Almanac Poetry: At Campbell’s Creek Cemetery, Victoria

At Campbell’s Creek Cemetery, Victoria

 

 

Campbell’s Creek Cemetery,
five miles from Castlemaine,
starts off as flat land
then snakes up a rocky, Golgothan hill.
Many of its earliest graves,
dating from 1852,
are no longer marked.
Some older headstones lie,
broken off at the base,
against an embankment on one side,
flecked with lichen,
inscriptions worn by wind and rain,
blanched by sun.
On a hot February morning,
I travelled there,
hoping to find the grave
of my four-times great-grandfather
who died on the Castlemaine goldfields
of dysentery, in 1852.
He’d joined the throng from Van Diemen’s Land,
with a son, to try his luck.
I approached the caretaker’s office.
He wandered out,
a short, stocky man
in T-shirt, shorts and workboots.
Not very hospitable.
I probably looked like a tourist
which, in part, I was.
But his attitude annoyed me.
I had another, better reason
for being there.
Somewhere in this cemetery
my ancestor’s mortal remains
lay buried.
I wondered what they looked like now.
A skull and bones, brown with age?
Scraps of dried out skin? Tufts of hair?
I told the caretaker why I had come.
“You can have a look if you like,” he said,
apparently indifferent.
“Most of the older graves are up there.”
He gestured towards the hill.
“Thanks,” I said, without meaning it,
heading in that direction.
“Beware of tigers,” he yelled,
probably smirking at the thought
of putting the wind up a tourist.
Tiger snakes didn’t worry me, though.
I’d seen some as a kid.
“A snake will only attack
if sick or cornered,”
someone told me back then.
I wandered through the graves,
reading the names and dates.
A cemetery’s always full of stories,
but I didn’t find part of mine.
Returning to the caretaker’s office,
I muttered to myself,
“Great bloody help he was.”
As I entered, the rough-headed bloke
was poring over a ledger,
enormous, old and leather bound.
He looked up. An odd vignette,
this bushy reading a giant book.
“What was your relative’s name again?”
“Densley,” I answered.
“When did he die?”
“January, 1852.”
He flicked back some pages,
then placed his finger decisively.
“There,” he said, turning the book towards me.
To my surprise, he’d decided to help
and had found the record
of my four-times great-grandfather’s burial,
written in a stylish, old-fashioned hand.
“Densley, Thomas,” he continued.
“He was the seventy-third person buried here,
in the C of E section.
It says, ‘Occupation: stonemason.’”
This fact seemed to interest him.
“You know, he probably helped build
some of our early bridges and pubs.
Each stonemason had his own special mark
and if you knew what that was, you could –”
“I knew he was a stonemason,” I cut in,
impatient for more information
as to where he had been buried.
“He learnt the trade as a convict.
Around here, though,
I think he was mainly a prospector.”
“Fair enough,” said the caretaker,
pulling out a plan
for the “Proposed Campbell’s Creek Cemetery, 1851.”
(I was surprised it still existed
– it’s amazing what survives
in the archives of country towns.)
“Where his grave would probably be,” he said,
“is over there.”
He pointed out the door.
“Though most of that section’s been buried over.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot,” I nodded,
wanting to leave the shed.
I’d noticed there were still a few
old graves among the newer ones
in the C of E section.
I might be in luck.
The bloke became loquacious.
“Every so often, the older graves
get buried over,” he went on,
“to save on space.
And sometimes in a family plot,
if the children all died young,
they’d put their coffins one on top of the other.”
“Interesting,” I said, departing,
keen to continue my search.
I looked among the C of E graves.
Most were recent – 1950s onwards.
It was easy to tell these newest plots
– no angels reaching for heaven,
prayerful Virgins or Latin adorned them.
They had plain white stones with names and dates.
Among the old ones,
I couldn’t find my ancestor’s.
I wondered when his headstone disappeared.
Who was at his funeral? Did he even have one?
Had his grave been tended, ever,
by people who cared?
But before I left the cemetery,
I was struck by a family plot,
over a century old.
Mother, father and their six children
were all entombed.
What surprised me and made me pause
was the children.
None lived to adulthood.
A son reached his teens,
a daughter, twelve;
the rest died before five.
Mother and father outlived them all.
I drove away from the cemetery,
thinking of the parents’ grief.
How did they cope
burying all six children?
Even back then, in less healthy times,
usually a couple
survived to maturity.
My four-times great-grandfather
died in his early fifties,
but at least he’d had a vivid life
and children who’d borne children.

 

Indeed, the strongest memory
of my visit to Campbell’s Creek
is those poor parents and their six children.
My endeavour to find a nugget
of family history
had been to no avail.
Looking back, it is no surprise:
I’d been digging, like my ancestor,
in unyielding earth.

 

 

 

More from Kevin Densley HERE

 

 

Acknowledgements: first published in Kevin’s poetry collection, Lionheart Summer (Picaro Press, 2011; Ginninderra Press, 2018 reprint).

 

 

 

About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His work has appeared in print in Australia, the UK and the USA, as well as on many online venues. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, has just been published (late 2020) by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Recent other writing includes screenplays for films with a tertiary education purpose.

Comments

  1. Another beauty Kevin. I thankfully have a few histories of my family tree, done by people on both sides who saw a need to commit the family history to paper. There are harrowing stories of children dying young in large numbers. One in particular stays with me. The Wheelers, now Wheeler’s Hill in Melbourne, had plenty of children.One little one got up one morning, aged two, and wandered off into the bush never to be found. Now that bush is covered in houses and freeways. He lies there somewhere. Poor little man.

    The old sections of the cemeteries make me laugh. The C of E section. If you were C of E you had to be buried there. God forbid if you got buried amongst the Catholics. And vice versa.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks, Dips. Glad you liked this poem. Certainly, yes, family history research can turn up very interesting – and often harrowing – stories. I turn quite a few of these into poems.

  3. Colin Ritchie says

    Another fab read Kevin. I’ve spent many an hour in cemeteries searching for lost relatives which can be time consuming, frustrating, and very rewarding. As well I find it fascinating strolling around cemeteries soaking up the history & information recorded on old tombstones. I do often wonder why some people do work or volunteer at these places, Many are very off-handed as you indicated. Must go with the job!

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Cheers, Colin! Thanks for the comments. Obviously I agree with you that cemeteries can be fascinating places, especially the older ones. Saying this reminds me of another particularly interesting aspect of the Campbell’s Creek Cemetery – the notably large number of Chinese gravesites, often marked by distinctive headstones; of course, these would be mainly connected to gold rush era prospectors from China. There’s also a separate children’s cemetery in the vicinity of the main Campbell’s Creek one, from memory – it’s been many years since I visited the area.

  5. Good stuff, Kevin.
    Certainly struck a chord with me.
    Cheers

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for the comments, Smokie. Very pleased the poem resonated as it did.

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