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Podcast: Cemeteries a window to the past

Welcome to Hidden Histories: Cemeteries, the eighth episode of series two of the Bundaberg Now Podcast.

Cemeteries provide a unique window into the history of a place and its people, evoking emotion and reflection.

While there are often legends surrounding the location and sometimes the deceased, the truth can be far more fascinating than fiction.

As a member of Friends of South Isis Cemetery Doreen Cole has dedicated her time and effort to ensuring the stories of this historic cemetery are not forgotten.

“I used to come down here as a small child to visit my grandfather’s grave,” Doreen said.

“There are babies buried at the back of the cemetery and Cole babies and other names I have forgotten.

“Lots and lots of babies died in those early days, there was nothing you could do about it, you just buried them.”

Nick Burfield at the Bundaberg War Cemetery

Our local cemeteries have a diverse history, including the Bundaberg General cemetery’s relocation from the CBD which Council's regional supervisor of cemeteries Nick Burfield said resulted in the loss of six years of cemetery records from 1873.

“Where it was (originally) located there were a few different churches on all the corners, where the deceased were transferred with horse and cart back in the day, it was just a lot easier,” Nick said.

“The only thing we have opposed to the other ones is we have a section especially set aside for the war graves for the Office of Australian War Graves.

“So we have that and a special section in the general area for the return services.

“I just think the respect we show the service personnel here is perfect.”

Listen now to hear more about two regional cemeteries:

In this series we shine a spotlight on the heritage buildings and infrastructure in our region.

Listen as we uncover memories, mysterious ghost stories and bizarre facts about some of our most iconic structures.

You can also listen on Google, Apple, Spotify, TuneIn or your favourite podcast app.

Subscribe to the podcast here.

Hidden Histories: Cemeteries a window to the past transcript:

Gennavieve Lyons [00:00:06] Welcome to this special series of the Bundaberg Now podcast where we shine a spotlight on the history of our region. My name's Gennavieve Lyons and I'll be your host as we uncover hidden histories, mysterious stories and some pretty bizarre facts about our most iconic buildings and areas around the region. Cemeteries provide a unique window into the history of a place and its people. There's often a certain mystery that surrounds cemeteries, and tales of people's final resting places inspire folklore and legends. But often, the truth is far more engaging than fiction. Today, we'll hear from two people, Nick Burfield and Doreen Cole, who've both dedicated their time and efforts to ensuring that local cemeteries are preserved respectfully, and their stories are not forgotten. As a final resting place, the Isis district pioneers could not have wanted for a better location than the South Isis Cemetery. Though long closed to burials, the surrounding native bush lends peace and tranquility, and a walk through the grounds leads to reflection on a very different time. A handful of plaques dedicated to the unknown babies are a mute acknowledgement of the heartache and misery the deaths of these infants must have created more than 140 years ago. Large galvanised gates are an impressive entryway to what is now a place of historical significance, with the first recorded burial in 1877. South Isis resident Doreen Cole spoke with Morgan Everett from Bundaberg Now about the work of the Friends of South Isis Cemetery who ensured this piece of local history was not completely forgotten.

Morgan Everett [00:01:51] We're here this morning at the South Isis Cemetery with Doreen. Can you tell me a little bit about the cemetery here Doreen?

Doreen Cole [00:01:58] As much as I can remember, a lot of my ancestors are buried here on the Swindall side or my mum's side. I used to come down here as a small child to visit my grandfather's grave. There are babies buried at the back of the cemetery and Cole babies and other names I have forgotten. We found a Kanaka grave, over on the western fence. My grandma told me about that, actually. She said there was and she knew his name, but I have long forgotten. And Gail Reid, who worked for the Bundaberg Council, actually found it. She had a device she could divine and find the land that had been disturbed. And she found quite a few and marked them when they were marked correctly. And then we formed the committee of Friends of the Cemetery and we had working bees down here. We worked with her, we all worked with her and she found them and then I think the government, they had a subsidy and they were marked. They're all marked all over the place that we found.

Morgan Everett [00:03:23] Doreen, what started it all? What happened in the paper there?

