of the person that can be accessed at any time or any place”.

Urns have the technology too!

Sonia hasn’t just created the Memento, the little disk that sits on a grave or memorial. The same technology is included in a bunch of funky urns called modUrns. So now the cremated ashes (called cremains) of Granny Mary can sit in the lounge room and you can access all her memories, photos, videos, letter, documents, certificates, story tellings, family tree, whatever, via the App.

Yup, that’s an urn for cremated ashes. The world’s first Smart Urn! The Bluetooth technology sits in the top, powered by a small battery that will need changing every couple of years. When your phone is within five metres of the urn you can use the App on your phone to scroll through photos, videos, etc.

The modUrn is certainly not your traditional-looking urn. And it can’t hold all the ashes of Granny Mary. (They hold about a litre or 61 cubic inches but these days lots of people are starting to split the ashes of their loved ones anyway.)

Here’s a video explainer of what you can do with the modUrn technology. https://youtu.be/JGssGwnOK7E

Sonia has a six-year-old girl who’s too young to remember the times she spent with her grandfather who passed away when she was 2. But she now has a physical reference of her Pop in the shape of a modUrn that is filled with photos of her grandfather. It sits next to the TV in the lounge room.

“She picks it up and hugs it sometimes,” said Sonia.

Death in the modern era

When it comes to accepting death and talking about it, Australians are way behind the times. While other cultures have a very personalised and hands-on approach to death and funerals, Aussies don’t want a bar of it. So it’s great to see an Australian company that’s leading the way in offering people an easy way to remember their loved ones. And yes, that includes pets as well. There’s a pet range of modUrns as well!

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 (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

🍶 From butter to caskets: The inventor who safely lowered coffins into graves⚙️⚰️

A casket lowering device.

Not only did Albert Richardson invent the butter churn, he went on to invent the casket lowering device in 1894. His patent consisted of a series of pulleys and ropes which ensured uniformity when a coffin was being lowered into a grave. It’s something still used in cemeteries today.

Current models have sides that can easily be adjusted depending on the size of the coffin or casket, or the size of the grave itself. Thick nylon straps hold the coffin. Sometimes a roller is added to one end of the device to help the pall bearers guide the coffin onto those straps.

In the lower right hand corner of this photo, you’ll see a little handle. That’s the brake. Once the brake is released the weight of the casket slowly takes it down into the grave.

The little handle is the brake.

Once the casket is all the way down, the green straps are unhooked on one side and then pulled under the casket and out.

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

A taxi driver’s murder, executions and the missing graves: Darwin’s fascinating Fannie Bay gaol

It was a crime that angered locals. A popular taxi driver has been murdered, his body left in scrub on the outskirts of Darwin. 500 people attended his funeral.

42-year-old George Grantham had been working late and he rang his wife to tell her he’d be home for supper. He’d had a few wins on the Tennant Creek races earlier in the week so it’s estimated he was carrying between £500 and £600 the night of 17 April 1952.

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George Grantham’s grave is in Darwin’s Gardens Cemetery.

His murderers, young Czech immigrants Jerry Koci (20yo) and John Novotny (19yo), shot their victim in the head with a rifle they’d wrapped in a pair of jeans. Once they dragged his out of the green taxi they shot him again twice to make sure he was dead. Their plan was to go back to Europe to play music so they needed money and a car to get to Melbourne.

Police described the murder as “the most brutal in Territory history“.

Koci and Novotny were picked up police in Queensland and eventually made full confessions.  They were tried and sentenced death. Their execution date was kept secret because of the constant threat of locals lynching the pair.

The execution

The gallows were specifically constructed for the two men’s hanging in the gaol’s infirmary. Justice was delivered quickly back then. Construction of the gallows was underway just two months after their crime.

The pit was more than 4 m long, 2 m wide and nearly 4 m deep and required extensive excavation. The work was made more difficult because of the age of the infirmary building (built in 1887).

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The work of digging their graves was given to some Malay Pearl divers who had been imprisoned for, among other things, willfully damaging the Paspaley lugger (Pearling boat). The digging proved a difficult task because of the solid rock.

At 8 on the morning of 7th August 1952, less than four months after the murder of George Grantham, Jerry Koci and John Novotny were executed together at Fannie Bay Gaol, side by side. They’d been given 24 hours notice of their fate. Anecdotal evidence suggest that their bodies were buried away from the marked sites at the end of the infirmary building. Incredibly their final resting place within the gaol grounds isn’t known.

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The initials of the killers are displayed on the outside of the infirmary, just metres from the gallows inside, but the location of their graves is a mystery.

VISITING THE GAOL: If you’re in Darwin the Fannie Bay Goal is a great way to spend an hour or so. The Police Museum and Historical Society with the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory have done a great job documenting the gaol’s history.

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a funeral planning guide.

Discrimination in death: Why are there so few headstones in Derby?

Unidentified and unmarked graves are everywhere in Australia. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, many of the unmarked graves in cemeteries are those of Aborigines. Buried in a strange custom and a strange country, their relatives were unable to fill their traditional mortuary rights.

“… When people were buried in the ground in a strange place it caused much more upset then the death itself.

“It was the white person’s way. Old people used to be buried in a cave. It was strange … new culture. Strange to the old people. Our people …”

Just last week saw the burial of 70 sets of indigenous remains recovered from the crumbling pioneer cemetery at Fitzroy Crossing. The whites had long been removed to safer ground, but the blacks were left to wash into the mighty Fitzroy River as the rivers banks eroded away.

fitzroy
70 sets of Indigenous remains were laid to rest in an emotional ceremony in Fitzroy Crossing WA last week. Photo: Facebook ABC Kimberley

Northwest of Fitzroy Crossing is the town of Derby. Like so many Australian cemeteries, Derby Cemetery tells a story of segregation. There are some fantastic information boards at the cemetery that aim to preserve the area’s dark history. I’ve summed them up here:

DIVIDED BY RACE AND RELIGION

The area of the old Derby Cemetery nearest the road is generally called the Pioneer Cemetery, while the bush at the back is referred to as the Aboriginal or Old Native Cemetery. Under the WA Aborigines Act 1905, anybody coming within five chains (20 metres) of a group of two or more Aboriginals could be fined 200 pound or imprisoned or both. Some people think that this segregation is the reason Aboriginals were buried separately.

Aboriginal burials were not recorded. That’s why many Aboriginal people in Derby don’t know where their relatives were laid to rest.

After the ‘yes’ vote of the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal people were counted in the national census. Not surprisingly, more Aboriginal names began to appear in the burial register. Following the 1965 Equal Wages determination many station owners were unable or unwilling to pay equal wages to their Aboriginal workers. Up until this point, they’d been unpaid, working for just food, clothing and tobacco rations. Redundant workers sought shelter in towns like Derby, and the cemetery became more important to them, although graves continued to be unmarked.

It doesn’t look like a cemetery, does it? These Aboriginal graves at the back of the Derby Cemetery remain unidentified.

BURIALS – NO TIME TO WASTE

It’s hot in the Kimberley. A lack of mortuary refrigeration meant that burials usually happened on the same day as death. Digging a grave by hand was hard work in the hard soil. There was no on-site water supply. The oil drums that still lie in the Aboriginal cemetery were probably used to cart water to soften the ground.

Coffins were ordered from Perth and sent by steamship in sections and then assembled when they got to Derby. The Police Department held the coffins for Aboriginal burials, however Aboriginal people who died in the local ‘native hospital’ were buried in blankets.

WHERE ARE THE HEADSTONES?

The Derby Pioneer and Aboriginal Cemetery was in use for nearly 90 years, but the headstones represent only a handful of the people buried there. There are only 73 headstones but more than 500 burials recorded in the existing burial registers. There are many other graves whose names were not recorded. Most belong to Aboriginal people. A fantastic 2007 community project researched all this information and its appears on information boards at the cemetery itself. Its aim was ensure the area’s history was preserved and to make sure the Aboriginal people buried in Derby were properly commemorated. In consultation with the Aboriginal community including Nyikina Elders and Mowanjum Aboriginal community, they’ve done a wonderful job:

Project coordinator: Mandy Gadsdon.
Oral history collection: Colleen Hattersley
Historical Research: Colleen Hattersley, Kath Mills.

