Goodbyes are not forever

May 31, 2018

We enter the recently-constructed gateway built of Broome sandstone.  Stones in neat straight lines stand like sentinels, facing west; facing the ocean. A plaque, set in the local sandstone, tells of the history of the final resting place of Broome’s Japanese community.

 

The Japanese had arrived in Broome in the late 19th century to work as pearl divers. Along with Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, and Aboriginal people, Broome had a diverse ethnic population, but it was the Japanese who are best known for diving into the depths of the ocean to collect the oyster shells for the early pearlers. Diving was fraught with perils; sharks, stingrays, and swordfish, which could easily pierce the breathing hoses connecting the diver with his trusted assistant on the boat above. The main cause of death among the divers was paralysis or the bends, caused by rising from deep water too quickly. As dangerous as it was to dive into the depths for the shells that may contain treasured pearls, it was a risk many were willing to take. The first interment in the cemetery had been in 1896. There are now 707 graves in which 919 people are buried.

 

I walk between the natural stones, all of which bear Japanese characters. Some of the older graves are weathered, their stones tilted and the characters barely discernible, whilst others are missing altogether. There are a number of newer, black granite markers, which seem to be a little out of place here in this quietly reverent place. As I walk between the stones, white pebbles crunch beneath my feet. I notice that the pebbles are mixed with white shells from the beach, located beyond the scrubby vegetation across the road. Loud squawks and a cloud of white cockatoos rise from a gum tree as I approach a sandstone obelisk. It bears the names of those lost during the cyclone of 1908. Despite the sad reality that many of these itinerant workers never returned to their homeland of Japan, they forever face the direction of their homeland. I hope that their descendants know that their bravery is very much intertwined with the history of Australia and its pearling industry. The maintenance of the cemetery is testament of the respect the people of Broome have for their history.

I rejoin the path that divides the two sections of the cemetery and walk through the little opening that leads into the Broome general cemetery. The first thing that strikes me is that, unlike the Japanese cemetery behind me, all graves are facing an easterly direction, as per Christian tradition. In this setting, there is a noticeable shift from the Asian to European sections of the large cemetery. This part is old, and many of the headstones are worn down by the harsh Kimberley weather; relentless sun, wind and torrential rain, depending on the season. Sadly the children’s section is large and it brings to one’s attention, the reality of life in this harsh land over the centuries.

As I approach the road, one block away from where the car is parked, I notice some activity by the roadside. A fenced area, set aside for the Sisters of Saint John of God, contains the final resting places of the missionary nuns, most of whom were Irish.  The Sisters of Saint John of God first arrived in Perth in 1895. They had set up a convent in Perth before setting up schools in the Kimberley, most notably at the Beagle Bay Mission, the Lombadina Mission, and the Wirrumanu (Balgo Hills) Mission, amongst others. The nuns are, without a doubt, some of the most respected missionaries in this region.

As we approach the small graveyard, I can see that a grave has been freshly dug and people are gathering at the site. Before long, the hearse, pallbearers, the Bishop and a young seminarian arrive. I am surprised that the congregation is made up of equal numbers of indigenous and white people. The coffin is balanced on poles above the deep hole and the graveside ceremony for Sister Veronica McCarthy begins. As the brief formal service concludes, the coffin is gently lowered into the grave, awaiting the final prayers.

The congregation forms a queue and one by one, they each take a handful of the rich, dark-red soil from the adjacent pile dug from the grave site, and solemnly drop the earth onto Sr. Veronica’s coffin. As the last person brushes their red-stained hands over the grave, a member of the congregation begins saying the first decade of the rosary. At the same time, the gentlemen step forward, spades in hand and begin to shovel the soil from the huge pile into the grave. At first, I thought that this is a token mark of respect, but it quickly becomes apparent that these people are not going to stop until the last grain of soil is moved. As each one tires, they hand their shovel to one of the gentlemen waiting their turn. I’m not sure how long it took for those hardy men to fill in the grave, but it couldn’t have taken them more than twenty minutes to reduce the pile of earth. As the last spadefuls are flung onto the mound, and the people begin to sing 'Hail Queen of Heav'n', the ladies move forward, reverently tamping down the mound with their bare hands. Their handprints are stamped firmly into the red soil. Flowers are gently laid as the Bishop stands and says the final prayer.

It is the first time I have witnessed a burial carried out with such love and reverence. In my experience, the pile of soil is hidden behind a screen and the grave is filled in once the congregation leaves the cemetery. Today’s funeral was a beautiful experience of a community working together to inter a member of one of their own in a most personal and loving manner. We could all learn a lesson from this group of beautiful people.

 

 

Title Quote: Author Unknown

Accommodation: Bayside Holiday Apartments, Hammersley St, Broome. WA 6725

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