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.

 

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.