Saturday, November 17, 2007

Millthorpe Cemetery Blues






There’s nothing like the afternoon rays of the sun. Like country roads and their turning. The AM radio pushes me on into a rising curve, into an Elton John song from the 1970s, ‘Where to Now St Peter?’ It reminds me of being 15 years old; of being 47 now: “I took myself a blue canoe and I floated like a leaf”.

A cemetery swings into view as I enter Millthorpe. White crosses and granite tombstones tumble over a lazy hill. White clouds sit in a blue Australian sky. “I understand I’m on the road where all that was is gone…so where to now St Peter?”

Ahead a funeral cortege is bumping along, kicking up dust as it pulls out from the gravel beside an empty Catholic church. There’s something lonely and bright about the procession as six or so vehicles scroll by, black duco flashing, onto the bitumen and away.

I get the feeling I should go visiting the graveyard and spin the wheel. As if the song on the radio and the funeral cortege had invited me in. Truth is I know this hill in sunlight and in frost. I know the sound of the wind in its trees, the jitter of the sparrows high on the winter spires of the branches. I’ve been here before.

Why anyone would resist visiting a country graveyard mystifies me. The sense of local history that such places give off; the feelings of serenity and sadness that tangle with it; the way you can feel both complete and dissolved, as if you’ve always belonged there... the closest thing I can relate it to is looking out over the ocean and letting the weight of your life go.

Of course there are those who find graveyards boring, even detestable places, who strictly regard them as provinces for those who grieve - not to mention a little confronting to one’s own mortality. But it’s more than just historical train-spotting or maudlin geriatric tourism that draws me in. My visits usually end up being connected to events like the ones I’ve described, as if I have somehow been ‘called’. Which is how I find myself standing on a hill in the middle of a sunny winter afternoon surrounded by the dead again.

Millthorpe lays half way between Bathurst and Orange in country New South Wales: ‘pop. 650’ the sign says. For a while it was my home. I’ve written a book here, made friends and lost contact with them, come back and got drunk with some new ones. One of them lost his wife and baby daughter in a motor vehicle accident a few years ago, out along the back road to Bathurst. I’d see the single flower he and his surviving daughter left on the turn where it happened. Like graves these roadside memorials mark out a place where souls have the left the world while we’re still saying goodbye. And though I never knew the deceased I’d slow down and bless myself every time I drove past, till one day the flower was gone.

Millthorpe’s official graveyard has a population of some 2000 souls and growing from the looks of two fresh mounds of soil at the top of the hill today. I get out of the car and watch a burgundy haired punk, country poor in track pants and old running shoes, making her way past me. Catching her face is like looking into someone’s private Calvary, and I avert my eyes as she continues climbing towards the piles of dirt and that moment of grief when everyone has gone and there’s time to be alone.

Below me the St Canna’s Catholic Church is so quiet it seems abandoned. I take in the sheep-dotted farmlands across the road as they haze outwards to Mount Canobolas, the highest point in Australia west of the Great Dividing Range. A few days later Trevor Pascoe, the President of the Millthorpe District Historical Society, will tell me this is “the best view in town”.

It’s not unusual for graveyards to occupy prime real estate, as anyone here in Millthorpe - let alone visitors to cemeteries like Waverly in Sydney or Robertson in the southern Highlands - will attest. The same is true the world over. Fields and mountains, restless seas and big skies: we apparently feel a need to give the dead their vistas. But as I stand on this hill I realize it is us - the living - who need that horizon when we come calling on those who’ve passed away.

Locations like these are exposed and elementally intense, adding to the theatre of the dead. Trevor Pascoe calls Millthorpe’s graveyard “the prettiest part of town and usually the coldest part of town too” and it can be a relief when the wind drops on a bitter day. As we talk a cloud shadow wipes its mood over the graveyard like a thumbprint, birds go suddenly quiet. It’s not just a matter of ‘ghosts’; in moments like these you feel something of the Aboriginal idea that the land itself is alive.

Trevor points to the ground directly in front of us. He explains how many early graves from the last century are lost: wooden crosses have fallen and rotted away, others had nothing to mark them at all. “There’s one here,” Trevor says, “I can feel it in the subsidence.” We’ve all been taught our graveyard manners as children, been told not to walk over the dead. Call it respect if you like but even before this unmarked spot an aura pushes us back.

According to Trevor “the first grave [in Millthorpe] was a little girl back in 1867.” You walk around and witness the family pain wrought in times of Federation, World War One and Great Depression: the babies and children felled by pneumonia, bronchitis, diphtheria and whooping cough. One grave shows a boy born on Christmas morning, dead ten days later. Other family plots paint recurring stories of loss in mere dates and details. Mothers are often with their newborn, like Catherine Burke and her baby in “June 1912”: “I sleep so peaceful in my grave / With baby at my breast / So dear husband do not mourn / For we are at rest.”

Gravestone verses, Bible quotes, personal notes, some lyrical and transcendent, others brutishly accepting of God’s hand in things, others unintentionally comical – “the best is yet to come” – all these words give a cemetery its consoling force and poetic life: “We are nor dead but sleeping here. We were not yours but Christ’s alone. He loved us best and took us home… Loved in life. Treasured in death. Beautiful memories are all that are left… Not lost, but gone before.”

Many sentiments are repeated ad infinitum: “Rest in Peace… Peace, Perfect Peace… Thy Will Be Done.” There’s an oddly choral feeling to these phrases on gravestone after gravestone. As if, in the end, we do run out of words and a form of prayer or chant is all we can manage.

