‘Australian Ways of Death’ by Pat Jalland

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2002,  328 p & notes

This might seem a really perverse book for me to have read recently. My father died a fortnight ago, and I began reading it while he was gravely ill.

You’ll note from the title of this book Australian Ways of Death: A Social and Cultural History 1840-1918 that Jalland finishes her book at the end of WWI. In the epilogue she explains why she made 1918 the cut-off point. Most obviously, the death and disappearances of so many soldiers overseas in WWI, with their bodies  buried on the other side of the world (if found at all), forced a change in the way people mourned. Information was incomplete and delayed, and there was no physical grave nearby to be visited.  But she also points to the present-day medicalisation and denial of death that has emerged since 1918.  The influence of Christian churches declined; there was a change in the meaning of death as life expectancy rose with a shift from infancy to old age as the most probable time of death; the medicalization of death meant that the death of a patient represented ‘failure’, and the physical act of caring was relocated from women relatives to hospitals and nursing homes. (p.327)

So why read this book now? I felt with Dad’s death that we were reverting to an older, more traditional way of facing death. First, after several bouts of bypass surgery and an inoperative stent over a period of thirty-five years, Dad was dying with heart and renal failure – a slow, inexorable death for which there was no magical surgical or medical cure, just as was the case during the 19th century.  Second, we chose to help Dad die at home, not in hospital. Even though we had a hospital bed, carers and nurses attending him and twice-weekly visits from a wonderful GP, they were walk-on, walk-off players. The more common scene was just us, day and night, in the lounge room where Dad decided he’d prefer to be, with a bag of prescription drugs to be sure, but more importantly face-washers, ice chips and glasses of water. And so, I sought out this book, out of curiosity and fellow-feeling, and probably as an attempt to intellectualize what we were experiencing these last few weeks.

Prior to the publication of this book, Pat Jalland had written about death and the Victorian family, most particularly in Britain. In this book, she looks for continuities but also differences between the Australian and British experience.

Part I examines immigrant deaths at sea, both of children and of adults. Her time frame extends beyond the mass immigration of the 1840s and the gold rush, into journeys made later in the century. Chapter 1 ‘The Terror of a Watery Grave’ explores the experience of losing a child while on-board ship, which was all too common, and which was often dealt with expeditiously and without formal ceremony. That did not mean, however, that the parents did not grieve: they did, from the ‘poshest’ cabins through to the meanest steerage berth. Chapter 2 ‘Faith, Fever and Consumption’ took up the experience of on-board death amongst adult passengers, who rarely had the opportunity to have the ‘good death’ that nineteenth-century people sought, even though the ‘sea air’ and Australian climate was thought to be restorative.  Because the journey was such a huge life-event, taking people far from their families, there is a cache of correspondence that Jalland can draw on that represents a range of families of differing economic status.

In Part II, ‘The Good Christian Death’, she explores the transmission of ideals of ‘the good death’ from Europe to Australia. She notes that it survived strongly over two generations from the 1830s through to the 1880s.  She follows  Hilary Carey’s suggestion that during the last decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, religious indifference increased among the working classes and intellectuals began to question their faith. She argues that the ‘good Christian death’ was experienced differently by Roman Catholics and Protestants. Protestants emphasized a more individualistic death, dependent on family support, where Catholics relied more on rituals dispensed through the priesthood, and thus somewhat removed from family responsibility.  She notes that deathbed scenes from the 1870s onwards, as described in condolence letters and correspondence to those at ‘home’, moved away from a pious concern with the spiritual state of the sufferer, to a desire that the patient die without pain. A ‘good’ death early in the century was a spiritual one; by the end of the century it was a painless one.  She notes that although funerals like Burke and Wills’ extravaganza consciously set out to emulate a British funeral like that of Wellington’s, there was discomfort both with the expense and extravagance on the one hand, and embarrassment at shoddiness of the colonial attempt on the other.   Strangely, amongst the clergy, there was more emphasis on hell in Australian theology than British theology, despite attempts by Unitarians and liberal Anglicans to abolish or at least moderate the terrors of the doctrine. Tombstones were derivative of the graveyards of Great Britain and Europe, but there was greater emphasis on ‘In Memorium’ advertisements in the newspapers.  Keepsakes, hair remembrances and photographs were popular, especially as they could be conveyed physically across the ocean.

