Conversation with Lee Sulkowska -cemetery historian from Australia who lives in Poland
Kasia - I really like the name of your profession - death and cemetery historian. I am very curious to find out more about your profession as well as your research.
Lee - Narrowly, my work is as a cemetery historian and that's the focus of my PhD research. Essentially, I look into the histories of cemeteries in Victoria, which is a state in Australia, to see how they were managed and run. I look at meeting minutes from the trustee committees, books of letters that were sent to them and newspaper articles. That gives me a lot of interesting data about what people thought about cemeteries, how they engaged with those spaces and how they managed burials.
What I found out during my research is that people put a lot of their values onto the cemetery spaces. Not only their religious values, but also what their thoughts about propriety, morals, gender, race or class were. These kinds of stories from cemeteries can tell us a lot about how colonial society did as a whole. In that, the cemetery acted as a kind of mirror for society. What was happening in colonial society was also happening in the cemetery, and at the same time what was happening in the cemetery was also happening in society. This all can tell us stories about how that society developed, what people thought about death and burial and how it changed over time.
Kasia - How can a historical knowledge of how people in the past approached death and grief can be beneficial to us in the present?
Lee - When we know about the past, how people approached death and burial, we can understand why people believed these things or acted in these ways. Those things can also influence how we think about death and burial now. When you go into a historical cemetery today, the way it’s laid out and managed, its tombstone, and the way people interact with it, is a continuation of how these things were done in the past. So if we know the past, we can understand better what we think about death and burial in the present and change them if they have not necessarily been good or ethical. In the end, the past isn’t in the past.
Kasia - What struck you the most while working on the history of the 19th century colonial cemeteries in Australia?
Lee - The thing that sticks out the most for me as to where I am, is how much none of us really know what we're doing. When you are a kid, you think that adults know everything and that once you become an adult, you’ll also have that secret knowledge of how the world works. But when you become an adult, you realise that you have no idea and no one else has an idea. You are just making it up as you go along.
The thing that I found so far in my research, is that it's exactly the same in the past. We often look at history thinking that it was inevitable, and that the things that happened would always happen the way that they did. It struck me when I realised that history consists of a series of people making certain decisions and their consequences. The management of cemeteries was based on the decisions of a bunch of dudes in a community who often fought with each other, with the public, the church and the government. Archives are full of their communications, stumblings and disagreements that would then end up with consequences that we still see today in terms of how cemeteries look or are now run. So it’s a very interesting thought to think that although people from the past are so unattainable and unreachable, they were humans just like us.
Kasia - Have you come across any interesting stories while working on your PhD?
Lee - My PhD is based on several case studies from several cemeteries. Once I find the first hunk of exciting information, I then go looking for the full story to find out what happened to the people in this story. One of the stories I'm working on at the moment is about a husband whose wife had died. He was a Scottish Presbyterian, and she was a Roman Catholic. They had a child who had died several years earlier and was buried in the Presbyterian section of the cemetery. When the wife was ill, she had instructed her husband that she would like to be buried with the child. When it came to her burial, the husband was prevented from burying her in that section, because she was a Roman Catholic. He essentially went to court saying that this was religious discrimination and he eventually was permitted to bury his wife in the Presbyterian section of the cemetery.
The interesting part of that story for me is that there were so many people, the Roman Catholic priests, one of the trustees of the cemetery, a member of parliament, that got involved in that case and each of them had different religious affiliations. To find out what happened to each individual person, not just the outcome of that case, has been something that has captured my attention and my imagination for several months because it has been so multifaceted. It's going to turn into a really interesting chapter about the nature of religion in colonial Australia and the nature of gender. It won’t surprise you that throughout this whole narrative, the wife's voice is completely missing. It was just essentially men fighting over her remains, which is another interesting thing to analyse and to look at to see what it says about colonial society.
Kasia - I assume that the way colonial cemeteries were organised was based on the knowledge brought by the British from the old continent. Have you noticed in your research whether the colonial cemeteries interacted in some way with the indigenous inhabitants of Australia?
Lee - That’s an interesting and hard question. In my own research, because I focus on the European aspects of death and burial, I am required to examine how the creation of colonial cemeteries displaced and dispossessed Aboriginal people. Colonial cemeteries did not have a specific section for Aboriginal burials and they did not consider Aboriginal rights when it came to organising or implementing rules and regulations. By doing so, those acts directly displaced or dispossessed Aboriginal communities because they were transplanting the British way of doing things directly over the existing society. The study of how Aboriginal people were buried in colonial society is a different area of study, and one that is very important to examine.
Kasia - How has your cultural background and religion, if you have any, shaped the way you think about death, dying and grieving?
