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Life and Death at Lightning Ridge

I don’t know if the man being buried at the Lightning Ridge cemetery was particularly large, but his coffin certainly was. Too big, in fact, for its hole.

As friends and family of the dead man began trickling into the cemetery for the morning graveside service, some sitting on the plastic chairs placed in semi- circles around the freshly dug hole framed with strips of artificial grass, others standing and chatting and offering condolences to the grieving son who was wearing a joyful Hawaiian shirt and a fedora, I wondered, almost with delight I must admit, how this problem would be solved.

The hearse was parked amongst the graves near the hole, boot open, its roomy interior filled almost completely with the homemade coffin which, in a very pleasing nod to the concept of maximum efficiency, had been used by its maker as a coffee table for the past few years before becoming his burial chamber today.

Volunteer undertaker with the Lightning Ridge Funeral Advisory Service Ormie Molyneux, a bearded third generation opal miner in shorts, thongs and a cricket hat, was undeterred. “We’ll just take the handles off after we’ve carried it to the hole.”

Mr Molyneux flip-flopped over to three men standing by the hearse, his brother Joe Molyneux and two friends Nifty Martin and Tom Urquhart who were also at the cemetery as volunteer undertakers, to discuss the plan and presumably find the spanners. The music shifted from the passions of a Con te Partiro instrumental to the/a? jazzy Gershwin number, lending a convivial atmosphere to the graveside gathering - and I got talking to Maxine O’Brien, the manager of the Lightning Ridge Miners Association who also handles the administration for the funeral service.

Mrs O’Brien explained that the volunteer-run, non--for-profit/not-for-profit funeral service, which started almost 20 years ago, was born out of necessity. Lightning Ridge did not have its own professional undertaker and the closest was 75km down a dirt road in Walgett. It was often tricky to get the bodies there or to get the undertaker to come out. So the people of Lightning Ridge did what they always do and worked it out for themselves.

“Ormie asked the board of the Miners association if they could volunteer my time to take over the the admin of the funeral service. That’s how I got the job … on the condition that I wasn’t making the bloody flowers and that I wasn’t touching any dead bodies. It’s nothing I would have ever imagined I’d be doing, but it’s really humbling.”

Today the funeral service it is still run by volunteers. The amateur undertakers have buried about 750 peoplebodies,/people?, most of whom were friends and neighbours. They charge “tops $4000” for the service, which includes burial fees, and the profits they make are put back into the community.

For comparison, a standard cremation in Sydney without a service is about $4000, a standard burial with service is about $10,000 and can cost up to $30,000.

“One thing we’re looking at now is a scholarship for local school kids to help them with their tertiary education, whether it be apprenticeships or something else. It’s alright for young kids starting off in the cities, they can live at home, but for country kids it’s really difficult,” said Mrs O’Brien.
Back at the grave, Mr Molyneux, 61 was having trouble unscrewingloosening one of the bolts on one of the coffin handles. He and his friends had managed to carrysuccessfully carried the the casket to the hole, but grave (photographer Hugh Stewart and my husband Ed were on standby as extra pall-bearers but their services were not needed in the end). But one of the bolts was not budging, which meant the coffin still couldn’t fit.g.

“Fuck”, Mr Molyneux said, not angrily, before striding over a couple of graves to his ute to get a tool with more purchase. Gershwin was still playing, the crowd mingling.

It is Mr Molyneux and a group of other volunteers who prepare the dead bodies in a morgue at the back of the hospital. (They used to be based in the RSL building, where the bodies were stored in an old beer fridge, but the RSL sold the building off.)

“We prepare bodies. Sometimes we dress them too. It’s something we don’t encourage but if that’s what they want us to do, we certainly will do it,” said Mr Molyneux gently. “It’s better if you dress them when they first die rather than later when they’re pretty stiff.”

The local men’s shed makes the crosses and a local artist paints them. This is a community service, run by the community, for the community. Mr Molyneux, although an understated man, is visibly proud when he talks about the kind of community that takes on the responsibility of creating their own volunteer-run funeral service.

“There wouldn’t be a person in Lighting Ridge who hasn’t benefited somehow from this service. It’s cheap and we’re still making money. That money’s there for the people. And it’ll always be in Lightning Ridge, I’ll guarantee that.”

“Death is a great leveller. I can tell you that. There’s a lot of people who think they might be a little bit of a cut above the rest of us. Death brings them down to the same level. All of humanity.”

This is an extract from Issue 1 of Galah. For the full article, we'd love you to shop Issue 1! 

Photos by Hugh Stewart.

Lightening Ridge - Galah Issue 1Lightening Ridge - Galah Issue 1