Death in Nineteenth-Century Australia and New Zealand

Lyndon Fraser. History Compass. Volume 15, Issue 7. July 2017.


“Death,” says the American anthropologist Katharine Verdery, “is the quintessential cosmic issue, one that brings us all face to face with ultimate questions about what it means to be—and to stop being—human, about where we have come from and where we are going” (1999, p. 23). We are all going to die. Yet death was a far greater threat for people in nineteenth‐ and early twentieth‐century Australasia. Even a quick glance at the literary and material evidence from the era shows that men and women confronted the loss of children, relatives, spouses, and friends far more often and far more directly than we are accustomed to today. Death’s menacing shadow was everywhere: from unseen pathogens that circulated through the microbial common markets aboard ships, around ports and mission stations, and across the dusty streets of frontier towns; to the high risks associated with childbirth, accidents at work, river crossings, and living close to violent “contact zones” at the edges of empire. It carried away young and old, rich and poor, indigene and migrant—but never equally, and with a force that is difficult to comprehend from our privileged vantage point.

Historians have really only begun to explore how people struggled to come to terms with mortality and shape its meanings in this trans‐Tasman world. Recent studies by Patricia Jalland (2002, 2006), Tony Ballantyne (2014), and Stephen Deed (2015), for example, have refined our understanding of death and underlined its value for casting new light on aspects of the past. Together with other scholars, they have demonstrated how much we can learn about death and bereavement in the period by examining a wide range of sources—visual and material, as well as documentary. This essay highlights two key areas in the investigation of Australasian “deathways,” a term that historians have used to capture the diversity of mortuary beliefs and practices, including ideas about the afterlife, relations with the dead, the preparation of corpses, funerary commerce, burial ceremonies, and rites of commemoration and remembrance. The first section surveys the scholarship surrounding indigenous practices before engaging with new work that places death at the centre of cross‐cultural encounters on the colonial frontier. These recent histories reveal the importance of mortuary politics, but they also raise thorny questions about sources and voice. The second section shifts attention to the great waves of migration to New Zealand and Australia during the nineteenth century. It considers debates about the Victorian “cult of death” and draws on several examples to illustrate the distinctive tonalities of colonial ways of death.


In a magisterial study of death in the New World, Erik R. Seeman (2010, p. 1) reminds us that for thousands of years one of the first questions humans asked when they encountered “unfamiliar peoples” was about their deathways. Historians have found a similar fascination at work in “the meeting places” of eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century Australia and New Zealand. It is hard to resist attributing the same impulses to the myriad of non‐indigenous artists, amateur ethnographers, explorers, photographers, and collectors who recorded or acquired so much of the material related to indigenous funerary ritual now found in many of our museums, archival repositories, and libraries. Alongside this vast archive, collectors and archaeologists on both sides of the Tasman removed human remains and grave goods from indigenous burial sites, often without negotiation or full consent. There is no doubt that such work extended our knowledge of the past in quite decisive ways and now provides a rich array of sources for researchers keen to explore local practices and beliefs relating to death and the afterlife. But it leaves a fraught legacy. Aside from difficult issues such as repatriation and power relations, one of the key challenges for historians in the field is developing more robust ethical research practice. As the Ngāti Porou scholar Nēpia Mahuika (2015) has argued, such conduct entails much more than “a token nod to cultural sensitivity” (p. 9). In terms of writing histories of death, it forces us to consider indigenous understandings, language and representation, as revealed, for example, in Jennifer Deger’s (2008) work on the place of photographic images of the dead among the Yolngu of north‐eastern Arnhem Land.

