A memorial party? What will I wear?

My guest blogger is Ken Roberts, a retired nurse, artist, writer and renovator. A country town nurse for many decades, he’s seen his fair share of death and small town funerals. But a recent invitation to a ‘memorial party’ left him bemused. What is it? What do I wear?

This is Ken’s memorial party experience:

After the recent passing of a dear friend I was very grateful to be included in her farewell in these times of limited numbers of mourners. This was held in the city and was something that I had never experienced before: a memorial party.

Looking back, my experience with funerals was ordinary for me but maybe not for others. I attended a catholic primary school and hymn singing and going to Mass during the school week was common. It was usual that at the regular requiem masses for funerals, we would all march over, very orderly in double file, climb the stairs to the choir and merrily sing the hymns with a watchful Nun on guard to stop any shenanigans. Depending on where you were sitting you would glimpse the coffin and sometimes hear people crying. It was all very matter of fact.

Growing up in a small country town in those days, practices took a long time to change. As I grew, and coming from a large extended family, there were infrequent funerals to attend of relatives. They were always at a Church and usually followed by a boozy wake at some family member’s home.

Changing times: a non-church funeral

Nothing much changed until the local funeral director set up a new office which included a chapel. Some locals slowly began to use that option. It seemed very “modern” to be out of a church and in a building that had once housed the local video shop. I must be quite traditional because I wasn’t sure how I felt about this change. I think the fact that the funeral directors were locals and they understood people’s needs and they catered for what they wanted so very well made it an easier and more accepting transition.

When my mother died and I was helping to organise the funeral, we went the traditional route-church, cemetery and wake in the church hall. My parents were the only practising Catholics on either side of the family and so we honoured that but, keeping it in mind, we tried to make it as simple and less religious as possible. Unfortunately the local Priest had other ideas and he proceeded to include lots of scriptures, incense and holy water blessings! We were not happy.

The turning point: a short and sweet funeral for Dad, away from the church

As a result of this when a few years later my father passed away, we took a stand and bravely by-passed the church and held his service in the funeral director’s chapel with our much loved female funeral director celebrant reading the eulogy and running the no-nonsense down to earth service. Dad was a plain and simple man and wouldn’t have wanted a fuss. He had a plain raw pine coffin with rope handles. (It was good enough for the last Pope!) My sister, a former florist, made the flowers for the top of the coffin with natives from her garden intertwined with rusty barbed wire. (Dad used to make things from barbed wire.)

Somebody noted that it was one of the shortest funerals they had been to, 20 minutes tops. It was still a touching send-off but it was edited down to the essentials that we wanted. We went to another church hall for various reasons and had a simple traditional wake catered by the local church ladies.

I think that sparked a turning point for me in opening up my former conservative ideas about how to farewell people. I could see that as time progressed and people were less religious and less church-going, they wanted something more reflective of who they were in their former lives as an appropriate send off.

The Memorial Party

This was yet again another “new” step that I was interested to see. I wasn’t sure if you had to dress up or go casual, I didn’t know. I ended up doing nice casual, slacks rather than jeans with a jacket and coloured shirt. I needn’t have worried, it was a very casual no-fuss affair, which suited my friend’s former lifestyle. It was held in a function room at a suburban city hotel and, because of Covid restrictions, there were under 50 attending.

The family had farewelled her body at a private cremation a few days before. There was a guest book and a photo display and a brochure. I wondered if there would be speeches but apart from when a relative thanked everyone for attending and said some brief words, that was it.

I was glad that her adult children didn’t force themselves to speak because we all knew how upset they were. I was speaking to the three of them at one point and we all ended up both laughing and crying together. There was plenty of food and drink and time to reflect and chat.

I was amazed that three hours passed so very quickly. I thought it was a lovely, relaxed and genuine way to honour her life. It was loose, unstructured and free of any formality at all. She would have even said that was too much fuss. Her spirit was there in the words spoken between those who loved her.

It was a party, not a funeral

I think that this type of farewell was a very suitable “new” alternative and one that will be surely adapted in the future to suit each individual. It’s even gone beyond calling it a “funeral” because it actually was more of a party. I have no idea how traditions will develop but there is no closing of the floodgates and returning to days of yesteryear, times of mourning clothes and certain “standards” being kept.

Nowadays word of somebody’s passing is usually announced and spread via social media. As a child I remember mum used to listen to the wireless at 10 past 8 every morning when they would announce the local deaths and funerals. That was the social media of that day. Times and traditions will continue to change to suit the times we live in, there is no going back….

Ken Roberts (Central Gippsland artist, writer, renovator)

Some people plan themed funerals where there is a dress code, often bright colours. Illustration by Phil Judd for The Bottom Drawer Book.
Funerals are changing, often becoming a celebration of life. Illustration by Phil Judd for The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan.

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, 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. It is available in Australia for $29.95. The eBook version is available for AU$15.99 on Kobo, Apple book, Google Books and Booktopia.

The Bottom Drawer Book is now available as an eBook on Google Play, Kobo, Booktopia and Apple Books for $15.99
The Bottom Drawer Book is now available as an eBook on Google Play, Kobo, Booktopia and Apple Books for $15.99

How does a woman die a spinster in a gold mining town? The tale of Elizabeth Richards.

Only one woman lays in Ora Banda Cemetery, a remote cemetery in Western Australia’s goldfields. Elizabeth was 38 when she died in 1913. The cemetery’s records lists her occupation as ‘spinster’. She was the first person to be buried there.

