Standing at my parents’ graves, I pondered how I'd feel if I couldn't visit them | Paul Daley

Occasionally you’ve just got to go with instinct, a force we may not understand but one in which we sometimes invest ahead of the tossed coin to resolve a hard decision or determine where to go at the forked path.

Something was telling me to visit my parents in the Melbourne general cemetery. This something had been impelling me for some years. I’d been to the old graveyard only once since we buried Dad in early 2008. And that was to put Mum in the ground a few months before Collingwood won the 2010 grand final (replay) she’d lost the will to anticipate.

This might sound very Celtic or very Melbourne or both or neither. But in my big extended Irish-extracted family – with its stories of hardship and the club, of early tragic passings and of the wayward and the lost – football and life seemed existentially entwined in a way that I never really thought to reconsider until mid-adulthood.

In 2012, for example, when I paid a deathbed visit to an uncle I loved dearly, the last words he said to me included the priority, passing assurance: “They’ll be right. They’ll be right.” He was referring to our team’s prospects in the finals. He died a day or two later, just before the Swans knocked the Magpies out in the prelim.

Anyway, Mum and Dad, I knew, were buried separately, her with her mother in an un-marked grave whose location in the cemetery I could walk directly to even though I hadn’t been there for so long. Dad is with his mother and father, nearby in a grave that marks him as the grieving son of his parents, though not having passed himself.

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Although I’d helped carry the coffin, I had no memory at all where Dad’s grave was. My eldest daughter had told me it was close to the fence, on the old Carlton footy ground side, and that he was buried close to a large number of Catholic nuns.

This might’ve amused Dad, who became less religious with age and made many jokes about nuns, especially regarding their capacities behind the driver’s wheel – symptomatic, he said, of something to do with the distracting properties of the habit. This from an 80-something man who, struck by Parkinson’s disease and poor eyesight, tried twice unsuccessfully in the last years of life to regain his driver’s licence. He had failed to brake before ricocheting off a fast-moving tram and smashing through a T-intersection, before taking out a front fence and coming to rest in the foundations of a house.

I’d often thought it odd Mum and Dad weren’t kept together after death. They’d lived, improbably I also sometimes think, together, for so long. So why hadn’t they planned it better for the after?

Graves, graveyard for Paul Daley postcolonial column.

I wonder now if they’d ever discussed where and with whom they wanted to be buried. Or if, like so many Irish-descended churchy people of their epoch, they’d have regarded such musings an un-Godly indulgence, a conceit to a fear of what – or perhaps the nothing – next.

But then, I remember, it had been our choice; both sides of the family had purchased plots in this 43-hectare cemetery where space is at a premium, a place that had – until the land grab that accompanied colonial invasion, dispossession and settlement – been Aboriginal grasslands and hunting grounds on one of the highest vantages of what’s now the city.

That recent leaden-skied Friday, the cemetery – with its crypts and its wrought-iron fencing, its carpeting of fallen russet leaves, its towering obelisks and its stone statues of angels and saints dedicated to the dead – was cliched for its evocative autumnal moodiness.

I’ve moved between cities a lot over the past three decades. After a while, each new one – Canberra, London, Sydney – begins to feel like home. But I realised that recent Friday, the day after Anzac Day (that annual moment of national remembering when we cling to the convenience of a national birth at Gallipoli that distracts from the harder truth) that my real home is Melbourne.

I write a lot about the dark truths of colonialism in Australia. One of the truths that angers me most, that impels me to look for justice for the dead, is how tens of thousands of sets of Indigenous ancestral remains came to be stolen and traded nationally and internationally.

I recently stood in a room in Australia where the remains of 4,600 people, most of them Aboriginal, are held in boxes because when they were stolen they were disconnected from country and the bone thieves did not keep a record of where they were taken from.

The story that this room tells about Australian colonialism is immense and profoundly disturbing, and one to which I’m returning, in detail, soon.

When I stood at my parents’ graves a few weeks ago, I felt anchored and secure in the knowledge that the bones of most my ancestors, at least those of the several generations who’ve died in Australia, are safely harboured in stolen Aboriginal land. And I pondered how I would feel if the remains of my ancestors were not there to be visited and, worse, had been stolen and displayed as curios or used in medical and ethnological experiments.

Could I feel grounded, connected to a city and a country I love, if I could not stand in the vicinity of my ancestors?

And I wondered why there has been no national outrage about these Aboriginal bodies in cardboard boxes.

And I could only conclude that it would certainly be an outrage if the remains were those of non-Indigenous settler/migrant families and their descendants – such as mine.

Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist



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