Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Grave Matters, by Gillian Polack

Australia can be besotted with tombstones. This expresses itself in interesting ways. When I was in my teens, my parents decided to join a project that mapped every single Jewish gravestone in the state of Victoria It was a perfectly acceptable hobby and they shared it with a few friends and with a few relatives. 

All the families involved had ancestors who’d lived in rural Victoria, because in the nineteenth century many Australian Jews did just that. The first Australian Governor-General, Isaac Isaacs was one: Australian, Jewish, and raised in a country town. 

This is why it was perfectly natural for me to discover a series of stones for the family Hamburger, caved by the family Macdonald when I visited Ballarat with my mother. We were researching the town because I thought that one day I might use the location for a novel. I’ve loved the town itself ever since I was a child, and was using my fiction as an excuse to visit it and to spend time with my mother. I wrote that novel some years later: it was, of course, The Wizardry of Jewish Women. Some aspects of the Ballarat cemetery in Wizardry were invented, but not many and certainly not that tombstone. 

When I was a teenager, I thought this obsession with dead people was particular to my family and their friends. This meant I felt fated to be a historian or a museum curator, or something along those lines. I was teased about it a lot by the parents of my schoolfriends. They didn’t see that their fascination with graves was part of the reason I was so firmly attached to history. There was a group of adults who compared notes from their journeys into rural Victoria, and were rather proud of finding a rare grave the way a butterfly enthusiast would be proud of spotting a rare butterfly. My parents sent the butterfly enthusiasts to our front garden, where a small colony of Emperor Gum Moths lived, but it was graves they took notes on.

I had a poor sense of humour and sang a song I learned at primary school whenever my parents went on a tour of graves and left me behind. “He was buried on Sunday, deep deep down, “ it began. “Under the gravestone, deep deep down.” I still remember all the words.

When I was a late teenager I discovered that my family and their friends not working as a social group: they were part of a project run by a cousin. The idea was to find Jewish graves and to document writing on the headstones before the writing faded to illegibility was part of a wider fascination with graves. Other groups documented other graves or visited them and took care of them. More than a hobby, documenting gravesites and preserving them or information about them was a path into history and into belonging. Papers were even written about it. 
Graves are still important to Australia. One surviving from 1795 Sydney show how we value, what to us are old relics of our recent Europeanheritage

Every single First Fleeter (first UK settlement in Australia)’s death is recorded online and if their gravestone still exists, there are pictures. My sense of humour still creeps in, in an untimely and possibly disrespectful manner. One of the oldest surviving gravestones in Australia belongs to someone with the surname Graves.

The plane came down here.

Our war deaths are also chronicled carefully. I once took a set of pictures of the field in which my great-uncle’s plane came down in France (he didn’t die there – that’s another story) and a museum wanted copies. 

I visited Great-Uncle Max and his crew in 1995.

Just as my parents’ hunt for tombs was not just a hobby, graves are more than they seem for Australian culture. To the rest of the world we are a young nation. Almost without written history. The long Australian history, of the people who’ve lived on the continent for tens of thousands of years, doesn’t have carved gravestones to note death. 

Why are we so obsessed with tombstones? It’s not because we’re besotted with death. It’s because we’re besotted with history. Not just any history. Australians visit Europe a lot, The UK and Ireland in particular, but Europe too. We look for Europe’s past and say “We don’t have this.” We mourn for Jane Austen and Richard II. It’s personal.

Some years ago, I was talking to other Medievalists at an international conference. The general consensus around the circle was that if you answered “What do you do?” with “I’m a Medieval historian” you might not get the most appreciative response. Except for me, as the only Australian in the circle. I have been instantly engaged in long conversations by random people in Australia. We are passionate about history.

The same happens when I do research for my novels. If I mention the Australian history side, I’m told all about families and be asked to tell them about my first doctorate and… it’s an easy way to get a happy conversation going. When is say I write novels, most people will talk about how they write private journals, but historians are an instant focus for questions, just as graveyards here or overseas are important places to visit. 

It’s the history. We want it.


Mike@Bit About Britain said...

There is humour and sadness - pathos? - in this. I guess most people want to know what their roots are, even in the most general terms? Maybe we get hung up about land - your comment about being 'a young nation' - it's a political unit; you history is far, far older. And of course we get hung up about our 'racial' - or perhaps, more accurately, 'tribal' background. The history is so rich, whichever way you approach it. Australia is a descendant of Hastings as much as the people of Eastbourne are. I think part of our obsession with tombstones has something to do with our sense of wonder, and the knowledge that life is not a rehearsal.

Gillian Polack said...

I agree with you about that sense of wonder. We're a young nation - but there are much older cultures that predate the young nation. The graves also give us a sense that maybe we will start to earn a share in the longer history one day.