Pormpuraaw Cemetery Restoration Project

August 25, 2018

A small group of Work for the Dole participants are paying the ultimate respect to their ancestors who have passed – mapping, clearing and restoring grave sites in the remote Aboriginal Community of Pormpuraaw.

In the wet season it’s hard to keep the grass in check, but right now one of the five cemeteries, or burial grounds, in Pormpuraaw is neatly cleared, and mapping is well progressed –  identifying the locations of graves from generations passed. 

Raymond Coleman, Traditional Owner and Supervisor leading the men on site for Community Development Program (CDP) provider, Rise Ventures, isn’t just taking the lead on the ground, but he is also searching to find the grave of his father’s brother.

He knows his uncle is buried in the cemetery but neither him or his brother James, also a member of the Rise Ventures CDP team, know exactly where.

“We started to identify where all the families are buried,” said Raymond. “So I’m only a young fella, we had to ask people like my brother Billy and my brother James – they know where all the old people are buried here.”

“This work is very important to the community. It means so much for us you know …they’ve been here for a long time so we have to look after them.

“We come here and we talk about the old people and why did they go. Why did they die, why they went and left us here. We’ve got no elders left now, only my dad he’s the only one left, the rest are all gone.”

Rise Ventures Work for the Dole Co-ordinator, Marty Chambers, drove the activity to consult with the elders from both the traditional owners of the lands, the Thaayorre people, and the Mungkan people, who make up the majority of the Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw. Pormpuraaw is located on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria – a ten hour road trip from Cairns across Cape York.

“We consulted with community and elders to see if this was a meaningful activity for them and we got a great response,” Marty said.

“The maps and locations of where people are buried had been lost over time,” Marty said. “When we consulted with community this activity was recognised as a very important program for everyone in the community as it paid respect to those passed.”  

Marty’s work has included painstakingly mapping the first of five cemeteries at Pormpuraaw. Measurements, boundaries and local knowledge merge together in a grid map which will provide a critical historical and cultural piece to the community and the generations to follow.

The current graves are a mix of well-placed headstones, simple crosses, stones and simple symbols which mark locations of graves which have been uncovered through the process.

Their ultimate wish would be to access a bone detector machine necessary to detect the exact location of the graves so they can be marked.

The plan is for most of the graves to have a concrete slab positioned on the gravesite, following up with headstones in a second phase of the project which has been requested by members of the community.

This first project site has also included a picnic table – made by members of the CDP Team – and, on completion, will include a shed to house equipment for burial ceremonies.

The supervisors, like Raymond, also play a critical role in community consultation, ensuring culturally important behaviour around who can be present at which graves and ensuring the wishes of family members are considered in the treatment of graves.

Even seeking out the traditional names of the cemeteries is part of the historical aspect of the project. Gilbert Jack remembers the name of one of the cemeteries positioned at the most northern point of the community and provides Marty a few more names of elders in community who might know the traditional names of the other sites.

The oldest of the cemeteries includes graves which are very shallow in depth. They originally would have been dug by hand or with bayliss shells. The presence of the bayliss shells at the grave sites standing testament to another time and the connection to those passed, that feels close – connected.

Some of the elders are already planning to come and sing songs and tell stories while the slabs are laid over each of the grave sites, paying the ultimate respect to those who have passed, and uniting the elders and the youth in a project based intrinsically on community pride.

Pormpuraaw is not the first Indigenous community to take on this initiative, but this doesn’t lessen the significance of every hour spent by the CDP participants. It is work they are proud to be a part of. This work is core to sustaining communities – embedding the significance of those who have passed and the role they play in setting the foundation for the future.

Rise Ventures delivers Work for the Dole programs across communities in Pormpuraaw, Kowanyama, in Queensland and Katherine in the Northern Territory under the Federal Government’s Community Development Program.