You could nonetheless fill an encyclopaedia with the language of these stones and its origins in prayer and poetry. For a time what were called ‘Graveyard Poets’ flourished in England in the 18th century, capturing the public’s imagination and laying the ground (so to speak) for the Romantic and Gothic movements to come. Arguably the most famous of these was Thomas Gray, whose ‘Elegy in a Country Graveyard’ (1750) recounts the poet’s own cemetery reveries: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. / The lowing herd winds slowly o’oer the lea, / The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Trevor Pascoe says he has “done a lot of grave-yarding”. Looking for his forebears in the U.K. as well as locally. The tourism centre in Millthorpe gets at least two or three enquiries every weekend from people tracing their family histories. Trevor’s parents, Neville and Ivy (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) are both buried here, and likely he will be too. Although a Columbarium was installed at the foot of the cemetery over a decade ago, cremation is not for him. “To me there’s just something more respectful about people being placed in the ground.”

Behind us the Anglican church St Mark’s sits prestigiously high on the hill. The Rector, Reverend Robert Myers, talks to me about “the committal” that takes place at gravesides. He explains there is a carpet covering the hole which is then removed when the coffin arrives “so that the grave is ready to receive”. “We commit the body to the ground, or in the case of cremation to be interned, in the belief that its purpose has been fulfilled,” he says. “And we commend the soul to God’s merciful keeping. Burial is the most common in the country. Cremation is still more of a city thing.”

It’s hard not to be aware of your ‘place’ in this, to think of parents, grandparents, even your own children. For me graveyards are about a return to God in some elusive form, or at least our hopes for a greater connectedness. Maybe memory itself is a kind of graveyard? I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit I am still a Catholic in this world of stone and flowers. And yet it’s the poetry of rock ‘n’ roll that dawns in me most, appropriately enough the lyrics to ‘Cemetery Gates’, the great Smiths song where Morrissey speaks of Yeats, Keats and Wilde before lamenting, “So we go inside and gravely read the stones. / All those people all those lives where are they now? / With loves and hates and passions just like mine?”

Millthorpe’s ‘life’ is told through family names: Redmond, Foley, McGlynn, Hayes, Hooper and McCooey proliferate. Sheer numbers in the Anglican quarter affirm the dominant faith of the town. Lichen beatifies the stone and marble, even as it creates an acid environment that eats away at verses and names. A few pinus radiata trees have been cut down because their roots were tilting the graves. Others have died because of the drought. Amid the cracks and moss and fallen trees this aesthetic of decay and erasure accentuates the fact graveyards can die too.

A half hour’s drive away is Carcoar. Even people in Millthorpe say its graveyard “is really the one to see”. But I never seem to make it past the pub in Carcoar on each of my visits. Once upon a time Carcoar competed with Bathurst to be the administrative centre of the Central Western District, but the discovery of gold west of the town ruined the town, blinded it to such stable possibilities. I think about Carcoar now because as a thirteen year old boy I used to stare at Brett Whiteley’s painting The Road to Carcoar – which was in the possession of the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery in the town where I am from - and yearn to touch it. I had never seen a painting before that used stones and other materials layered into the paint. It gave off a feeling that this yellowish painting was a clay-and-sunlight hallucination of the landscape itself.

To some extent I’ve set foot on this road to Carcoar too. Whiteley would use Millthorpe as a base to then trek out west and work on his landscapes. He’d also retreat to Millthorpe during tough times with his heroin addiction. I’m sure he spent time in this graveyard like me, looking and thinking. It makes me wonder about the history in the ground that might have affected him. What Aboriginal people would say is the country’s Dreaming force. Unlike the discoveries west of Carcoar - and at other sites like Ophir, Lucknow and Brown’s Creek - Millthorpe (then known as Spring Grove) was never ‘gold country’. Instead it was the place where people settled after the gold ran out, where they realized there was good land for wheat, stock fodder, fruit and potatoes. It was to this historically Protestant farming and working community that Whiteley came to get his head straight and be himself again, to ‘dry out’.

An 1870 monument to John Hardman Australia Lister has pride of place here nonetheless. It was Lister and his friend William Tom Jnr who found gold in the district at Ophir. Country lads, they took the information to their ‘partner’, an American called Edward Hargreaves who’d already experienced the Californian gold rush. Hargreaves reported it and claimed the reward as well as historical credit as the first to find gold in Australia. It would not be till after Lister’s death his contribution was recognised, belated praise that gives his grave an air of missed opportunity and betrayal.

At the bottom of the hill I notice an old woman weeding a narrow garden beside the Columbarium. Her name is Mavis Harvey and she says she is “visiting” her husband. Mavis was “born in town in 1928 and never had any real reason to leave. I’ve been to Queensland. And Nyngan! It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you are happy and contented,” she assures me, getting back on her knees to dig. “I have a nice day whenever I can be in the dirt and weeds, boy! I’m happy enough here. And yet so many people out there are looking for something and cannot find it. Damned if I know what they are looking for.”

We hear the sounds of children playing carried over to us by gusts of wind. Mavis smiles, tells me how her grandchildren ask, “If they [the dead] get out at night and look at the flowers?” I picture a clutch of sweet peas back on a grave at the top of the hill, left their fresh and loyal as the morning, seventeen years after the woman they were for has passed away.

Mavis has two hair-pins in the shapes of a golden shell and a similarly blue flower holding back her thin, grey-brown strands. She reminds me of a young girl on a date as she waves me goodbye, garden spade in her hand. Birds are making their silvery, jostling calls among the late afternoon branches. From the roadside I can see a park that lies next to the graveyard, full of children laughing and kicking a ball.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum 'The Essay' pages, September 15-16, 2007 under the title 'Ashes to ashes, dust to trust'.
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