Publications

Australian Ways of Death: a Social and Cultural History 1840-1918 by Pat Jalland. Oxford University  Press. 380 pp; $49.95 softcover.


'The way we die also effects the way we live'

So writes Pat Jalland Professor of History at the Australian National University in her latest book.

Historians in other western societies have responded to the growing interest and concern with death through books, conferences, and journals. However, 'Australian Ways of Death' is the first substantial Australian study of social and cultural responses to death.

Any study of  dying and the responses to death takes us to the heart of history, and sharpens our understanding of life. Jalland covers the period 1840-1918, wherein old age started to replace infancy as the most probable time of death. Parallel with this change was the decline of the Christianity.

Affecting the changes in death practice in this period was the extent of the application of Social Darwinism and Utilitarianism , which enforced the stigma of  death among certain classes of people, in particular paupers, former convicts, and sick elderly, who were perceived as useless in society and buried appropriately in unmarked paupers' graves.

While a traditional Christian way of death was in decline in Australian cities, a more robust culture of death developed independently in the bush and at sea. Henry Lawson's stories point to a Stoical acceptance of inevitable death without fuss, as well as  a concern for human survival.

The Great War (1914-1918) marked the turning point in the history of death grief and mourning in Australia. Pre-occupation with death in the inter-war years was very strong. Freemasons started wearing black ties at all meetings to mourn fallen brethren, and nearly every Church of England place of worship and local hall erected honor boards.

Till the discovery of sulpha drugs in the 1930s, there was little doctors could do to cheat death, except for the wealthy in the cities. Good patient care and palliative respite were rare, being reserved for capitalists. The poor died poor.

The gendered difference in Australian ways of death was significant, with the dominant masculine culture of violent death and accidents, and ranging from the heroic bushman and bushranger to the noble Anzac. For women between the ages of 15-45, the great uncertainty came primarily through complications from pregnancy, child birth, and puerperal fever.

In Nineteenth Century Australia women were far more active than men in performing the roles and rituals of death and grieving. Funerals were organised by men, but women were discouraged from attending  as they were considered too emotional. Also men expressed their grief differently as there were cultural expectations of them that sought to minimise their vulnerability in a pioneering environment - which prepared them for the Great War - 65,000 Anzacs died, with 25,000 having no known place of burial.

Pat Jalland is an excellent social historian, timely writing for an age of youth suicides from overdoses, depression,  AIDS and euthanasia.  A must for all pastoral theologians.