You’ll see clearly marked ‘white fella’ graves in Derby Cemetery, but no marked Indigenous graves.

The Derby Cemetery lacks defined graves and headstones.

 

Derby cemetery information board.
Burials were a white fella practice. The information boards at the Derby Cemetery offer a great insight into days gone by.

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.

 

Test cricketer lies in unidentified grave in WA’s Goldfields, Cricket NSW searching for descendants

The hunt is on for relatives of an Australian test cricketer who lies in an unidentified grave in Western Australia’s Goldfields.

John Cottam was the 49th Australian to don the baggy green. He was one of five players drafted into the test team in Sydney in 1886-87 to replace players involved in a pay dispute.

Cottam was out for 1 and 3 on debut and never played for Australia again.

He died 10 years later in Coolgardie, aged 29. It’s assumed he made his way to the Goldfields in search of fortune, but, like so many other prospectors in that era, he succumbed to typhoid fever in 1897.

John Cottam’s grave lies in plot 10 of the ‘General’ section of the Coolgardie Cemetery, 40km south west of Kalgoorlie, WA.

Kalgoorlie resident and keen cricket historian Clint Easton found Cottam’s lonely grave in the cemetery of once-prosperous mining town of Coolgardie. Clint was planning to self-fund the placement of a headstone to commemorate the cricketer and his achievements. Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia have since heard about Clint’s efforts and have now paid for a bronze plaque to be put on the grave. It will be unveiled on John Cottam’s birthdate, September 5.

Cricket NSW is now keen to find any living relatives of John Cottam.

Who was John Thomas Cottam?

Cricket NSW Honorary Librarian and Official Historian, Dr Colin Clowes said Cottam was 19 when he made his first-class debut for New South Wales against the touring English team in 1887.

“He did well enough – 29, second highest score, and 14 not out – to be chosen for the following test match after several players withdrew over a pay dispute,” said Dr Clowes.

“John toured New Zealand with the NSW team in 1890. He scored three half-centuries, a number equal to those scored by all the other players combined.

“John played no further first-class cricket and it is difficult to construct his career after that New Zealand tour. However after one Club match later that year The Referee wrote:

‘Cottam and Clarke showed splendid form and after recovering from his recent severe prostration, it would appear that the former has regained all his wonted brilliance as a batsman.

‘When in his best form we have not a better batsman in the colony than Cottam, whose style is well nigh faultless’.”

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John Cottam appears in ABC Guide to Australian Test Cricketers by Rick Smith (ABC Books, 1993)

Liked a drink

Dr Clowes said John Cottam appeared for Redfern in the initial season of Electoral Cricket in 1893-94 “with little success”.

“The reason for his loss of form is unclear but a drinking problem is a probable cause as a John Cottam is mentioned in newspapers in several alcohol-related incidents. One of these placed him in Fremantle in February 1896 where he was robbed of a gold watch while drunk.

“Sometime after this he went to the Goldfields,” said Dr Clowes.

Cricket NSW applauds Clint’s “amazing” efforts

In a letter to Clint Easton, Cricket NSW CEO Andrew Jones thanked him for his “amazing” research.
“A very sincere thank you for your efforts. You have shown exceptional diligence and love for the game and we appreciate it greatly,” wrote Mr Jones.

Kalgoorlie mine worker and avid sports fan Clint Easton. Photograph: ABC Goldfields

Mr Easton has been delving into John Cottam’s family tree. Speaking on ABC radio, he said there’s not much to go on.
“I found he was the eldest son of Thomas Cottam. There are two young chaps called Cottam in cricket history so hopefully they are related to him.”

If you can help locate any relatives of John Cottam you can get in touch with NSW Cricket via library@cricketnsw.com.au or 02 9029 2305.

Cricket NSW recently placed an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph (via Bruce Cain)

Coolgardie, the original site of WA’s goldrush

While the current population is under 1,000, during the goldrush Coolgardie was WA’s third largest town, with a bustling street filled with grand hotels and even a stock exchange with 25 stock brokers! Coolgardie has a fascinating and large cemetery, telling the stories and struggles of the region’s mining pioneers and their families. There’s even an assassination tale of an Afhani cameleer who was shot in the back as he prayed.

All Black in Coolgardie Cemetery

John Cottam is not the only national sportsman buried in the cemetery there. One of the first All Blacks lies in a grave only marked by a number. Kalgoorlie historian Moya Sharp is working to have a headstone or plaque erected on his grave. George Maber died of Typhoid aged 25 in 1894, three months after making his debut for New Zealand. There’s more information about George Maber via Moya’s fantastic Outback Family History blog. On ABC radio, Clint Easton said he was hoping to work with Moya to have George Maber’s achievements and Coolgardie resting place recognised too.

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.

Lost remains of Wolston Park Mental Asylum patients buried in trenches.

Small boxes buried at Goodna Cemetery contained exhumed hospital patients, according to former hospital worker.

A retired carpenter and hospital worker holds an important piece of the puzzle in the hunt for the remains of more than 2,000 patients of the notorious Wolston Park Mental Asylum in Brisbane’s west.

While a teenage apprentice, Mr Ferg Brindley made hundreds of small wooden boxes that, he says, were used to house the remains of patients who were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery in the late 1940s.

About 50,000 people were hospitalised in the asylum in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s.  In the late 1940s, bodies in the asylum’s third cemetery were exhumed over a four-year period to make way for the development of the new Repatriation Pavilion for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.

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”.In response to my research efforts to find those remains, and a subsequent blog, I’ve been in touch with Mr Ferg Brindley, who worked at the Asylum from 1948 to 1953 as a teenager.

Making boxes to fit shin bones

Now in his late 80s and living in the western Queensland town of Roma, Mr Brindley remembers the cemetery being exhumed by a hospital employee and patients. (Mr Brindley’s recollection is corroborated by Hansard’s Parliamentary record-keeping. On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Queensland 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”.)

As an apprentice carpenter, it was his job to make plywood boxes for the storage of each of the grave’s remains. Mr Brindley made “hundreds of plywood boxes, stained black, for the remains”.

“They were designed to enclose bones, so the size was about 2 feet long (to fit a shin bone), by 10 inches by 10 inches. That’s only an educated guess. They were rectangular boxes, not coffin-shaped.”

Mr Brindley can’t recall how many boxes were made but says before he started work at the asylum, there were others before him making the boxes.

“The work was quite a production line.”

He said it was his job to make the framework while an inmate put the plywood on, and the painter did the staining.

Burying remains in trenches

Mr Brindley says the rectangular boxes were buried in trenches in the nearby Goodna Cemetery, about five kilometres away.

“They were re-sited in the Goodna cemetery to the left of the shelter shed.”

“Long trenches were dug by an employee and inmates. I don’t know if any identification was placed on the boxes.”

Goodna Cemetery

The Goodna Cemetery, west of Brisbane, is one of the oldest in Queensland and is one of the few that remains community run, with a Trust overseeing its operation.

The Trust secretary is Ipswich Councillor Paul Tully who wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s recollections.

However Cnr Tully says another former hospital worker (who became an alderman of the Ipswich City Council in later years) gave him details about the exhumations which took place in the late 1940s.

“Those who had been buried for fewer than 30 years were exhumed and re-buried at the Goodna Cemetery with a full and proper burial, with a Minister of Religion and two witnesses in attendance. These are all recorded in the official burial register.

“They were individually buried along with their original headstones. The burial area is towards the middle of the cemetery,” wrote Cnr Tully in response to my query about the possibility that hundreds of small rectangular boxes were buried in trenches at the Goodna Cemetery.