The study of indigenous deathways in Australasia has been dominated by the detailed work of anthropologists, and it provides useful guidance for historians, even though some of the earlier ethnographies need to be treated with caution. The writings of Auckland‐born Catherine Berndt and her husband, Ronald, for example, based on their research in the Northern Territory during the 1940s, bring together the field and the archive in fruitful ways. In their classic text Arnhem Land (1954), they show how intensive contact with Indonesian visitors, traders, and voyagers in the eastern regions from around the sixteenth century led to the adaptation of local indigenous mortuary rituals that “came to be associated with the departure of the praus, and with Macassan burial rites” (p. 16). The Berndt’s informants told them that their carved wooden wuramu figures or grave posts, symbolizing the spirits of the dead, were similarly derived (1954, pp. 61-2). The couple’s chapter on death and the afterlife in the fifth and final edition of The World of the First Australians (Berndt & Berndt, 1988) remains one of the best entry points into Indigenous Australian deathways, and it draws critically on the work of Victorian‐ and Edwardian‐era ethnographers. The picture that emerges from the period is striking for its variation. There were significant differences in the customary treatment of corpses across time and space; burial practices and mortuary rituals took several forms; the Land of the Dead and a future life were not imagined in uniform ways. Yet as the Berndt’s show, there were “deep structural similarities” beneath these details: They found broad agreement over the continuation of the human spirit and emphasized the idea of the “Eternal Dreaming” as fundamental to indigenous relationships and views of the world.

Recent scholarship has added further layers of complexity to these older interpretations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mortality, mourning, and mortuary practice. Most new work, however, has understandably focused on contemporary issues and patterns of change and continuity. A similar direction holds for New Zealand where earlier research on Māori by Elsdon Best (1905) and Roger Oppenheim (1973) has been supplemented by the collaborative studies taking place at the University of Waikato under the leadership of Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Waikato). Archaeologists continue to add to an already extraordinarily rich literature on pre‐contact periods, as showcased by eminent Ngāi Tahu scholar Atholl Anderson in Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History (2015), and new work reveals a critical alignment between the material record and tribal oral traditions. The question of the removal and repatriation of human remains is dealt with very briefly in this landmark publication, mainly in relation to the return of koiwi tangata to Wairau Bar near the top of New Zealand’s South Island. In Australia, Paul Turnbull (2011, 2015), Cressida Fforde (2013), and Tom Griffiths (1996) have closely examined Victorian collecting practices, and provide startling insights into biomedical and anthropological research on Aboriginal bodies. The implications of the “scientific theft” of the dead, including questions about repatriation and its meanings, has attracted incisive scholarly commentary and continues to be a significant issue on the path to reconciliation.

The historical study of cross‐cultural encounters with death in Australasia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries inevitably faces problems of “voice and evidence.” Aside from the work outlined above, there is a formidable body of scholarship that looks at the demographic and epidemiological dimensions of contact and interaction, as well as topics like religion, warfare, and violence more broadly. Yet we know far less about the ways in which ordinary men and women shaped their mortuary beliefs and practices, including their relations with the dead, in response to momentous changes wrought by contact and colonialism. The archaeological evidence recovered from the site of New Zealand’s first mission station at Hohi in the Bay of Islands offers some intriguing hints (Smith, Middleton, Garland and Woods, 2012). So does Anne Salmond’s (2000) brilliant reading of the dying and death of the Bay of Islands rangatira (chief) Ruatara. As she explains,

death “provokes thought about life. Life is understood in its absence. As breath ceases, and a person no longer moves, something is seen to have departed. For Māori, Ruatara’s hau [wind of life] had returned to its source; for the missionaries, his soul had left his body. The struggles over his death reflected a life that had been lived at the edges of a cross‐cultural encounter” (2000, p. 52).

This piece is very suggestive for scholars seeking to further explore colonial death. As Salmond shows, such a task requires delicate “acts of triangulation” in order to combine sources as varied as descriptive accounts of European observers, oral tradition, cosmogonic chants, song cycles, and artefacts.

