Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Gender Bias after Death: The Case of the Clergical Cemetery, St. John's Orphanage, Thurgoona, NSW, Australia

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Gender Bias after Death: The Case of the Clergical Cemetery, St. John's Orphanage, Thurgoona, NSW, Australia

Article excerpt


Cemeteries are commonly seen as reflective of the historic environment in which they were created and therefore form a unique interpretive tool for the cultural heritage manager. As this case study of clergical cemetery documents, physical heritage of a cemetery may well reflect the power hierarchy at the time, but it does not accurately reflect the historic reality. The effective manipulation of the tangible evidence left behind for future generations has effectively enshrined a gender bias in perpetutity.

Keywords: Gender Bias, Cemeteries, Catholic Church


In Australia cemeteries are usually permanent final resting places. Unlike the situation in much of Europe, land is not in short supply and when cemeteries were filled up, they were extended or new localities were established. Only in recent years have some cemeteries become full and could not be extended; concepts of limited tenure have been advanced for these instances. This situation of continual burial, then, offers a unique opportunity for social research. The cemeteries tend to mirror the social and cultural conditions as well as the economic fortunes of the communities from which they were created. Whilst the towns and villages have changed over time--and their current architecture reflects that chang--the cemeteries have remained the same, retaining the historic fabric as evidence. It is little wonder then that cemeteries and the associated grave monuments have been used as tools in social heritage studies (cf. Brash 1987; Gilbert 1980; Lavelle and Mackay 1988).

Headstones as political statements. The grave monuments are ideological and political statements of the times they were created. There are famous and large grave monuments, or the remains thereof, such as the eponymous mausoleion at Halicarnassos, Hadrian's 'Fort' St. Angelo, overlooking the Tiber in Rome, and, of course, the pyramids, dominating the landscape and thus providing domineering reminders of the power and glory of the deceased and originators of the monuments. In Australia, the motifs chosen for the headstones often make unequivocal reference to the ethnic origin of the interred: the Celtic crosses marking the burials of Irish priests, or the choice of lead-inlaid shamrocks in lieu of ivy or olive leaves (Gilbert 1980; see also the cemetery discussed in this paper).

Headstones as social statements. Headstones are also statements of the social status of the interred. The choice of the materials used for the headstones has often been regarded as an unequivocal statement of the wealth of the estate of the deceased, as was the level of ornamentation. However, care needs to be taken in the documentation and interpretation of these headstone assemblages (Potter & Boland 1992, Strangsted 1993), in order to prevent the creation of a misinterpretation of the historic events and conditions--the very interpretation the erectors of the monuments wanted an uninitiated visitor to arrive at. The nineteenth century was quite adept at creating impressions: several buildings, for example, show a wealthy and elaborate facade, projecting to the casual observer on the street an image of wealth and power, but exhibit only mundane and on occasion even below standard sides and backs. This has carried through to grave markers. As a grave marker was in essence a permanent fixture, for all member of the community to see--and see until the end of time (as envisaged a when established)--the choice and execution of the grave marker created an image of affluence and wealth (through its style), religious commitment (through the bible citation chosen) and social message (through its design and subtext of imagery). (2) That image was both to honour the memory of the departed and for the social and political aspirations of the present generation as it documented the (newly) established social status of the estate holder. Many are the instances where a later generation replaced a more mundane headstone with an elaborate version, thus in essence replacing history with a new interpretation. …

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