Playing with a skull

Ferg Brindley’s father was a warden at the hospital. Growing up in the nearby suburb of Goodna, Ferg Brindley remembers swimming in Woogaroo Creek, near the site of the Asylum’s original cemetery which was later abandoned because its proximity to the creek and river and subsequent regular flooding.

“The early cemetery was parallel to the creek to the left of the bridge (now gone),” recalls Mr Brindley.

“This is where we swam as kids. Some kids had a skull.

“Work on removing this cemetery was done in the early 1940s. The area became a vegetable garden. I have no way of knowing, but I believe the bodies are still there, and just the head stones were removed.”

The Asylum’s first cemetery is now the site of the Wolston Park Golf Club, a very scenic and peaceful space that is home to hundreds of kangaroos.

Golf
The Wolston Park Golf Club is now a popular spot for kangaroos and golfers alike.

Commenting on my earlier blog (Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients), ‘David’ tells me “the golf club has had numerous sonar sessions through the place to make sure there are no remains left along the bank and indeed most of the course”.

“The course and its surroundings have been checked off by the historical society as well, although in recent times like the 2011 floods (and even the 74 floods) when the clubhouse itself went 6 feet under, it’s sad to think what could have been displaced from the site.”

There were at least three cemeteries at the hospital over the years; two of which were moved to make room for hospital wards. The exhumations of the 1940s weren’t the only ones in the Mental Hospital’s history.

An article in the Brisbane Courier of June 22 1911 says “following upon the arrangement for the erection of the two new wards it has been found necessary to remove the old asylum cemetery, and the remains of 198 patients have been taken up, enclosed in new coffins, and transferred to a new cemetery”.

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery which was closed in 1945 to improve the outlook from the new Repatriation Hospital which was opened on 26 Jan 1948.

So the mystery remains…

WHAT WE KNOW:

Records show there were 200 patient re-interments at Goodna Cemetery. The records show and Cnr Tully says those 200 received full burials.

Newpaper reports and Parliamentary records claim thousands of hospital patients were exhumed between 1945 and 1948.

A former worker says he made hundreds of small boxes for the exhumed remains which were then buried in trenches at Goodna Cemetery.

The Goodna Cemetery Trust wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s claims.

So … where are the remains? Your guess is as good as mine. I’d like to know your thoughts.

Cement grave markers from Brisbane Mental Hospital are part of a memorial at Goodna Cemetery.
Numbers are etched into markers which stand in rows at Goodna Cemetery. The markers 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.

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.

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. Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead, giving them an important voice from the grave.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

Who should you call when someone dies at home? Funeral director Rick White discusses the practicalities of death.

Rick White is a former funeral director from Tamworth in north west New South Wales. He retired after decades in the funeral business but still dabbles in funerals occasionally, lending a shoulder and his expertise to family and long-time friends when needed.

I sat down with him and asked him basic questions about what we should do when someone dies.

Who should we call when someone dies in the home?

Call the police or your local doctor.

“You can be with your loved one for a few hours if that’s what you’d like. If you’re not sure about what to do, the police are very good and very understanding and they’ll ring the doctor and the funeral director.

“The first thing we need, as a funeral director, is a death certificate.” If the deceased is known to the local doctor and the doctor knows there’s a illness that has likely caused death then it’s likely they’ll supply the death certificate.

However, if the cause of death isn’t obvious, the deceased will go to the coroner.

What does the coroner do?

The coroner identifies the cause of death and if often done at the mortuary at the local hospital.

(Ed: The coroner doesn’t necessarily require a post mortem. Here’s some info from NSW but it’s similar around the country.)  

If I decide I need a funeral director, how do I find one that’s right for my family?

“Shop around and get a quote over the phone, get an idea of and a feeling for who you’re dealing with,” says Rick

“Or ask someone who may have had a funeral recently and get a recommendation.”

(Ed: I wrote a blog last year that looks further into the cost of funerals and whether you actually need to use a funeral director. Start reading from Section 3 here.)

Are funeral directors open to price negotiations?

“Let them know if you have money problems or you can’t afford anything over the top. They’re very understanding. One of the biggest costs is the coffin. The next biggest cost is the funeral director’s service fee.

“Included in that fee is the hearse, looking after the deceased person, certificate costs such as death certificates and cremation certificates if they’re going to be cremated.”

Certifying a cremation: two certificates needed

“You need a doctor to say that the person is not still alive and you need one from a general practitioner or the coroner (giving permission to cremate). And you need the closest person to the deceased or spouse to sign that (permit to cremate).” The reason for needing two certificates is because there’s obviously no going back.

(Here some more information about that. These are WA’s approvals but the paperwork is pretty similar around the country.)

Have you got any questions?

You’re welcome to leave any comments and questions on this blog and if I can’t answer them I’ll get Rick to. The answers will appear in another blog in a few weeks.

 

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 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.

Goldrush murder: Assassinated Afghani cameleer rests in outback WA cemetery.

If dehydration, typhoid, a mine collapse and alcoholism didn’t get you, an assassin might.

In the back corner of  a large cemetery in the goldrush town of Coolgardie, about six hours from Perth, sits the grave of a man who was shot in the back as he prayed.

The headstone reads: “Tagh Mahomed who died by the hand of an assassin at Coolgardie Jan 10 1896 aged 37 years. His end was peace.”

Tagh Mahomet was an Afghani cameleer and businessman. Camels and their handlers played a vital role in the outback at the time, carrying supplies to sheep and cattle stations and goldfields. Tagh and his brother Faiz were local merchants and were prominent in civic affairs. They were the state’s largest camel owners.

Tagh Mahomet
Tagh Mahomet, 1890s. Image: State Library of Western Australia 186P

Tagh was shot by a fellow Muslim in a mosque on Mount Eva, on the eastern outskirts of Coolgardie. There are differing accounts of why Goulam Mahomet killed Tagh. Some believe the death was caused by ongoing feuding factions back home in Afghanistan. Goulam Mahomet claimed that Tagh has threatened him. Goulam Mahomet was hanged for the murder of Tagh at Fremantle Prison.

The Muslim section of Coolgardie Cemetery is in the back left hand corner.

Coolgardie Cemetery is a large goldfields cemetery. While the current population is under 1,000, during the goldrush, Coolgardie was WA’s third largest town, with a bustling street filled with grand hotels and even a stock exchange with 25 stock brokers!

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.

Searching for gold, laid to rest under tin: a prospecting history captured in WA’s remote Menzies cemetery.

Mining accidents, typhoid, suicide, exhaustion, burns, starvation, childbirth, diarrhea, and dysentery are just some of the causes of death of those who moved to the Goldfields of Western Australia for a new, wealthier life.

A TYPHOID HOTSPOT

Menzies is a small town 130km north of Kalgoorlie and 730km north east of Perth. Poor sanitation led to a deadly outbreak of Typhoid in 1895. Twenty-eight of the 42 known burials at the Menzies cemetery in 1896 were typhoid victims.

Between 1895 and 1905, at least 105 people buried at Menzies are thought to have died from typhoid. Most victims were men aged 20-40 years old.

Men aged between 20 and 40 were the most prominent typhoid victims at Menzies cemetery.

Twenty-eight of the 42 known burials at the Menzies cemetery in 1896 were typhoid victims.

RARE TIN and IRON HEADSTONES

In all my cemetery travels I’ve never seen so many tin and iron headstones as I have at the Menzies cemetery. Trinkets, photos and crosses would be been housed behind glass in the headstones which were a much cheaper option than the traditional headstones. Many were home-made from the only materials available nearby, including kerosene tins.

Tin headstones housed trinkets, crosses and wreaths. There are no graves with the glass still entirely in tact in Menzies cemetery.

The tin and the wreaths have survived the last 90 years; the glass not so much.

There are only a few iron memorial headstones at Menzies cemetery. This is something I’ve only seen in the WA Goldfields. If you know of any others I’d be keen to hear from you. Here, this home-made memorial looks like it was made using a bed frame and a kerosene can.

Wreaths would have been housed behind the glass of this tin headstone at Menzies cemetery.

John Cunningham’s “sorrowing wife” would have erected a tin headstone before a marble one was made, often years later.