Two new histories exemplify this kind of approach to the study of colonial deathways. Their emphasis on connections and common cultural ground echoes the path‐breaking research on Native American, African, and European interactions by Vincent Brown (2008) and Erik Seeman (2010). Tony Ballantyne’s Entanglements of Empire (2014) examines death in work that is centrally concerned with the place of the body in the cross‐cultural engagements, debates, and conflicts set in motion by the establishment of Protestant missions among northern Māori in New Zealand in 1814. He reveals the fluid and dynamic nature of power relations in the region and how these were reshaped as the North Island became incorporated into the political, religious, and commercial networks of empire. Like Brown, Ballantyne sees death practices in his contact zone as “deeply entangled.” He shows how indigenous and missionary understandings of death differed markedly, as we might expect, but argues that the latter modified their burials and in so doing acknowledged the power and constraints of wāhi tapu in the landscape. Missionaries were astute observers of local Māori beliefs and practices related to death and mourning, and began to appreciate how these varied according to social status. The knowledge they acquired provided a valuable tool with which to challenge the power of the older gods and to influence and reform Māori deathways. Ballantyne’s nuanced analysis of mortuary politics moves us beyond older interpretations that stress indigenous resistance and reveals that cross‐ cultural encounters around death could, as Seeman (2010) noted, “facilitate intercultural cooperation as well as exploitation, sometimes simultaneously” (p. 10).

What of developments in the Victorian period? Stephen Deed explores this question in Unearthly Landscapes (2015), a sensitive and highly visual treatment of early cemeteries, churchyards and urupā in New Zealand. In the opening chapters of the book, he traverses territory familiar to readers of Ballantyne and Salmond but introduces additional sources such as artwork and early photographs (Plate 1). We are given insights into European curiosity about Māori deathways, mission stations as site of cultural exchange, and the nature of indigenous mortuary structures or memorials like the waka whakamaharatanga sketched by the traveller Joel Polack at Hokianga around 1836 (Plate 2). The use of written inscriptions and new materials in Māori memorialisation from the 1830s reflected the influence of Christianity and new technologies (Plate 3). Yet the direction of change could go both ways, as Deed illustrates through the burial practices of Pākekā‐Māori who were early explorers and migrants integrated into indigenous settlements. As the nineteenth century rolled on, however, the graves and memorials that Māori constructed around New Zealand “were among the most eloquent expressions of a society experiencing massive and lasting cultural, religious and political change” (2015, p. 83). Deed might well have used the term “syncreticism” to capture the creation of new cultural forms that emerged from the ways that Christian art and architectural heritage were translated and deployed locally (Plate 4). His image of the recovered tōtara headstone erected for Ropihia (d. c. 1862) in Wellington, which features a Gothic arch as well as a Māori inscription and symbols, is a case in point. This work vividly demonstrates the value of making death central to histories of cross‐cultural engagement and further underlines the importance of combining documentary, visual and material evidence.


Death and the dead were ever‐present realities on the empire’s margins. They shaped daily life, as well as an array of beliefs and practices through which people made their world profoundly meaningful, and, as Tony Ballantyne (2014) shows, played a significant role in cross‐cultural contests over power. It is surprising, then, that historians have shown relatively little interest in the ways death was handled culturally by the diverse streams of migrants that flowed into Australasia in the nineteenth century. One notable exception to this neglect is the impressive trans‐Tasman literature on the experiences of the largely Cantonese‐speaking men who came to the goldfields of New South Wales, Victoria, Otago and the West Coast from Guangdong during the 1850s and 60s. Death features prominently in many of these histories. Julia Bradshaw (2009), for example, has written a superb account of burial rites and the exhumation and repatriation of ancestral remains among New Zealand’s West Coast Chinese. Moreover, a number of studies have addressed aspects of funerary ritual and the location and symbolism of grave stones. Beyond the Chinese case, where death and relations with the dead weigh heavily in scholarly investigation, we have some excellent historical treatments of early cemeteries and memorials (Plate 5), their heritage values, and what they tell us about identities, the funeral trade, remembrance, the changing nature of Presbyterian graveside services, and what people in the past thought about this life and the next.

