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.

 

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.

‘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.