Ora Banda Cemetery is about 65km north of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia’s goldfields.

It begs the question: how and why did a woman stay single in a gold mining town in the early 1900s? Men of all ages, single and married, came all over the country to make a living, leaving their families far behind.

That’s the beauty of cemeteries. One’s curiosity goes into overdrive and, if pursued, can often reveal the pioneering stories of the cemetery’s residents.

Elizabeth Richard’s grave doesn’t give anything away.

Elizabeth’s grave certainly gives nothing away. But her ‘spinster’ status made me wonder if she was a nun. A photo of her in a historical booklet in the Ora Banda pub (which has since burned down) didn’t give any indications that she was a nun.

Elizabeth Richards was a 38yo spinster when she died of rheumatoid fever.

I posed the question to a friend and she had a hilarious response: “You know what they say about blokes in mining towns – the odds are good, but the goods are odd! Maybe she looked at the lives of many married women then (drudgery) and thought, maybe I’ll just keep myself nice…”

An article about the funeral of Elizabeth Richards in the Roman Catholic magazine (31 May 1913) reveals that she was a “child of Mary”.

A fantastic booklet about the graves in the Ora Banda cemetery was kept behind the bar of the Ora Banda Hotel. Sadly the hotel burned down last year.

A Child of Mary was a member of a religious youth group girl, a young woman who was accepted into the ranks of catholic lay women and vowed not to marry a man who was not of Catholic faith. They wore a pale blue, full length cloak and a white veil for their meetings.

Elizabeth obviously stayed true to her faith until she died unexpectedly of rheumatoid fever. Or maybe there were slim pickings in Ora Banda in the early 1900s?

Either way, her grave and subsequent investigation reveals a small slice of goldfields history, as does an information board at the cemetery.

As noted in this information board at Ora Banda Cemetery, mine accidents were common in the goldfields. You’ll also note that Elizabeth Richard’s occupation was listed as “spinster”.
William Bailey died in a mine accident, aged 45.

WILLIAM BAILEY DIED 1915 AGED 45

(NB. An ore pass refers to a sloped passage used for the transfer of material in underground mine workings. A shaft for the ore, if you like)

“An accident occurred at the Victorious Mine at 11:45pm yesterday, resulting in the death of William Murray Bailey. Bailey, with two other men, was trucking ore down a pass from the surface to the 100 foot level. At knockoff time Bailey could not be found and fears were entertained that he might have fallen down the pass. The shift boss went to the 100 foot level to run down about a truck full of dirt on the level when the body of the unfortunate man was discovered in the pass, and although the body was warm, life was extinct.

The late Mr Bailey had been a resident of Ora Banda for seven years and was highly respected by all he came in contact with.

The cortege was a long one, and over 50 members of the Miners Union marched behind the remains of their late comrade.”

🗞As reported in the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper, Sept 1915📰

There was hearsay at the time that Mr Bailey was found without any shoes on. Why? No-one knows.

William Willocks died when hit by a block of wood in the chest and throat.

WILLIAM WILLOCKS: Another mine death.

“A terrible accident, resulting in the death of a man named William Willocks occurred after 1pm at the Victorious mine.

Willocks was engaged at a saw bench sawing up blocks when he somehow lost his hold on a piece of wood, which was held back with great force by the circular saw. It caught him full in the chest, stabbing his chest and also inflicting a bad gash to his throat. The unfortunate man retained consciousness for about 10 minutes, but with every possibility done for him he gradually sank, and died about an hour after the accident.

Immediately they were made aware of the occurrence, the management dispatched a motor car to Broad Arrow for medical assistance and it was back in the mine with Dr Dedermen in 1 hour 23 minutes, but Mr Willocks was beyond aid.

It is understood that the deceased was a married man and that he leaves a wife and several children who reside in Boulder. The children are four in number, mostly grown-up, the youngest being 13 years old. The deceased was about 55 years of age.”

🗞 As reported in the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper, March 1914.

In front of Elizabeth’s grave is the grave of William Wares.

WILLIAM WARES: killed in a rock fall

Not far from Elizabeth’s grave is the grave of William Wares who died six years after Elizabeth, aged 58. ⛏

This is how his death was reported in the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper:

“Working with a mate Alf (Daffy) Parker at Williams old show at Paddy’s Knob, Christmas patch, they were working in a shaft which had been sunk 235 foot and Wares was breaking out a sample when a fall of ground occurred and buried him. Parker who was considerably bruised freed his mate and found he was still alive. Parker went for help but on his return found where’s had died in his absence.

Mr Wares was one of two brothers, native of Scotland, who had been prospecting here for a number of years and was well-known and respected throughout the district.

These brothers were twins. They worked as mates and camped together until the other twin James went to visit his sister who resides in Perth, on the account of ill-health, and remained there until about two months ago, when he was accidentally drowned while taking a bathe.”

Benjamin Tripp was Elizabeth Tripp’s brother-in-law. Suicide was not uncommon in the goldfields. Times were tough and fortunes were hard to come by.

Ora Banda Cemetery is off the beaten track, about 65 km north of Kalgoorlie. It, like all goldfields cemeteries, offer glimpses of our pioneering past. They were hard times.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist, death literacy advocate 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. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage.

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

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.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the 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 $24.95, including postage. You can buy it here.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.
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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 $24.95, including postage. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Hanging coffins of Sagoda, Phillipines

Umbrellas over graves and coffins hanging from cliffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 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.

 

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.

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 $24.95, including postage. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$9 postage.)

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.