UNMARKED GRAVES APLENTY

Not uncommon in Australia’s bush cemeteries is the use of rocks around unmarked graves, identified only by iron plot markers.

Rocks and an old enamel pannikin mug mark grave 20 at Menzies.

An unmarked grave surrounded by iron at Menzies cemetery.

According to the information sign at the cemetery, the mortality rate from typhoid fever in the Goldfields was many times higher than any other place in Australia, while alcohol abuse, poor diet, and dust from mining operations contributed to lots of other illnesses. Looking for gold in one of the country’s harshest and driest regions was incredibly tough. Sadly there was also a high suicide rate.

menzies suicide carving
Prospector Peter Bremner suicided in 1902.  The signage and information for visitors to the Menzies cemetery embraces a journey back in time.

Rich in history and well-researched, the red dirt cemeteries of the Goldfields are nestled in woodlands and are part of a fantastic tourist trail in the region called the Golden Quest Discovery Trail. The once bustling mining towns are long gone, but their cemeteries remain, giving travellers like myself an insight into what it was like to live and die in the search for gold.

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.

 

 

 

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.

UPDATE: See a subsequent later blog which includes additional information about the whereabouts of hundreds of remains. A former worker claims they were buried in trenches in the Goodna Cemetery. CLICK HERE. 

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. She enjoys telling the stories of the dead, giving them a voice beyond the grave.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

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.

 

 

Nancy’s advice and tale of loss: a first-hand account of being left behind to sort ‘things’ out without a will.

As author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, I am privileged to have people share their real, extraordinary, and sometimes confronting and sad stories with me. With permission, here is Nancy’s:

“Nothing says love like making sure your end is as happy as your beginning,” says Nancy Walker.

In 2013 my beloved husband, Bob, succumbed to oesophageal cancer. While this did not particularly surprise either of us (he had smoked since he was 17 years of age and we received the diagnosis when he was age 72 years), it was the swiftness of his death after diagnosis – one month.

Really, one month is not nearly enough time to get one’s head wrapped around the idea of dying and certainly not the time to be making any decisions.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Each year, as I updated my Will, I would mention to Bob that it might be a good idea for him to get a Will in order.

And each year, dear Bob would say, “I don’t like to think about that, it makes me sad.”

“Do you want to know what sad is,  dear Bob?”

I will tell you what sad is. It is dying intestate (i.e. without a Will), with property in three states, four daughters from a previous marriage who want lots of money, numerous cars (some in his name, some in both our names), and two inconsolable dogs – a Corgi and a Cocker Spaniel, both of whom can look sad even at the best of times and this was nowhere close to a good time.

It is leaving your wife, or your children, or any relative, holding the bag when you die without any directives, without a Will, and without an idea of what you wanted to have happen in the event you go ahead. That, dear man, is sad.

“My life was literally a bad country western song in the making.”

Fortunately Bob had said all along that he wanted to be cremated. That was literally the only thing that went right.  Relatives called asking to come clean out Bob’s things (the day after he died!) and reporting that Bob wanted them to have this or that. A list from Bob would have been ever so handy.

Shortly after Bob died, the Corgi passed away from “broken heart syndrome”, to be followed in short order by the Cocker Spaniel, who in all fairness was 16 years old and had embraced dementia with open paws. My life was literally a bad country western song in the making.

Bob’s estate

It took nine months and more paper than I could ever conceive of to put Bob’s estate to rest, as it were. The four daughters from the previous marriage were shocked not to receive the big payout they had all envisioned, properties were sold, cars re-titled (for enormous sums of money and paper), and boxes of memories shipped off to relatives. By the time it was all done, I was exhausted and everyone in the engineering firm where I work was convinced or at least entertaining the idea that they should have a Will from my mournful whining each day.

Nancy and her second husband Matt. Her first husband Bob died in 2013.
Nancy Walker hopes her story can encourage others to prepare a will and communicate their wishes to their family. Her first husband Bob died aged 72 in 2013, leaving behind the difficult job of sorting his estate. Nancy has since remarried to Matt (pictured), a farmer in Oregon. It’s great to see their smiles.

Married again, will preparation, and who gets the stuffed fish?

Fast forward a bit and I have remarried a non-smoking surveyor who farms at night. Whereas Bob could no more talk about death (because that that awful “Will” thing would come up again), Matt can. We have new Wills being drafted and what’s more we have discussed what is in the Wills with his grown children, because no one needs the surprise of being named Executor when dear old Dad expires. And there are lists, attached to the Wills! Yes, that awful stuffed fish with the pine cone in its mouth really is going to the eldest grandchild to remember their dearly departed Gran, and no give backs.

Mum wrote her own obituary

My mother passed away on March 23rd of this year after 93 glorious years. I knew before she went that I would be the Executor and what she wanted to see happen. We wrote her obituary together. The only thing she did not plan for was a remembrance card I sent to her friends and family with a shortened obit and some lovely pictures of mother. She did not want a church service or memorial since she didn’t believe in God and so that ‘closure’ moment was lacking. But for those who remain, the card is a lovely way to keep her close.

She had her death organized down to the last period. Bless her.

Nancy’s plea: “Never assume your loved ones know what you want to happen.”

The gist of this is — if you can be organised enough to get your materials together to do your taxes, you should at least do the same for your death. And especially if it will take a Will to ensure your wishes are carried out. The stress of leaving your grieving partner or child the full-time job of moving your estate through the legal system is a horrible gift. And you certainly do not want to be remembered as that derelict relative who didn’t leave a Will or instructions and the government took half the assets and left the rest to any relatives they could find.

With that in mind, I have purchased six of your books to send to my brothers, my niece, my nephew, as well as my step-son and step-daughter. Nothing says love like making sure your end is as happy as your beginning.

Nancy Walker.

Nancy and her second husband Matt live on a 30 acre cropping farm in Oregon with 15 cows, 4 cats, 3 dogs and the chickens from across the road. She wrote to me and shared her story after reading an earlier blog of mine (the one about me showing up at the wrong funeral). I am grateful to Nancy for allowing me to share her story in the hope it may help others.

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. (The book can be posted overseas for an additional $8 – contact me for details) 

Fowl play suspected as chickens ruffle feathers in New Zealand cemetery.

Two chickens that have begun roosting in the local cemetery have residents in the small South Island town of Tuatapere wondering why the chickens crossed the Clifden Highway.

Greeting visitors at the gate of cemetery, the friendly pair then happily wander over graves and around the well-manicured grounds, staying close to their guests.

Two chickens arrived at the Tuatapere Cemetery three weeks ago and have been greeting visitors since.

Local police officer Senior Constable Damon Templeton said the town’s newest feathered tourist attractions arrived “about three weeks ago”.

He said he didn’t know where they came from but it’s not the first time chickens have made themselves at home in the community-run cemetery.

“A few years ago there used to be a couple of hens and a rooster. The hens disappeared but the rooster stayed for a while, but he started getting a bit aggressive and then he disappeared.”

Fowl play is suspected.

Like most others in the region, the Tuatapere Cemetery is several kilometres from the nearby town and sits in a pretty, rural setting. It has a paddock with cows on one side, and native vegetation on the other.

Member of the Tuatapere Cemetery Trust, part-time caretaker and “deputy grave-digger”, Maurice Green suspects the same person who released the hens and rooster at the cemetery several years ago may be responsible for the latest feathered residents.

“I’ve got an idea who put them there, but I’ll have to see him and ask him quietly,” he chuckled.

Mr Green remembers the cemetery’s rooster fondly, despite the handsome bird’s fowl deeds.

“He was there for a few years. He was a real character and a cheeky bugger.

“He’d look at us as if to say ‘what do you think you’re doing?’

“But he got a bit aggressive towards some people, especially children.”

He said the rooster enjoyed the vegetable tributes that were occasionally left on graves.

“The odd grave has veges instead of flower tributes and the rooster loved that,” he laughed.

Mr Green is excited to see poultry back among the graves.