Lee - I am the daughter of the granddaughter of a German colonist. Very little of our German culture remains. I was raised as a Lutheran, which is traditionally a Germanic denomination of Protestantism. When I was raised in that faith, I was too young to have death discussed in the context of that religion. And none of my family, or none of my friends, had died. So I was very sheltered from death in my youth, and the time that I had gone to that church. And within the church death was not discussed. It was more about the belief in God and the Bible stories. As I got older and left home to go to university, I moved away from the church and I was still very sheltered from it as no one I had known died.
My grandmother died when I was 20 and that was the first experience I had with death. I was so shocked when it happened because I hadn't been prepared for it and I didn't know how to act at her bedside as she was dying. I didn't know anything about her wishes and the burial. I was so overwhelmed with grief that I think it took me several years, until I moved to Scotland and began my history undergraduate degree, to understand the impact of that event on me. When I was away, my grandfather died and again I was shocked, because of the geographical distance, how far I was from that process of death. And that’s when I started thinking about how we die, bury and dispose.
My cultural experience, I think, is very common for white Australians especially. We lost some of the death and mourning rituals from our home countries over the generations and things that our original cultures may have provided in terms of understanding how death works and what burial is. These past rituals morphed and changed in the colonial context into something that we experience today which is a great example of how things from the past influence how we do things today. And my experience is very derivative of that.
Kasia - I am wondering whether your research has made you reshape your attitudes towards death and dying.
Lee - My research has changed how I approach death and how I engage with it. It is like that because now I feel more comfortable speaking about it and I know the processes of dying, how bodies rot, how cemeteries work and how we dispose dead people in different countries. My relationship with death feels a lot healthier than when I was 20. I find it to be an important thing for everyone to engage with. We as humans know death is inevitable but we spend a lot of time ignoring the fact because it’s scary. I feel like if we understand the process of dying and burial, we can control at least these aspects more, making room to approach others with a healthier mindset.
I would like to mention here that I do struggle sometimes with existential dread and crisis because I do work in the death field and I think and read about death every day. I've noticed that it does affect me because even though I engage with death on a daily basis, it doesn’t mean I’m immune to the effects of it. For this reason, it’s very important to protect your mental health, working in the death spaces, in whatever way and form it takes.
Kasia - Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you would like to start a multicultural discourse on death and dying in Poland.
Lee - I want to engage in a multicultural discourse around death and dying because Poland, for all its positive aspects, is very monocultural. I feel like it’s important to have a narrative from different points of view and from different cultures to gain a broader understanding of how we die, how we are buried and how we grieve. I feel like that's something that Poland needs, especially now as we sort of grappled with the aftermath of COVID. And, of course, with the war in Ukraine there are a lot of cultural things that are being reopened. By having multicultural discourses around death, dying and disposal, these tough topics can be better understood and more healthily dealt with, for the mental health of not only an individual but a collective, as like a Polish nation.
Kasia - In the light of what is happening right now, we cannot simply pretend anymore that death and suffering are not around us. Mental health is a topic which is not widely spoken in Poland so I am really glad that there are people and organisations that are starting a discourse around death and dying. And how is it in Australia? Is the topic of death and dying present in everyday discourse?
Lee - There's a multifaceted answer in that. I am saying it because there are so many different cultural groups in Australia that have not only brought the death rituals of their home country, but then developed it as they've lived in Australia. For this reason, it would be impossible to talk about them all. I can only really speak to my own cultural experience, and the experience of the people in my social circle, a lot of them being white Australians, who have been long removed from the culture of their ancestors. As I said previously, many death rituals have been lost, or developed in such a way that we now don't really like to talk about it too much. But I think, like in Poland, things are changing now and young folk are discussing it more. We are a lot more aware of our place in the world and the role we play in the global community. Events like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and the war in Ukraine are so global that we can’t help but think about the consequences of those things. And they are all connected with suffering and death. So I think more people are thinking about it now and starting to have conversations. But again, I stipulate though that different cultures in Australia will have different approaches.
Australians have this reputation of being open and relaxed but our colonial legacy has also set up a platform for us to be not so tolerant. I feel that there’s still a lot of tension between different cultural and racial groups that really impacts how we interact with each other and also how we talk about death and dying. For this reason, it's a difficult question to answer coherently, as I can only speak from one perspective. I will end my answer with the imperative that we remain open minded and curious in order to have discussions around death, especially multicultural discussions. I feel like having an open narrative and an open mind will not only help us understand death and dying for ourselves, but also foster a broader acceptance of differences within this area.
Lee Sulkowska is a death, dying and disposal historian, completing her PhD at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. You can follow her on Twitter @cemeteryhist