The study of death practices that migrants from parts of Britain and Ireland transposed to the Australasian colonies during the nineteenth‐ and early‐twentieth centuries connects with wider debates over “the Victorian cult of death.” Many readers will be familiar with deathways in the period through the work of writers, poets, and artists. The Brontë sisters—Emily, Anne, and Charlotte—for example, experienced more than their share of domestic tragedy, and their poems and novels reveal the consolatory role of religion in Victorian bereavement, and the Evangelical and Romantic influences on British mortuary beliefs and practices. In terms of art, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne holds two important works that speak to different aspects of the presentation of death in the nineteenth century. It is hard not be moved by the unrelenting pathos and social realism in Widowed by London‐born artist Frank Holl (1845-88), whose work appealed to Queen Victoria (Plate 6). The brilliant play of light and shadow draws us from the ragged daughter’s empathetic gaze to the bereaved mother and eventually outwards to the dreary interior of the cottage. Death appears in another guise in George Frederic Watts’ Love and Death (c. 1885-6), head bowed, shrouded in white, making its way slowly up the household steps, as a winged angel tries vainly to halt its progress (Plate 7). The symbolism, ideas, and vocabulary associated with death and the afterlife may have been shared in Victorian Britain, as we see in these paintings, but there were still varied responses to the subject. Charles Dickens’s use of deathbed scenes as a literary convention in novels like The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1) brought charges of ‘morbid sensationalism’ from critics like John Ruskin. Yet it was Dickens who highlighted the excesses of rampant commercialism in his depiction of undertaker “Mr Mould’s establishment” in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or the comic imitation of aristocratic pageantry at the funeral of Pip’s sister in Great Expectations (1860-61).

In the last two decades, historians have produced a major corpus of work that gives us a deeper understanding of Victorians and death in their own terms. Depicted in a positive light by Philippe Ariès (1976, 1981) in his sweeping study of Western attitudes to death, some British scholars attacked what they saw as the “obsessive morbidity” of the era in the context of debates over the meaning of death in the twentieth century. Published in 1971, John Morley’s Death, Heaven and the Victorians (1971) condemned the mawkish sentimentality of remembrance and exaggerated funerary displays. For David Cannadine (1981), “the Victorian celebration of death was not so much a golden age of effective psychological support as a bonanza of commercial exploitation” and the elaborate performances “more an assertion of status than a means of assuaging sorrow, a display of conspicuous consumption rather than an exercise in grief therapy, from which the chief beneficiary was more likely to be the undertaker than the widow” (p. 191). Since the late 1980s, however, historians have cast serious doubt on these views in research on topics as diverse as body snatching, anatomy and dissection (Richardson, 1987; MacDonald 2006, 2010), suicide (Bailey, 1998; Weaver, 2014), theology and literature (Wheeler, 1990, 1994; Riso, 2015), commercial cemeteries (Laqueur, 1993; Rugg, 1998), working‐class respectability (Strange, 2005), state funerals (Wolffe, 2000), and war (Bourke, 1996; Damousi, 1999). Perhaps the most significant published work, however, remains Patricia Jalland’s splendid Death in the Victorian Family (1996) and her subsequent Australian studies. She places a strong emphasis on the spiritual resources that enabled Victorian families to make sense of dying and bereavement, and teases out the influences of gender and memory on death practices. According to Jalland, there was a fundamental shift in experiences of death, grief, and mourning between the 1880s and 1920s, brought about by a combination of demographic change and declining Christian faith, and accelerated by the terrible carnage of the Great War.

Jalland’s Australian research (2002) shows how the social and cultural history of death can contribute to transnational discussions of Victorian society, mobility, and religion. It also draws us back to the question of nineteenth‐century migration and the ways that newcomers and their descendants reshaped their relations with death and the dead. Recent work has provided a much deeper understanding of mortality and health on colonial‐era voyages to Australasian ports (Haines, 2003; Hastings 2006). Contrary to the claims of some historians, the available evidence shows that the long ocean voyage and prospect of a “watery grave” did not undermine Christianity in ways that anticipated colonial indifference; nor did it represent an “abrupt termination” of older death practices or attitudes. Death at sea was greatly feared by Victorian migrants. It disrupted familiar relations between the living and the dead, created anxieties over the fate of corpses, and challenged models of “the good death.” But mortality tracked the everyday lives of these people long before embarkation and they were accustomed to dealing with its visits. As we might expect, responses to dying and loss varied according to denomination, gender, marital status, class, age, and region. What is clear, however, is that migrant writers tended to construct the meaning of individual deaths in terms of their own spirituality.

