Waranga News

Burial Rites


Recent Waranga Dreaming stories have focussed on three local Aboriginal people who are buried in the Murchison cemetery – “King Charles” Tattambo, his second wife “Queen Mary” and his son by his first marriage, known as “Captain John”. All three were born before European colonisation of the Waranga area and were deeply imbued with Aboriginal spirituality and culture. In view of that, it is somewhat surprising they all chose to be buried according to European, rather than Aboriginal, customs.

The first of these to be buried was Tattambo, in January 1868. By that point, Tattambo had been influenced by over 30 years of contact with Europeans. Most reports of his death mention that he wanted to be buried like a European. “He had been gradually wasting away for a month, during which time he was quite aware of his approaching end. He viewed the matter quite calmly, expressing a very strong desire to be buried in the cemetery, and in a coffin.”

A foot in each world

People like Tattambo and his relatives lived with a foot in each of two worlds, which were poles apart. On one hand, they had lived at a time totally uninfluenced by European ideas and culture, living in traditional ways over many years. Then they had experienced a dramatic transformation in their lifestyles, over an extremely short period of time, during which everything they knew was radically changed forever.

The fact that members of this family survived such an enormous change is a testament to their adaptability and courage to embrace change. It is understandable that they would adopt some of the customs of the European colonisers, while at the same retaining many aspects of their traditional way of life in the face of enormous pressure to change.

The generation that lived through European colonisation felt the pull of both cultures in a similar way that emigrants to a new country do. The difference for the local Aboriginal people was that they had not moved, but their world had changed so dramatically it would seem to them as though they were in another country.

Traditional Burials

Had the lives of Tattambo, Mary and John not been impacted by European colonisation, their burial rites would have obviously been quite different. Like the situation in our communities now, there was a whole range of options open to the families of the Aboriginal people of the local area when one of them died.

Generally, Aboriginal burial took place at, or close to, the place where the person died, rather than in a communal cemetery. For this reason, the remains of Aboriginal people have been located all over the Waranga area. A reporter in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser who had visited the Murchison district, and was talking about the Ngurai-illum Wurrung people, said that “From archaeological research of a very superficial character, we find frequent traces and mementoes of the Aboriginal occupation of the Goulburn. The blackfellow’s tomahawk, their camp-fire and burying ground, are continually being met with…”.

An earlier Waranga Dreaming story mentioned the two skeletons found near Sapling Point on Waranga Basin in the 1930s. A similar discovery took place on the Campaspe River near Rochester in 1886, when a farmer, Mr McHattie, “whilst digging up an Aboriginal “oven” unearthed the skeletons of two human beings.” Dr Taffe “pronounced them to be Aboriginals” and concluded that the remains belonged to a man and a woman “of good age.”

Funeral service

William Thomas, who worked for a period as an Assistant Protector of Aborigines, and later as a “guardian” (after the protectorate system was abandoned) made the following observations – “Over the men, according to their importance, an oration is delivered… Over the women and children no ceremony is performed. After the body is interred, the encampment breaks up, leaving a fire at the east of the grave.”

Thomas does not say how the body was generally positioned in the grave, but in many cultures, graves are often orientated to the east, where the sun rises. In the case of Christianity, the east is where it is considered the second coming will occur.

References: 1 McIvor Times and Rodney Advertiser 10.1.1868; 2 Ovens and Murray Advertiser 15.7.1885, p 4; 3 Elmore Standard 19.2.1886; 4 Bride, Thomas F (ed) Letters from Victorian Pioneers p 400