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.

 

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.

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

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

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

Who should we call when someone dies in the home?

Call the police or your local doctor.

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

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

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

What does the coroner do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are funeral directors open to price negotiations?

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

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

Certifying a cremation: two certificates needed

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

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

Have you got any questions?

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

 

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

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