24 August 2021

You Only Die Twice: Fading Memory in a Cemetery

 "Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them." (George Eliot)

Old photograph in headstone, South Brisbane Cemetery, 2019. (C. Dawson)

In recent months I happened, quite by chance on my way to the staff room in the back half of a crematorium, to see a coffin on a table in the last moments before its contents entered the furnace. Not too long afterwards I sat outside on a lunch break and was pushed into thought about life and death as I watched smoke emerge from the furnace chimney. One minute ago there was a human body, and now it was transformed to fragments, ashes and smoke. Something different, not human any more, after all those years walking the Earth. It felt like a deep moment. I continued eating my sandwich.

A week or so later I was walking through South Brisbane Cemetery when I saw a departing grave excavator, which had just finished filling in a new grave, a rare enough sight in that cemetery. With nobody else around, I walked over and sat by the fresh mound of soil for a short time. There is a strange atmosphere around new graves in quiet cemeteries, like the sadness of the mourners has lingered after their departure. I couldn't help thinking the same thing as when I had seen the crematorium smoke - 'is that it?' Last week this was a breathing person. Now they are in the ground, the dirt has been topped, and we'll never ever see them again.

The last physical remains of these people had finally left this world, and the job of remembering them had now begun. A stone or a plaque would be erected sometime with their name on it, there would be flowers, there would be visitors, for some time at least. Over the years, on birthdays, fathers or mothers days, Christmases and other special days, visitors might continue to come and remember. The marker would begin to require upkeep in the face of the elements and time. But the deceased would be remembered. This is why we have cemeteries.

And then one day, maybe decades later, nobody would visit any more. The marker, if it was still there, would probably be the last public indication that this person had ever existed. And once untended, it would decay, particle by particle. And maybe the slow death of a memorial stone is like the second death of the person or people it commemorated.

I'd had this feeling before, when researching monuments in the South Brisbane Cemetery. I found a 19th-century sandstone marker that had gradually worn over time so that the original inscription was now completely gone. It was now just a blank stone. For a stranger, it would require a trained knowledge of the graves and access to detailed plans to work out who was in the grave below.

There are a few more markers like this in the cemetery. A slate ledger with only a few scattered inscribed letters still visible, the last remnants of the name of sad mother of fallen soldiers. A concrete headstone with no trace of a single letter of the name of the broken woman who had drowned herself in the river over a century ago. An 1860s sandstone marker brought over from the old Paddington Cemetery, with much of the wording now hidden beneath lichen but the crumbling surface too fragile to be safely cleaned.

Another strange moment was seeing an old photograph chamber built into a South Brisbane headstone. Peering up close, I realised there was a face behind the glass looking back at me, mostly faded but still just there, as if it was staring distantly out from another time and place. Not unlike one of those fake faces in a 19th century 'ghost' photograph. It seemed to be slipping away from this world. You knew that in a few years you wouldn't be able to make out the eyes, the nose, the mouth or the hair any more. The paper would slowly, incrementally, fade and crumble away to nothing.

This is the face of 43-year-old Thomas Blatchford Leigh, who was employed as a drayman at Victoria Park in July 1930 under the Brisbane City Council's unemployment relief scheme, working in return for basic welfare during the Great Depression. He had been employed for about one week, with his wife and family still in Innisfail. His job was to move loads of earth from construction works for a new road. During the morning he complained that he had strained himself and appeared to be seriously ill, but he continued to work on anyway. Later he told the foreman of a pain in the region of his heart. Still he worked on. As he was about to take his last load for the day, at around 4.30 pm, Thomas suffered a heart attack. His workmates noticed his horse and dray wandering slowly off the new road, and on closer inspection they found his dead body inside it, lying on top of a load of earth.

This was the sad, needless death of an impoverished man. And here was his face, the last recognisable feature of a decaying photograph, saying a long, slow goodbye to the world.

This thought gives extra impetus to the work of cemetery volunteers in cleaning and extending the life of a grave, or just photographing it as it is now, creating a new record for the future. One day that stone will not be there any more. For some of those laid to rest in the cemetery, this will be a second death of their memory, and a final forgetting of their existence. Sad thoughts maybe, but sometimes that's what you get hanging around old cemeteries. That, and an improved appreciation for being alive.

