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.

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.

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’.”

image_2-570971552.jpg
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.

REMAINS OF 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.

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.

‘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.

“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.

 

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.

IMG20170702150705
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)”.

IMG20170702150502
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.

 

 

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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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.

 

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.