“I had a wee grin to myself when I saw them.”

Tuatapere Cemetery is one of the country’s few cemeteries owned and administered by a community trust.

The Trust, comprising of a dedicated team of local volunteers, owns the land and leases some adjoining land to the farmer next door.

“So we’ve got room to expand,” explains Mr Green.

Isabelle and Maurice Green, Tuatapere Cemetery Trust
Isabelle and Maurice Green are dedicated volunteers who donate their time to the upkeep of the Tuatapere Cemetery, 80km west of Invercargill.

It’s hoped the graveyard’s newest (and only) living residents make Tuatapere Cemetery their final nesting place.

“I was so pleased the other day when I saw two more back there. And they’re nice chickens – beautiful colours”.

 

Lisa Herbert regularly wanders through cemeteries. She’s the author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an amusing and informative workbook for those who want to have a say in their funeral. 

“Your ideas, funeral plans, and your life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed.” 

The second edition is currently available in Australia for $18.95 delivered. Purchase here. It can also be sent to New Zealand for NZ$23. 

Five hundred bodies lost: The troubling tale of gold fortunes at Arrowtown

They wanted to be buried near their families, yet 500 Chinese miners never made it home after years of hardship in New Zealand.

Now a busy, pretty tourist centre and known for its appearance in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the gorgeous little South Island town of Arrowtown became a bustling gold mining town in the late-1800s.  Chinese miners joined European miners at the invitation of the New Zealand Government, but they found it tough-going when the Europeans opposed their presence because of their success. The Chinese work ethic and mining knowledge meant they found gold in areas others didn’t.  That was seen as a threat to the other miners.

An information sign in the tourist precinct reads, “Ageing Chinese depended primarily on each other for support. Officially, they remained unwelcome immigrants and were specifically excluded from New Zealand’s Old Age Pension Act in 1898.”

Alienated they stuck together, forming their own little community. The remnants of the Chinese village along the Arrow River remain in Arrowtown. Now restored, they’re a popular tourist attraction.

A restored Chinese village greets tourists at Arrowrtown these days.
A restored Chinese village, including Chinese miner huts like this one, greets tourists at Arrowtown these days.

Yet surprisingly, a walk through the Arrowtown cemetery reveals a lack of Chinese graves. Gold rush towns in Australia contain many Chinese graves, but not in New Zealand’s Arrowtown. Many Chinese were buried in the local cemetery but they were later exhumed.

The Arrowfield cemetery has few Chinese graves
The Arrowfield cemetery has few Chinese graves, despite the town being home to many Chinese miners in the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

Here’s why…

“Old miners longed to be buried in ancestral cemeteries, where their spirits would find rest.

“Fund-raising among wealthier Chinese enabled hundreds of elderly men to make the final journey home and provided for the dead to be exhumed.

“The last ship carrying nearly 500 bodies back to China sank off Hokianga in 1902.”

A tragic end to a tough life. 

Arrowtown remained a mining village until 1928. 

Arrowtown is now a bustling tourist precinct.
Arrowtown, near Queenstown, is now a bustling tourist precinct and proud of its Chinese mining heritage.

Lisa Herbert regularly wanders through cemeteries. She’s the author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an amusing and informative workbook for those who want to have a say in their funeral.  “Your ideas, funeral plans, and your life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed.” The second edition is currently available in Australia for $18.95 delivered. Purchase here

 

Cemetery tales: typhoid and death by beer barrel.

A visit to New Zealand’s Cromwell cemetery

There are few cemeteries that don’t have a typhoid story to tell.

Typhoid fever is a contagious bacterial infection that can be controlled by vaccination, but it was a different story in years gone by.  (Tens of millions of people have died from this disease and thousands continue to do so, particularly in developing countries).

Still holidaying, I came across this grave in the South Island town of Cromwell on my usual cemetery wanderings. Four Scally children died within one month from typhoid in 1874. They were 7, 6, 5 and 3. One year later, their mother Ellen and sibling Margaret (almost a year old) died from the same disease. Ellen was 29.

The Scally family's gravestone tells a sad story. Five children and their mother dying of typhoid.
Four Scally children died of typhoid in one month. Their mother and sibling died of typhoid a year later.

There are other historic graves telling a similar story of pioneering hardship in the cemetery. Below is a photo of the Goodger family grave.

George drowned, aged 53. His son Henry (14) and daughter Mary Anne (12) died from typhoid on the same day three years earlier. (There are no records of the cause of death for the other family members but because his wife and infant daughter died within a month of one another one can assume the deaths could be attributed to disease or childbirth complications.)

The Goodger family grave in the Crowell cemetery, New Zealand
The Goodger family grave. Patriarch George drowned, aged 53. His son Henry (14) and daughter Mary Anne (12) died from typhoid three years earlier, on the same day. 

Cromwell’s first cemetery was founded in 1865 and, like many cemeteries, contains unmarked pauper graves.

Many Australian cemeteries in rural and regional areas have at least one of these graves pictured below, referring to a horse accident. It seems New Zealand is the same.

John Garrett, killed in a horse accident, aged 32. He lies in the Cromwell cemetery in New Zealand's South Island
John Garrett was killed aged 32 by “the fall of his horse”.

However one cause of death I have never seen before on my cemetery wanderings lies on the gravestone of 26 year old Joel Chapman. He was killed by a landslip in 1875. The cemetery records show there are several men buried in this cemetery that were killed by “fall of earth”. Landslips and rock falls remain a daily event in New Zealand. These days though authorities are better at monitoring and predicting them.

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Joel Chapman was killed in a landslip in 1875. He is one of several men killed “by a fall of earth” to be laid to rest in the Cromwell cemetery.

And so the Litany Street cemetery in the small South Island town of Cromwell, like all other historic cemeteries, provides an insight into the difficulties of pioneering life.

Other causes of death of people in this cemetery, as listed by some great work by the Dunedin Group of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists and members of the Cromwell Family History Society, include: appendicitis, teething, whooping cough, childbirth (there are many of these), dropsy, pleurisy, cancer (just one), pneumonia, congestion of the lungs, dysentery, exposure, bronchitis, diarrhoea, tuberculosis (just one) and “cardiac”.

And then there’s poor ol’ George Hayes who died on 24 Dec 1874. His cause of death is listed as: “Accident (barrel of beer fell on him)”.

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The Litany St cemetery, Cromwell’s first cemetery.

Lisa Herbert regularly wanders through cemeteries. She’s the author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an amusing and informative workbook for those who want to have a say in their funeral.  Your ideas, funeral plans, and your life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed.

The second edition is currently available in Australia for $18.95 delivered. Purchase here.

Dissenters to the right, Roman Catholics to the left – segregation in death

The historic cemeteries of Akaroa on New Zealand's South Island The historic cemeteries of Akaroa on New Zealand’s South Island. Catholics to the left, Dissenters to the right.

The sign says Roman Catholics to the left, dissenters to the right.

While religious segregation in life receives much attention in the public domain these days, segregation in death doesn’t.

I stumbled across this sign while walking through the historic cemeteries of the small New Zealand town of Akaroa.

So, what is a dissenter?

In the context of this photo, the dissenters of Akaroa were mainly Presbyterians.

While bubbling away for centuries, dissenters began to emerge more prominently in the 17th and 18th centuries. They questioned the role of their religion in light of new findings, that is scientific findings by people such as Isaac Newton.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states: “In a religious context, those who separate themselves from the communion of the Established Church.” People began separating themselves from churches including the Roman Catholics and the Church of England.

“Many of the dissenters in English religious history survive in present-day Christian denominations. Many of these are now known as “Free Churches.” Some of these are Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists. ”

The Akaroa Dissenters Cemetery

It was opened in 1873. A row of trees and a dilapidated post and wire fence separate the dissenters from the Roman Catholics. They, and the nearby Anglican cemetery, are in a great little spot with great views and dense forest. There’s a network of walking tracks that connects the cemeteries to the Garden of Tane, a stunning scenic reserve.

