The labour of death and the radical tradition of burying our own

Black and white photo of a person standing next to a car

Last year was bizarre in ways we may not ever be able to completely reckon with. Living in Melbourne meant forcibly putting so much on hold while all of the things that make up life still happened. Bills needed to be paid, work needed to be done and people still died. In person funerals were attended by a handful of close family members while the rest of the community would zoom in. 

At the very beginning of last year we buried our grandfather. I am grateful to have been able to physically attend his funeral. An old Gooreng Gooreng patriarch, we flew from Melbourne to visit him. At the time I was just over a month in to a three-and-a-half month stint at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. Following Grandad’s body meeting the earth, he was sung and danced to. After that there was a stillness. In script writing we would call it a few beats, a moment or two of quiet. What now we seemed to be asking ourselves? Slowly and spontaneously different men, Grandad’s sons, grandsons and nephews grabbed shovels and poured soil on the casket. The rest of us followed. And soon everyone was helping bury our Granddad. A younger cousin watched on while his older brother urged him to help out. 

We bury our own. 

I flew back home the next day and I was straight back to the NICU where life and death sit so close to each other they often overlap. I was visited by an Aunty. She told me that it was a blackfulla who had fought for the right for families to bury their babies. Previously the hospital regarded the foetuses/babies as medical waste. It didn’t surprise me that it was blackfullas who pushed for appropriate burials. 

The rituals following death are often the final care we offer to our loved ones. In a colony such as ours, not content with causing our early deaths through chronic illness, or state violence or neglect, our ability to provide those final acts of care has been violently interrupted with a range of degradations. In the 19th century a trade of our ancestor’s skeletons and other body parts proliferated with our body and body parts scattered all over the world in private collections and colonial institutions such as museums and universities. Burial sites were raided and corpses maimed for trade. The violation of our bodies after our deaths has been part of the colonial and white tradition of extraction. 

We were massacred, hundreds of thousands of our bodies lay in the ground, brutally lost lay unmarked across this continent and where people died after being stolen, our bodies were just as displaced as our lives were. 

These violations aren’t only in history. In November 2019 Kumanjayi Walker’s family weren’t notified of his death by shooting for hours. His funeral was delayed due to coronial processes and coronavirus. His funeral had messages of solidarity from the family of Aunty Tanya Day and David Dungay Jr, other families going through their own coronial processes. Our souls are not able to rest; coronial processes linger for years and our deaths contested if they are noticed at all. 

Since invasion we have been told explicitly and implicitly that we are a people (when we are considered human at all) not worth mourning. Our lives and deaths are not grievable. So to grieve is an act of defiance. For many of us funerals are the most significant part of the collective grieving process.  For a colonised people living under the conditions we do, funerals are painful yet commonplace occurrences in our lives. They are also something else; where we see family we haven’t seen in years or at least since the last funeral. The charge after, if there isn’t too much carrying on, is joyous and funny. Most of all they are a way for us to remember. To remember our people, when all this country seems to want us to do is forget, is resistance. 

This work of grief and remembrance has a radical tradition. In the community I’m from in Melbourne, Victoria, Aunty Edna Brown founded the Fitzroy Aboriginal Funeral Service after seeing our people be given a pauper’s funeral. In the 1960s, she started raising money to ensure people had a decent burial and secured discounts from local funeral homes. In her later years she petitioned the government to give a plot of land for our people to be laid to rest, she was eventually successful in securing Weeroona Cemetery in 1992. 

The work of communities coming together to bury their own also has an international tradition. The Black Panther Party had a funeral assistance program and traditional Korean culture saw communities made up of different households pitching together to bury their own. 

Today there are people in our communities all over the country who do the work of allowing us to remember together. There are people who organise funerals, fundraisers, who do the catering, create the flyers, print the flyers, put together the slideshow, give lifts and so much more. 

It is an act of love, defiance and resistance to remember and grieve the people we have lost that the colony would rather we forget and I am thankful to the people in our communities who do the labour so that we are able to do this together.  

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