Doreen Cole [00:03:27] Well, the Town and Country had an article about the cemetery and the grave, the headstone that was knocked over. Well, that was on my grandfather's grave. The cattle were all in here and it was wild, and it was just neglected, and no one worried about it, was going to be lost. So then we decided we'd try and find a registrar and no one had it and no one knew where it was. And in the end it was found under the water tower in the basement there safely tucked away in a box. And then it all just happened from there. The council, no it was the government that gave a grant and cleaned it all up and we formed our committee of Friends of the Cemetery. They gave a grant. We've got a nice entrance now and it's securely fenced and the council maintained it by slashing it.

Morgan Everett [00:04:37] And you say a little bit about the unmarked infant graves. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you know?

Doreen Cole [00:04:42] Well, they were just babies. Well, there was lots and lots of babies died in those early days. Well, there was nothing you could do about it and you just buried them and there was no kerfuffle made about it because the poor things were having a baby every two years and that was it. They buried them and got on with their life. A lot of them were buried in their backyards and things like that.

Morgan Everett [00:05:08] Can you tell me about the school teachers grave?

Doreen Cole [00:05:10] He was a South Isis school teacher and he was coming home from a night out. And he fell off his horse and was killed and buried over there, not far from my grandparents, actually. And he was quite young and the school committee, they rallied and arranged his funeral and everything.

Morgan Everett [00:05:38] So. Can you tell me a little bit more about your relatives and your family that's here?

Doreen Cole [00:05:42] Well, my great grandparents and two of their children and their grandchild, who was only nine, he was shot accidentally when he was nine. And he was actually operated on, on my grandma's kitchen table to try and save him. That was in the very early 1900s. But he died.

Morgan Everett [00:06:08] Oh wow that's really awful. Can you tell me, then, how significant this place is to you and how long you've been coming here?

Doreen Cole [00:06:18] Well, I've been coming here since I was about nine after my grandfather died, and mum and I used to come and put flowers on his grave and keep it clean and everything, and then a few years later, the Swindall plot up there, which was my mum, was a Swindall. The last relative of that family. She decided she wanted to do the graves up before she died, and her two sons made all the steel work up there. And my dad helped cement the plot and it's marked now. She said, I won't rest until I get their graves, she always said that. That was Aunty Hay she lived in Bundaberg.

Gennavieve Lyons [00:07:09] Our local cemeteries have a diverse history, including the Bundaberg General cemeteries relocation, including remains from an original burial ground to a new location and the loss of cemetery records in a six year period from 1873. Nick Burfield manages council cemeteries and spoke with Adele Bennett from Bundaberg Now about what it takes to maintain the cemeteries and why he chose such a specialised career.

Adele Bennett [00:07:39] So Nick, thanks for joining us on the Bundaberg Now podcast. Tell me where we are today.

Nick Burfield [00:07:43] Today we're at the Bundaberg Cemetery. We're located in the 91 Takalvan Street.

Adele Bennett [00:07:47] And how long has the cemetery being here?

Nick Burfield [00:07:49] The first recorded burial was in 1879, so I was here approximately six years prior to that. It was located just off of Byron Street, the corner near the old blockbuster building. So, yes, it was there for a few years and they worked out pretty quickly it wasn't big enough. So all the deceased were exhumed and removed and placed here in the Catholic cemetery, and there was a lot of the Chinese community repatriated back to China.

Adele Bennett [00:08:16] Why was it so close to town originally?

Nick Burfield [00:08:18] Just because where it's located, there was a few different churches on all the corners and where the deceased was transferred with horse and cart back in the day. It was just a lot easier to do it that way. But then when they made the decision to move it out here, this was right on the edge of town. So none of none of the buildings were here before and people said how far out it was and that sort of thing. So it's a bit of a talking point at that stage. But then the town just grew around it and now it's almost pretty much central and middle of town.

Adele Bennett [00:08:45] What is your role here at the cemetery?