The Akaroa Dissenters Cemetery is nestled in pretty native and exotic vegetation
The Akaroa Dissenters Cemetery is nestled in pretty native and exotic vegetation, separate to the nearby Catholic and Anglican cemeteries.

 

Graves are laid across the steep slope in an east west orientation and, as usual, reveal tough times for pioneering families.

 

Many young women died in their early 20s
Catherine Bruce died aged 23, her sister Jeannie died aged 21 six years later. They and their father are buried in Akaroa Dissenters Cemetery.

The Roman Catholic Cemetery at Akaroa
The Akaroa Catholic Cemetery sits on the hill overlooking the harbour at Akaroa, on New Zealand’s South Island. The Dissenters Cemetery sits below it. Most graves run across the slope in an east west orientation.

 

Further reading: This note on Protestant Dissent and the Dissenters in English history is drawn in large part from the first chapter of a M.A. thesis by Steven Kreis, “An Uneasy Affair: William Godwin and English Radicalism, 1793-1797,” (University of Missouri-Columbia, 1984), pp.7-14.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.

 

 

A burial shroud is laid out a Death Doula workshop in Brisbane.

Listening to the dying and giving them a voice too: The emerging role of the Death Doula

There are two types of people in this world: Those who accept they and the people they love will die, and those who don’t.

It’s the latter who don’t want to talk about the inevitable and who label any such discussion as morbid.

But, like it or not, death happens, sometimes too soon, sometimes not soon enough.

Selling my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan at the local market soon after its release, I had a woman look me in the eye, scowl and matter-of-factly tell me it was a “stupid idea”. And off she went.

I felt sad that anyone in her life who wanted to have a discussion about death or their terminal illness or their funeral plans wouldn’t be able to. They would be abruptly and rudely shot down in flames.

Thankfully there are people very open to the idea of talking about death and dying. These are the death doulas.

I recently attended a death doula workshop where, for two days, 15 like-minded people learned about the role of a death doula, death mid-wife or end-of-life consultant.

Some were planning to become death doulas while others, like me, just wanted to learn about the emerging service being offered to the dying and/or their families. Death doulas have been around for years, but they’re only now becoming known in more conventional circles.

So, what is a death doula?

First and foremost, it’s someone comfortable talking about death and dying.

It’s someone who bridges the gap between the dying and their families or partners. Sometimes it’s someone who simply helps the dying person to die – holding their hand, explaining things, offering assurances, or simply being there if there is no-one else is.

You see, it’s a challenging and confronting time when someone is close to death. It’s an emotional time that can sometimes see common sense go out the window. Grief fuels sometimes unhelpful emotions and actions, family arguments and confusion. And it’s not uncommon for the wants and needs of the patient to become secondary to the wants and fears of family members.

How often does a mother try to please her children? Let’s face it – when people are nearing death they don’t feel like eating or drinking. They don’t necessarily want their family sitting beside them either, staring and waiting for the next breath to come. Yet the loving daughter pleads for their mum to eat so as to stay strong, hoping for a miracle. But when is enough? When is it time to let go? There comes a time when it simply “is time to die” and the circle of life ends. A death doula can remind family of this. A death doula can offer a balanced eye and hand during these times, offering spiritual care, psychological and social support. They can be someone to talk with.

It’s a paid role. Death doulas are usually hired by the family of the person who is nearing their end of life, but the doula’s responsibility remains with the dying. They’re paid an hourly rate, or can be hired on daily or weekly terms.

A doulas after-death role

If they haven’t already, when the time comes death doulas an also help organise home vigils and home funerals. (Yes, you don’t have to use a funeral director, and the body can be taken home from the hospital.) Doulas can help facilitate discussions with funeral directors and they can ensure that grief-stricken partners aren’t taken advantage of when making funeral decisions.

Awareness of end-of-life consultants or death doulas isn’t widespread and some in the medical profession are yet to be convinced of their worth. But as our population continues to age at an ever-increasing rate, hospitals and nursing homes come under more pressure, and medical staff become busier, the role of those death doulas willing to sit with and reassure the dying, to listen to and speak for the dying will become even more important.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author. The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan is available online in Australia for $18.95. Order here.

I shared my death doula training experience with these amazing people. (I’m 4th from the right) 

The entrance to Centenary Memorial Gardens and Crematorium

Funeral faux pas: I showed up to the wrong funeral yesterday

Thankfully I realised I was at the wrong funeral before entering the chapel on the outskirts of Brisbane. I quickly checked my diary and saw Alan’s funeral was at 2pm. It was midday. I jumped in my car and made my getaway, thanking my lucky stars that A. I didn’t have to sit through the wrong funeral (I would have felt like a funeral fraud!), and B. I hadn’t missed Alan’s funeral.

It seems I’m not alone in attending the wrong funeral. Sharing my embarrassment on social media, friends and Twitter followers shared their experiences too.

Twitter replies to my confession that I showed up at the wrong funeral
People shared their funeral tales wth me on Twitter.

A friend wrote: “When my brother died, following the official service, he was taken to the cemetery to be buried with our dad. One of our cousins was running late to the graveside and bolted in and took his place, just as they were carrying the coffin from the car to the grave. Except it was the wrong funeral!!! He’d stop at the first one as there were two that day and he was in haste. Our brother used to do funny things like that so it was actually extremely hilarious to us. The other family were quite confused!”

On Twitter, Damon says he was backpacking in rural Ireland when he found it odd that the town he was in was very quiet and pubs empty,  except for one.  “Pub was buzzing, free food too.” It was an hour before he realised he’d crashed a wake.

“😧 Locals very understanding,” he writes.

Raelene from WA tells me one of her relatives went to the wrong funeral:  “My aunt did same re my father. Funerals 300kms apart. She said she ‘didn’t know anyone’! Wonder why!”

Rachel responded from Geelong: “I drove 2.5 hours a day early for one once.”

And my friend’s dad said (*warning – Dad joke): “I once went to my funeral and, in shock, I woke up. Realising I was still here, I decided to go back to sleep.”

BTW – While Alan’s funeral was very sad (they always are when people die relatively young and unexpectedly), I found myself chuckling a couple of times. The Priest was from Brisbane Boys College (BBC) so he was obviously used to engaging with youth using a bit of wit. Alan liked a party and the Priest reminded the gathering there were no hangovers in heaven. There was a downside though. He said there was no drunkeness either – you can drink as much as you like, enjoying the great taste, but not feel the alcoholic effects. Hmmm. I enjoy the tipsy feeling from a couple of champagnes in the sun as much as anybody so I figure I’m not ready for heaven just yet, but just in case, I have a copy of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan”.

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Stupors outside a temple about 40 inutes from Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Stupa: a high rise for generations of human remains

It’s easy to look past the colourful monuments that surround the large, majestic and eye-catching temples of south-east Asia. In size and elegance, there’s no comparison.

Yet outside these magnificent houses of respect and worships, there are a plethora of smaller buildings. They may just look like decoration but each of these ‘stupas’ house the created remains of several generations – with the urns of family elders placed on the top shelf of three orternal shelves and subsequent generations on the lower shelves. Much expense is spent on these little buildings. Traditionally they held the possessions of those departed but, these days, they house the cremated remains of family members.

A worker builds a stupor close to a temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia
A worker builds a stupor close to a temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia. The great grandparents or grandparents will be moved into the top storey of the monument.

While Cambodia is a poor country with many families struggling to even reach the poverty line, a lot of money is spent on stupas. This stupa below is being built about an hour from Siem Reap. The cost? About US$3,000, which is an extraordinary amount when some Cambodians struggle to make $1.50 per day.

A crematorium sits in the distance behind a temple in Cambodia.
A crematorium sits in the distance behind a temple in Cambodia. Mourners bring wood as final and practical offering.

