Grumpy Old Doctor: In the midst of death

6 minute read

A wander among the headstones and the ghosts of past pandemics is a good way to meet the locals.

Another letter to my daughter from her somewhere-out-there father:

Dear Julia,

The canola is flowering. it’s a patchwork of green and yellow down here on the farm and the days are stretching out. “Spring is sprung, the grass is ‘riz’”; sadly, the same can’t be said of Corky’s dog Spike; he died last week.

Corky is a bachelor with an unfortunate speech impediment. “Spike was a Jack Wussell and he got wun over by a big twuck.”

I murmured my sympathy; Corky, like all country people, views death pragmatically.

“Can’t be helped, Doc. If you’ve got livestock, you’ll also have dead stock. It’s been a wet winter and he’s small, so it won’t take long to dig a hole. Not like the last one. He was a big dog and died in the middle of a dry spell, the gwound was wock hard.”

My friend Ken, the vet, knows a bit about burying dogs. Farmers don’t let animals suffer, their collies and kelpies are given a peaceful death (which is where Ken comes in) and a decent burial. A grave is prepared in advance and Ken tells me that it needs to be at least three feet deep to stop any new dogs digging up the old one.

The death of a dog in spring therefore provides a good indication of how the cereal crops will turn out. Easy digging with moisture all the way down guarantees a good harvest. A dry hole is a bad omen.

Digging a grave for a human corpse in the hard, hungry country of old gold mining towns is difficult in any season.

Our local gravedigger, a stocky man with swimmer’s shoulders and calloused hands, pre-dated the back hoe. Working alone with pick, shovel and crowbar to a tight time schedule in limited space, Jimmy never failed to deliver a precisely rectangular crypt with perfectly vertical sides.

His craftmanship was much admired. Too much so by my old patient, Dick.

Dick enjoyed a funeral. He was not a religious man, so would give the church service a miss but never fail to be first there for the burial and the refreshments that followed. The cortege was always greeted at the graveyard gate by a faded silver Ford Fairlane (facing back towards town, ready for a quick getaway) and a portly figure waiting by the graveside. Dick liked a ringside seat.

Dorrie Smith had six sisters and nine children. Her life was celebrated by a big crowd on a perfect spring day but, when the hearse arrived at the cemetery, the funeral director knew that something was wrong.

The Fairlane was in its customary position but there was no sign of Dick. As Dorrie’s friends and relatives gathered around the grave, his absence was explained by a voice booming up from below.

“Hey! Get me outta here before you put her in!.”

It is not easy to extract a short, fat man from a sheer-sided grave, but the undertaker proved resourceful. Coffin slings were lowered, winches thrown into reverse and the murmuring mourners treated to a resurrection. His public exhumation left Dick unembarrassed, but hungry. He stayed on for the interment as usual and filled up on sandwiches, sausage rolls and jelly slice at the town hall afterwards.

When I saw him the next day, (“Took a bit of bark off me hands and need a tetanus booster, Doc”) Dick explained that he had formed the habit of “Always checking out Jimmy’s hole before a funeral. Just lent over too far and slipped in. Didn’t like it down there Doc, think I’ll be cremated when my time comes.”

In country towns you’ve got to have someone in the cemetery to be considered a “local”.
A wander among the headstones and the ghosts of past pandemics is also a good way to meet the locals such as Larry, resident gossip, genealogist, amateur coroner and self-appointed tour guide. I was in the Presbyterian section, contemplating the grave of Francis Smith and his loving wife Constance, when he poked his nose over my shoulder.

“Didn’t know ‘Connie’, before my time, but remember ‘Frank’ well. Talking to him on the Tuesday and he looked well. Had a bit of a pain in his gizzard on the Thursday, went to see old Doc Neeson about it and died in his sleep that same night. Heart attack I’d say. Worked all over the district as a Rawleighs man for 30 years. Well-liked. One of the biggest funerals seen in the district.

“That’s his sister, Thelma, a spinster, planted next door. Not a very pleasant woman. Had a high profile though, so funeral, mid-week on a Wednesday, was well attended. Magnificent spread afterwards at the senior cits.”

I wandered over to the Lutherans. Larry shadowed me and the commentary continued. Jan Volkov had a modest headstone.
“A new-Australian type of bloke, came out here after the war. Good worker, big drinker, heavy smoker. Two bouts of viral pneumonia, one in the stomach and one in the lungs.”

The Methodists included Albert Hamilton, (“Known as ‘Twister’, had polio as a kid and walked funny. Good dog trainer. Jack the dancer in his pancreas, lasted six weeks. All the Hamiltons go with cancer”) and Edward ‘Borer’ Hargreaves. (“Broke his ankle dancing in the rain when the ‘81-drought broke. Blood clot six weeks later. Tragedy, only 52. Wet day for the funeral too”).

My tour ended in the Catholic section at the tomb of Frances Patrick Flannagan.

“My grandfather Pat. We’re a big family, Dad had 71 first cousins. Huge turn-out for the funeral. Three hundred signed the book at St Mary’s, went through six barrels at The Royal that night. We’ll never see another send off like that. Not with this virus thing hanging around.”

Larry is right, COVID 19 has changed human behaviour, but not that of birds. I was swooped by two magpies in the carpark. They ignored Larry.

“Those birds know who I am and only have a go if I’m wearing a mask. That’s why I left it in the car.”

Uncle Leon in Sydney says Larry was having me on.

“It’s just testosterone on the wing, biological imperatives drive all animal behaviour. We are born to reproduce and die; life is short, time runs out fast.”

Which is pretty much what Omar Khayyam said a thousand years ago:

“The bird of time has but a little way
To flutter – and the bird is on the wing.”

Must go now, time for me to fly.

Love, Dad.

Dr Max Higgs is a former country GP, a current rural and remote locum and a collector of stories.

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