Nick Burfield [00:08:47] So my main role is one overseeing the maintenance routine. So I have a team of five all up, including myself. And so the external team look after the burials, the ashes placement and the general maintenance, and then we also deal with, the other side of the job is dealing with the funeral directors and families and booking in days and times, etc., for the funeral. So it's a bit of a varied role. So we also look after 12 cemeteries all up throughout the region. So we have to accommodate all the burials in Gin Gin, Childers and Apple Tree Creek. etc.

Adele Bennett [00:09:20] So what is it about cemeteries that made you want to work here?

Nick Burfield [00:09:23] It's just helping the people really, see this is the worst thing anybody's going to go through. And I just think if we can help the families through that little bit and just take a little just make them feel a little bit less stressed and so forth, then, then I feel we've achieved a good job. So yeah, that's the satisfaction. And what I try to achieve is doing the best for the families and their loved ones. People are often very intrigued just as to what I do in general, or they're a little bit wary, a little bit freaked out by it. But yes, I think people get a bit of the wrong impression of what we actually do here. And I was a funeral director prior to this, so I've sort of seen the whole process from the pre service to the actual completion of a service. So it's good to have that aspect and see the whole different thing.

Adele Bennett [00:10:10] So here in Bundaberg, what is it about this cemetery in particular that makes it unique?

Nick Burfield [00:10:15] Yeah, just the only thing we have opposed to the other ones is we have a section especially set aside for the war graves for the Office of Australian War Graves. So we have that and a special section in the general for the return service. So none of the other cemeteries have a set aside section. We do have service personnel, but yeah, I just think the respect we show the service personnel here is perfect.

Adele Bennett [00:10:43] Can you describe what it looks like for people listening?

Nick Burfield [00:10:46] So in the official War Graves section, we have a hedged area and we have a uniform white headstone that's all set out in a lawn format and it's immaculately kept. So taking care of we have a general, so an older service section that have concrete crosses as well as a traditional monumental thing. Now there is an official war graves grave, so that is a tan sort of colour and that takes gets taken care of by the Office of War Crimes for perpetuity. So we have a just a special lawn section this so yet again it's very formal, the way it's set out is very military like it has a concrete and marble desk and then we have a memorial wall specially for the service personnel.

Adele Bennett [00:11:36] Is this sort of a place people come on things like Anzac Day?

Nick Burfield [00:11:40] Yes, we just, the Anzac Day just happened very recently. We have a service every Anzac morning and poppies are laid on all the service personnel throughout the whole cemetery. We do have service personnel in the older section as well. The service personnel is not just restricted to the special areas we have located here. They are buried throughout the whole cemetery and so the service persons do have a poppy laid on their spot, even in the other areas.

Adele Bennett [00:12:11] So in the distance I see a sort of reddish red building. Can you tell me a bit about that one?

Nick Burfield [00:12:16] Yeah, so that is our South Sea Islander section. So there is a lot of unmarked graves, unfortunately, of people from the South Sea Islander heritage. That was, council actually did donate that land to the South Sea Islanders. We now have a church there for services and so forth. Bundaberg is the only cemetery that we look after that actually has the vaults, so the above ground burials. So that is a lot of Italian and Sicilian culture go for that option. So the deceased is almost entombed above the ground as opposed to the traditional buried in the ground format. And so, yeah, it's we have a lot of buildings, so we have three sections in the cemetery here. So vault one, vault two, and vault three. So yeah, we're very creative with all these names and yeah, so we can some of them very elaborate. We can hold multiple people in them. And yeah, it's just a place where they can go and have special ornaments and figurines and that sort of thing.

Adele Bennett [00:13:17] What do you think it does for a town to have such a visual reminder of the history of the people that have lived here?

Nick Burfield [00:13:23] Well, it just tells you all the history as well, because a headstone speaks a thousand words. It's got, when they passed, their relatives and so forth. Sometimes it tells you how they were passed as well. And it's just yeah, it's a place where people can come to remember if they're away from their town. They people often like walking around and just seeing people. It sort of brings them a bit of peace that they're not the only one unfortunately in that situation.

Gennavieve Lyons [00:13:49] Thanks for listening to that account of just two of our regional cemeteries. Join us again next month for another look into Bundaberg's historic buildings and areas.

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