There is no doubt that a focus on the “private experience” of death and grief helps us to understand the inner worlds of emotion constructed by migrants. Such a task will require a far closer dialogue between historians of death and migration than has hitherto been the case. This is certainly true with regard to how the latter have framed the ways that newcomers struggled to adapt to and remake their worlds at the edge of empire. Most importantly, perhaps, migration histories show what can be done through the imaginative use of scattered, fragmented, and often ambiguous sources. David Fitzpatrick (1994), Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald (1996), Angela McCarthy (2005), and Robin Haines (2003), for example, have highlighted the value of letter sequences, especially when these are combined with nominal records and other kinds of evidence. Reading the migrant archive one is immediately struck by people’s concern with experiential categories such as death. English‐born Sarah Greenwood, who migrated to Nelson in 1843, captured the point when she reassured her grandmother that ‘the delightful medium of letters’ would ensure their co‐presence “and more than all the humble hope that at the end of our pilgrimage we shall be reunited forever”(Plate 8). Like other migrants, she found the courage to face death and diminish its “sting” through religious belief and practice. Letters, diaries, and other forms of life writing, including stone inscriptions, open up migrant social worlds and reveal the languages of consolation that ordinary men and women adapted when confronted by the loss of children, parents, spouses, friends, and relatives in the colonies and the places from which they originated in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

New work influenced by the “material turn” in historical research adds further depth to our understanding of Victorian practices of remembrance and commemoration (Fraser, 2012). Will‐makers, for example, made bequests that suffused everyday material objects with emotive charge. The symbolic tokens varied in kind from money to clothing, and from furniture to jewellery, but they shared a capacity to venerate close personal ties. Testamentary writing, then, constituted an act of remembrance, and the gifts Victorian migrants transferred abroad reveal the existence of transnational kinship networks that linked the living and the dead. Other objects also served as vehicles of memory during the period. The symbolic use of flowers and scented plants is vividly described in migrant letters and beautifully expressed on memorials by stonemasons. Flowers also feature in post‐mortem portraiture in Australia and New Zealand. Posthumous images of children followed, in their composition, nineteenth‐century conventions of “the last sleep,” and became powerful visual mementoes that were kept in albums and bibles or placed on display in family homes. The commissioned pictures of widows in their “black weeds” of paramatta and crepe tell us much about the gendered expectations of colonial death ritual. For contemporaries, it signified bereavement, marked their personal commitment to respect for the dead, and reflected the sombre mood of personal loss. There was a close association between mourning attire and memorial jewellery: A variety of brooches, rings, and lockets are evident in the photographs and many fine examples can be found in museums throughout Australasia. The most striking aspect of these intimate artefacts was the use of the deceased’s hair as an evocative symbol of remembrance. In perpetuating the memory of the dead in these ways, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that migrants and their descendants drew upon shared meanings about human life in this place and the one to come, that these were deeply embedded in Christian traditions. The role of religion and the impact of war on Australasian deathways are topics worthy of further historical investigation.


The history of death, grief, and remembrance is a significant aspect of the human past for it “takes us to the heart of any culture and sharpens our understanding of the meaning of our lives” (Jalland, 2006, p. 3). The claim resonates today when we consider the reflective tone and mood of Anzac Day commemorations on both sides of the Tasman. It is true that its role and status is contested and harnessed to various forms of nationalism. But it is hard not to detect a genuine concern with death and the dead in the solemn rituals enacted around Australasia, and in many of the televisual histories, exhibitions, books, and blogs dealing with the campaign. Death matters and it provides a window into past worlds, as well as our own. For historians, the study of deathways tells us how people responded to the challenges of everyday life and gave meaning to their experiences. By finding new ways to combine documentary, material, visual, and oral sources, we can cast fresh light on cross‐cultural encounters, migration, and the kinds of things that nineteenth century peoples valued in this life and the next. Then, as now, it was the living who recited incantations and chanted song cycles, attended the deathbed and offered prayers, who washed and laid out corpses, carried coffins and performed the appropriate rites of mourning. It was also the living who shed tears, invested in gypsum or black crêpe, lacerated their bodies, chose inscriptions, visited graves, and treasured keepsakes. Victoria Hope (2009) is right to remind us that to examine deathways “is to illuminate the living society.”