The subject of the current exhibition at the Post Office Gallery centres around how we bury our dead. And while it may not be for the faint-hearted, it lends itself to a fascinating view of Bendigo’s development as a city.
For surely the respect we give to our dead is as much a sign of civilisation as the emergence of our court houses, churches and galleries.
Curated by Emma Busowsky Cox, the exhibition is at times deeply moving. Two images which confront the viewer on first entering the gallery are focused on the fate of the early settlers.
In one lithograph by S T Gill, a coffin is lead by two bullocks, followed by the family in a cart and at the rear three undertakers in black. Perhaps the body belongs to a child. A male figure holds the reins of the horse and next to him sits a woman, her face totally covered by what appears to be a large white handkerchief.
“The discovery of a skeleton in the Kamarooka scrub, near Bendigo, 1866”, is a wood engraving by Samuel Calvet. Here we see two miners confounded by the ghostly remains of a digger, stark and confronting amongst the bush.
Many of the early settlers buried their own dead. Dr David Waldron in the exhibition’s catalogue says that burial arrangements were “ad hoc and erratic” across central Victoria.
While Britain under Queen Victoria, was practising elaborate burial rituals, burial grounds of central Victoria were a “shambles with pigs and goats wandering freely over the graves”.
Worst of all, how you were buried depended on how much you were worth.
Widows or women who lost their children were often dependant on charity to have their children buried with dignity.
The exhibition also highlights the prevalence of the practice of Spiritualism, particularly among the respectable middle classes.
Also featured among the memorabilia and paintings are Chinese grave stones and an example of an exquisite ancestral Chinese shrine.