12 August 2021

A Part of Her

In the low-lying centre of the South Brisbane Cemetery, a young but magnificent kauri pine grew to the side of a concrete-topped grave, lifting that top up unbroken but at an ever-worsening angle. This is the grave of a girl who died in 1945 at the age of just 14 months. Little more than a baby. The niece and great-niece of this girl recently contacted the Brisbane City Council and asked them to fix the grave. The council had, after all, allowed this tree to grow there. The solution was to completely remove the concrete top and move the plinth and ledger to the other end of the grave, away from the powerful roots (a small statue formerly on top of the plinth has long since gone).

The tree remained in place. It is a beautiful tree, I said to the great-niece. Yes, she said, 'It is as much a part of her as she is of it', perfectly putting into words my own way of seeing the graves and the cemetery. The remains within them transform over time and gradually become part of their surrounds, the soil, grass and the trees of the cemetery. There was something of that little girl in that great tree.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the brilliant Walt Whitman poem 'Song of Myself', written during the second half the 19th century. Section 6 of this poem is known as 'A Child Said, What Is The Grass?', in which he tries to answer the question in various ways, going on to call it the 'beautiful uncut hair of graves'. 

'And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.'
Whitman saw life as being in constant flux, with the emerging blades of grass indicating that death is not permanent because it leads to new forms of life. He says in these verses that he will use the grass 'tenderly', because it might have grown from the breasts of young men he loved, or from the remains of old people, or women, or children taken too soon.

 And so it is with many of the trees of the cemetery. 'It is as much a part of her as she is of it'.

Walt Whitman aged 35, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855.

08 August 2021

Death Rides a Penny-Farthing

Duggan family grave, Toowong Cemetery, 2020. ( C. Dawson)

This Toowong Cemetery headstone features one of the more unusual symbols I’ve found on a marker. Dating from the mid-1880s, it is on the grave of Alfred Joseph Duggan of Spring Hill, a 19-year-old chemist's shop assistant, a member of the Brisbane Amateur Cycling Club, and the proud owner of a penny-farthing.

The penny-farthing was popular in the 1870s and 1880s, when it was simply called a ‘bicycle’, the first machine to be known by that name. The ‘penny-farthing’ moniker actually came later, a reference to the disparity in the wheel sizes being like two British coins - the large penny and the tiny farthing.

Studio photograph of two men on penny-farthing bicycles, Queensland, ca. 1885. (John Oxley Library)

On Thursday 13 November 1884, Alfred was riding his penny-farthing along the North Quay near central Brisbane when he fell off and managed to dislocate the second joint of the ring finger of his right hand. He went to a doctor and had the finger set, and at first his injury did not appear to be too serious. However, a couple of days later tetanus set in and he was sent to the hospital on Wednesday 18 November. Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria entering the body through a break in the skin such as a wound caused by a contaminated object. This produces toxins that interfere with normal muscle contractions and result in severe muscle spasms, each usually lasting a few minutes and sometimes severe enough to fracture bones. In the most common type, the spasms begin in the jaw a few days after infection (which is why tetanus is also sometimes referred to as 'lockjaw') and then progress to the rest of the body, with about 10% of cases proving fatal.

After monitoring his condition, the doctors decided to amputate the affected finger, but it was too late and Alfred never rallied, and he died, reportedly on ‘great agony’ during the night of Friday 20 November.

It was an interesting decision by his mother to incorporate a lead-rendered image of a penny-farthing on his headstone, seeing as his fall from one led to his eventual death, but it would also reflect his love of the contraption.* The wording on the stone also reads that he died 'in the 20th year of his age, by a fall from a bicycle'. Most contemporary records indicate that Duggan's given names were Alfred Joseph, although it is marked on his headstone as Joseph Alfred. A stonemason’s error, perhaps? It did happen from time to time.

The penny-farthing became obsolete from the late 1880s, when modern bicycles with evenly-matched wheel sizes became popular. These were marketed as ‘safety bicycles’ because they were much lower than penny-farthings, which reduced the danger of falling from them. A danger that was sadly demonstrated by the tragic demise of Alfred Duggan, and recognised on his headstone.

* Similarly, another marker in the cemetery for the victim of a motorcycle crash features a motorcycle symbol.