Most of this section draws on the writings of middle-class, educated correspondents, and Jallard pauses to examine two particular examples of masculine middle-class memorialization: that of Herbert Brookes for his first wife Jennie.  Even though he later went on to re-marry Ivy Deakin, the daughter of Alfred Deakin, throughout his life he visited Jennie’s grave twice a year.  The other case study was Dr John Springthorpe, whose memorial tomb I wrote about here.  I found it interesting that both these intellectual men, who mourned so deeply and openly, were associated with (although not adherents to) Rev Charles Strong’s Australian Church – in fact, Jennie was Strong’s daughter.

Part III shifts gear, and looks at ‘Death and Destitution’.  Part II had been drawn from the correspondence and writings of middle-class families, but here Jalland turns to the statistical reports and records of ‘benevolent’ asylums, where the individual voice is rarely heard. Although by the 1870s reforms in Britain were gradually changing the nature of the workhouse from a punitive institution to a form of general hospital . This did not occur until decades later in Australia.  Jalland compares the major institutions in different states, noting that conditions were better in Adelaide and Melbourne Asylums. In Tasmania, there was a particular stigma attached to the convict stain, and many sick and dying paupers were ex-convicts. She devotes a whole chapter to benevolent asylums in New South Wales, where a number of government inquiries called on inmates as witnesses, eliciting changes to key institutions in the early 20th century.

In Part IV, Jalland examines death in the bush and in the Great War. Although the literature and artwork of the 1890s sentimentalized the bush burial, or emphasized the heroic deaths of explorers and bushrangers, it was more common for men to die of accidents, illness and – quite frankly- stupidity.  The harsh environment made elaborate rituals impossible and inappropriate. There was respect for the dead, and a stoic acceptance of its inevitability. There were wakes- often “noisy and exuberant masculine affairs” (p. 259). Aboriginal deaths at the hands of settlers were silenced, and many old bushmen, often ex-convicts, died lonely and destitute deaths.  Lost children captured the public imagination, but more commonly women died in childbirth, and children often died after birth or through illness.

In the epilogue, Jalland links the stoic, pragmatic attitude towards bush funerals with the death of mates in the trenches during WWI.  For those at home, there were no graves to visit, and death permeated the community. Churches became more feminized, especially in Protestant churches, and some turned to spiritualism.  As in Part II, Jalland turns again to the example of middle-class, intellectualized masculine grief at WWI loss through the example of John Roberts, who kept detailed scrapbooks about his son and Justice Henry Bourne Higgins who suffered silently.  These men were not religious, and their response marked the increased secularization of death in the twentieth century.  Jalland explored this further in her later book Changing Ways of Death in twentieth-century Australia: war, medicine and the funeral business.

This was a strange book to read at a strange time.  I much preferred the chapters where she cited letters and case studies, rather than the demographic and statistical chapters.  I really liked the way that she approached the question of 19th century death from so many aspects: middle class/ working class; male/female; Catholic/Protestant; Urban/Rural; English/Australian. Other writers have since picked up where she left off (for example, Tanya Evans on benevolent asylums, or Bart Ziino on war graves).  But there is real human interest here,  with a common humanity, even though practices may have been different.  At a difficult time I found it interesting and oddly comforting.

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I’ve read this book as part of the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge.

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3 responses to “‘Australian Ways of Death’ by Pat Jalland

  1. Gosh, Janine, I don’t think I could have read this at such a time. I’ve just looked back at what I read when my father was dying, and I think I disassociated myself from what was going on. I know I watched a lot of rubbish on TV at home but while I was with him I also read books that had nothing to do with anything. And on the last day, I played his favourite Mozart CD over and over while we sat with him.
    I do think that it’s crucial to have something to turn to when you’re ‘off-duty’ so to speak, so that your mind and heart gets a bit of time out. I don’t know what people who are not readers do, to lose themselves in another world for a short time while someone else takes over.

  2. The consolations of history… I can understand that. I liked Jalland’s chapter on Katharine Susannah Prichard’s grieving in the ‘sequel’ to this book, Changing Ways of Death in 20th Century Australia, and would like to read more of her work. Thanks for the great review.

  3. Pingback: History, Memoir and Biography Round Up: February 2018 – Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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