For westerners, temples are an intriguing unknown. Am I allowed in? Why do have to take my shoes off? What religion is practiced here? Will I burst into flames if I enter? A myriad of religions are practiced often side-by -side and often with elements of several religions combining. You’ll be excused for confusing Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism which all seem to go hand in hand in countries like Cambodia. While most Cambodians identify as Buddhists, Hinduism, for example, influences significant events such as weddings and funerals, and the use of astrology to determine the most appropriate dates for important occasions.

Buddhists believe in cremations and that’s why there are crematoriums very close to most temples. Here, in a village not far from near Siem Reap, this wagon is offered free to anyone using the nearby crematorium.  Inside is the body in a bamboo coffin. The ceremonial casket is not burned and lives to provide pomp and ceremony for other village members for years to come. Mourners bring wood to fuel the cremation which usually takes about three hours.

This ceremonial wagon or cart leads a procession to the crematorium.
This ceremonial wagon or cart leads a procession to the crematorium where the deceased will be burned using donations of wood from mourners who also bring food and water and monetary donations for the family.

 While tens of thousands of tourists flock to the well-known temples of Ankor Wat, few realise they’re scampering through crematoriums as well as temples.  Pre Rup temple was a Hindu temple built in 961AD (Yes, it’s more than 1,000 years old!). It’s believed funerals took place at this temple, with two crematoriums within the temple itself – one for men, one for women.

Pre Rup is a Hindu temple near Siem Reap. The building on the left is thought to be a crematorium for men.
Pre Rup is a Hindu temple near Siem Reap, not far from Ankor Wat. The building on the left is thought to be a crematorium for men.

So the next time you’re in Asia or India keep an eye out for both crematoriums and stupas. You’ll be surprised how common they are and the pride of place they hold. It’s the opposite approach to that of western society and its treatment of the dead and their remains isn’t it?

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Where did the cemetery at Singapore’s Fort Canning Park go?

Does moving headstones move a graveyard? In Singapore, apparently so.

While the headstones and monuments at Singapore’s popular tourist spot, wedding and concert venue Fort Canning Park  have been moved, the graves themselves remain. But you wouldn’t know they were there and no-one seems too concerned. Sprawling lawns now cover the one-time cemetery, with just a few monuments clumped together in a corner and some headstones incorporated into a wall that runs down the sloping hill.

The official line from the authorites is that most of the graveyard’s monuments and headstones were so delapidated they were removed in the mid 1970s.

Six hundred people were laid to rest in the cemetery between 1822 and when it closed in 1865. Can’t you tell? Um… Well… No. 

Lush lawns now cover 600 graves at Fort Canning Park , Singapore.
Sprawling lush lawns and a paved pathway now cover 600 graves at Fort Canning Park , Singapore.

The
headstones that have been incorporated into a beautiful brick wall reveal the diverse range of people buried at Fort Canning. A third of them were Chinese Christians and languages on some of the reamining tombstones include German, Thai and Dutch.

 

Some headstones remain, bricked into a wall at Fort Canning Park, Singapore

  

A handful of monuments remain in one corner of the former cemetery at Fort Canning.

 

I can’t help but wonder what Australians would think of a lawn replacing an old cemetery. Do you think there’s a period of time than passes before it’s OK to transform a cemetery into a recreation area?
 

 

 

Kranji War Cemetery

A mass grave and tributes to our war dead: Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

I’d never heard of Kranji War Cemetery, but I’m glad I stumbled on it during a visit to Singapore.

One of the first graves I noticed was that of Aboriginal soldier, Private J Knox. Private Knox died of illness as a Prisoner of War in Changi in August 1942. He served in the 2/26th Battalion, a Queensland unit that contained several Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. They fought in Malaya and Singapore but were captured when the British Empire garrison surrendered. The prisoners endured shocking slave labour conditions, and several Indigenous men were among the many Australians who died in captivity.

More than 20,000 Australians served, with around 1,800 lives lost in battle during the fall of Singapore. Around 15,000 were captured as Prisoners of War.

Private J Knox lies in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
Private J Knox lies in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. He died as a Prisoner of War six-and-a-half months after allied troops were ordered to lay down their arms on February 15, 1942. His grave is in the first row on the left as you enter the cemetery. The flowers and flags laid on his grave just two days prior are a poignant reminder of the ongoing effects of war. A hand-written card said he was remembered by “his mob back in Australia”.

The Kranji War Cemetery is on the outskirts of Singapore. The Japanese landed just a few kilometres from the cemetery’s site on 8 February 1942, at the mouth of the Kranji River. The following night they launched an attack. Fighting continued for a few days, much of it hand-to-hand combat. Japanese troops had the numbers and lots of support from the air. Allied forces never stood a chance.

Names with no graves, and graves with no names.

The Kranji War Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 4,400 casualties of World War II. Among those graves are 850 without a name, only “known unto God”.

There are 850 graves of unknown soldiers at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.
There are 850 graves of unknown soldiers at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.

And then there are walls and walls and walls of names – names of land troops and airmen who don’t have graves. I can only assume many of those 24,000 casualties were left where they fell as they attempted to stop the Japanese during their surprise invasion through 200km of Malayan rainforest. Many would have been Prisoners of War who died in captivity, most notably during the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. There is a memorial at the Kranji War Cemetery to the twenty-four THOUSAND people who have no known grave. (I needed to spell that out as I am still trying to come to terms with that number. Each of those men had families. Can’t. even. fathom).

The memorial to the 24,000 soldiers and airmen with no known grave.
The memorial to the 24,000 soldiers and airmen with no known grave. The wreaths were laid two days prior to my visit during the 75 year commemorations of the Fall of Singapore.

This memorial wall is littered with the names of Australians.
This memorial wall is littered with the names of Australians. There are many Commonwealth nationalities on the walls at the Kranji War Cemetery.

Mass hospital grave

There’s another memorial at Kranji War Cemetery which really put my heart into my throat. It relates to a mass grave that is located on hospital grounds in Singapore.

The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery lists the names of 107 Commonwealth casualties buried in a mass grave alongside 300 civilians.

The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial
The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial commemorates 107 Commonwealth servicemen buried in a mass grave on hospital grounds. There are 300 civilians in that grave as well.

You see, during the last hours of the Battle of Singapore, hundreds of wounded civilians and servicemen taken prisoner by the Japanese were taken to the hospital. The number of subsequent fatalities was too great for the hospital and authorities to handle. The deceased were put into an emergency water tank that had been dug on the hospital grounds prior to the war. This mass grave holds more than 400 people.

After the war it was determined that identifying those within was an impossible task. So the grave was left undisturbed and enclosed, consecrated by the Bishop of Singapore. The site is marked by a cross, put there by military authorities.

The Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
The Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. The walls of the large structure in the background have the names of 24,000 servicemen who don’t have graves.

The Kranji War Cemetery isn’t far from the Kranji train station so I can highly recommend you pay it and our fallen soldiers a visit the next time you’re in Singapore.

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. Lisa’s passion is telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

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Advance care plans and Facebook legacy contacts: new additions to The Bottom Drawer Book’s second edition

It’s become increasingly obvious there are many people who are keen to be a prepared for the inevitable, even though that may not be any time soon. They also want to take the pressure off their loved ones when the time comes. Western society typically labels any  talk about death and funerals ‘morbid’ but, thankfully, that antiquated idea is slowly changing.  You see, the first edition of The Bottom Drawer Book has sold out and I get emails from people telling me how it has helped them.

“Our 22 year old son is dying and while we have generally discussed his wishes, this book will make things easier. I have ordered 4 books for all the family so we can all sit down and fill in our books together so that our beautifully amazing son won’t be the only one making the hard decisions and we can make it light-hearted and fun. Thank you for making a difficult discussion so much easier.”

I’m not going to lie. I cried when I got that email. Humbled almost beyond comprehension, it made me so glad I followed through on a crazy idea to write an after death action plan.

Three years later and the second edition is out. There are only a couple of changes.

Advance care plans

I’ve included a section on Living Wills. In other words, these are simply your plans for your future medical care.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners estimates one in four of us will not be able to make medical care decisions as we near our end of life. That’s where what’s called ‘advance care plans’ come in. It’s a list of your wishes, including who you want to talk to your doctors on your behalf, if you’re too out of it to make any sense. Your plan can outline what procedures you want or don’t want eg. do you want to be resuscitated? Do you want feeding tubes removed? It can outline where you’d prefer to die and even if you want your dog or cat with you.

While advance care plans aren’t necessarily legally binding they will help your doctors and family make health care decisions if you can’t. Each Australian state and territory have different regulations and terminology when it comes to care plans and health directives so ask your GP or local health care about them. There’s also some good information online. This website HERE has links to each state’s documents. There’s also info about appointing an enduring power of attorney or enduring guardian. The person or people you nominate for this job can make financial, lifestyle and health decisions on your behalf if you’re not well enough too.

Facebook legacy contacts

The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book also includes some updated information from Facebook about what happens to your Facebook page if you die. As mentioned in the first edition, you can choose to have your page deleted or memorialised. Having your page memorialised means your page becomes somewhere your friends can share memories and leave comment. Facebook has now also introduced the ability for you to nominate a legacy contact who takes control of parts of your Facebook page. That person won’t be able to see your messages or delete any of your content or friends, but they can post updates (such as funeral information), change your profile picture and accept friend requests.

We live so much of our life online these days that when we die there’s an awful lot of information, photos, blogs, videos etc that will be left orbiting cyber space. You have the ability to manage what happens to all that stuff. All it takes is a little preparation, and that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan comes in. It costs $18.95 which includes delivery within Australia.

Boxes containing The Bottom Drawer Book

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Hanging coffins of Sagoda, Phillipines

Umbrellas over graves and coffins hanging from cliffs.

Two of my friends visited cemeteries during their recent overseas Christmas holidays.

In the Phillipines, the Hanging Coffins of Sagoda caught Steve’s interest.

Nobody really knows the reason these coffins hang from the side of limestone cliffs in Echo Valley within the Mountain Province. There’s speculation that it either gets them closer to heaven/paradise, protects them from animals and floods or even that it saves space so as not to use up valuable agricultural land.

It’s thought the local Igorot, the local tribe, have been laying their loved ones to rest this way for 2,000 years. It’s a practice that has been done in China too, for well over 2,000 years.

This burial custom still takes place these days, though it’s only some of the elderly who choose this method of burial. Visitors to the area walk through a more conventional cemetery on the hike to the cliffs.

The coffins are in a range of sizes, with the small ones said to be filled with bodies that are in the foetal position; the theory being that those people leave the world as they entered it. Hanging next to some of the coffins are wooden chairs. It’s on those chairs the deceased sat as they were prepared for burial.

It’s hard to fathom just how those heavy coffins are put in place. Some are also laid in nearby caves. Eventually the coffins disintegrate. People visiting the site are encouraged not to stand under the cliffs, just in case some bits and pieces fall from the cliffs.

Umbrellas shade graves at Nusa Lembongan
Graves are shaded at Nusa Lembongan, south east of Bali

The graves my friend Charlotte visited on Nusa Lembongan are more conventional but just as peaceful. They’re also an example of the way ancestors are cared for and tradition upheld. The island is south east of Bali and is fast-becoming a popular tourist destination because of its stunning beaches and bays, snorkelling and great natural attractions.

Many of the headstones there are shaded by colourful parasols. This is to keep the hot, tropical sun off the dead. Protecting graves from the elements is not uncommon. I have seen graves in Botswana, Africa shaded with iron and cloth covers and decorated covers over Aboriginal graves in some of Australia’s more remote communities.

You can always tell a lot about a culture, a town or a community by the way they treat their dead, can’t you?

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. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

 

Colourful fireworks over Brisbane.

Ashes scattered by fireworks means loved ones go off with a bang.

As you look skywards tonight, you might just see some particularly special fireworks.

The scattering of ashes via fireworks is taking off. These days there are several companies that offer the service for both people and pets.

Fourth generation pyrotechnician Andrew Howard is co-ordinating 75 fireworks shows in towns and cities across the country tonight. While none of those events include someone’s ashes, he told ABC Darwin that ashes being spread using fireworks is becoming more popular.

“We got our first inquiry over a decade ago. It was a little bit weird but it’s certainly very common now.”

“We do several throughout the year but there won’t be any on New Year’s Eve this year,” said Mr Howard.

Ashes are put into handmade aerial shell fireworks that are launched high into the sky over the location sought by the client, usually somewhere of significance to the deceased or their friends and family. The colour of the fireworks becomes an important component of the ceremony, with the colour chosen to reflect the personality of the deceased.

In 2010 the Sydney Harbour New Year’s fireworks incorporated the ashes of two dogs, Gyprock and Zeus. They were the beloved pets of Craig Hull, who has since become a successful pyrotechnician. His company, Ashes to Ashes, specialises in “the scattering of one’s cremated ashes by way of a beautiful and spectacular fireworks display”.

Mr Hull’s first clients were Mikala and Stephanie Dwyer. The sisters sent their mum and grandmother up in fireworks in Sydney in 2014. Speaking to The Feed, Mikala said the ashes had been “hanging around for quite some time”.

“My grandmother’s been hanging around in cupboards since 1994 so this is a way of setting her free a bit,” said Mikala.

“My mother loved fireworks so this was the perfect thing.”

“It seemed totally right and I realise it’s not right for everyone, but for us it was quite wonderful,” she said.

What do you think? Would you like to go out with a bang at a memorial service with a difference? You can make your wishes known in your will or simply tell your loved ones or write down your wishes in The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.

I hope you have a safe and memorable New Year’s Eve. Enjoy the fireworks! And I’d love to know your thoughts about sending your friends and family skywards.

 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.

 

Christmas can suck sometimes

When the sun comes up tomorrow it’ll be Christmas. And Christmas can suck. And not just because you’re forced to spend time with your judgemental and bossy sister-in-law, spend days in the kitchen, or spend money on unneeded presents you’ve bought simply because you’re ‘supposed’ to.

Christmas sucks when there is someone missing.

Cemeteries around the country are preparing for their busiest days of the year. For many, a church service and a present-giving morning are soon followed by a trip to a cemetery to visit the person they’re missing most this Christmas.

Then the afternoon may be spent visiting friends and having to don a Christmas hat and be merry, even though it’s the last thing you feel like being. But you put on your brave face because you don’t want to put a dampener on the day for your friends or your children.

Even though you’re surrounded by wonderful people who are great company, there’s still a piece of your Christmas spirit that has long left the building. You smile and nod, feign amusement at the dodgy Christmas cracker jokes, make small talk, and stare at the clock hoping it will all be over soon.

If you’re hosting a Christmas gathering and there’s someone like that in your house or backyard, let them be. Don’t be the one who says, in front of the crowd, “You’re quiet today! What’s wrong? C’mon, lighten up. It’s Christmas!”

For heaven’s sake, don’t be that person. Instead, give your quietly-grieving guest a big welcoming hug, an acknowledging smile, a hand squeeze and a chair in the corner next to the person they’re most comfortable with.  While they may not be the life of the party, your party may be offering them a reminder that, while missing a loved one sucks at Christmas, life goes on and spending time with caring family and friends isn’t all bad. It just takes getting used to.

Eh? You wrote a book about whaaaaaat?

Welcome to a blog about the inevitable. While it’s not for everyone, there are a lot of people who like the idea of having a say in their own farewell. Some people tell me it’s because they don’t want their family burdened with the task and others tell me it’s to ensure everyone has a good time at the funeral!

My interest in western society’s perception of death and dying was sparked as a teen after reading several books written by renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The works, inspired by Dr Kübler-Ross’ work with terminally ill patients, were groundbreaking at the time. Never before had the emotional needs of the dying been given attention by the medical profession.

Nearly 50 years on and many people are still reluctant to talk about the inevitable. However, while researching The Bottom Drawer Book, I found that once the discussion began, people opened up and gave their mortality some measured thought. All they needed was someone to initiate the discussion. And that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book comes in. Its aim is to start the conversation.