Why would you want to spend your holiday visiting a cemetery?
ABC Great Southern
By Aaron Fernandes
October 06, 2017 19:24:22
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Hundreds of neglected graves in country Western Australia have been given a much needed spruce up courtesy of a renegade group known as the Tombstone Fairies.The Tombstone Fairies is a group of volunteers in the Southern WA town of Denmark, who put aside local laws to preserve history in rural graveyards by bringing tombstones back to life.”We felt that this was really important and so we just did it,” Tombstone Fairy Bev McGuinness said.”That’s how the ‘Tombstone Fairies’ came about, we’ve flown in, done the job and flown out again.”Headstones can tell you so much about families, and it’s always exciting to find someone that you’re connected to if you’re hunting for someone in a cemetery.”
Tombstone Fairy Ross McGuinness touches up a forgotten headstone. I finally found her, where was she buried down the road from the house I grew up in.” Photo:
Mrs Smeed photographed two days after her family drowned. (Supplied: Denmark Historical Society)
Only the mother of the family and one child, who were not on board, survived.”There is a photo of Mrs Smeed taken at her house a few days after the deaths … it’s almost as if she had a premonition not to go in the boat because she knew something would happen,” Ms McGuinness said.Two years ago, the Tombstone Fairies were contacted by descendants of the Smeed family.”We had two people in the space of a month come looking for the family. They knew about the drowning but they had no idea that they were all buried here in a line,” Ms McGuinness said. The cemetery opened following the deaths of three children due to influenza.”Having lived here long enough now, I recognise the names of really early settlers and the contributions they’ve made,” Ms McGuinness said.”People often contact us who are searching for relatives who were early settlers, with the possibility that they might be buried here in Denmark.”Walking the rows of tombstones today, it is remarkable how many are inscribed with the names of children.”Particularly in the early years of the cemetery, there were not the drugs available to help children when they got sick,” Ms McGuinness said.”Diphtheria, whooping cough and influenza were probably the three major killers of young children at that time.”Cemeteries as a place of discoveryWhile many people may find being surrounded by graves unsettling, for the Tombstone Fairies it is a chance for discovery.”I’m a passionate family historian, so I’ve been interested in cemeteries for a very long time,” Ms McGuinness said.”I was hunting for someone in my family for 30 years. They are the burial plots of an entire family who drowned in a nearby river.”The Smeeds were a local family who lived near Wilson Inlet until 1911,” Ms McGuinness said.”They took a boat ride on the lake, the wind picked up and they were swept into a deep channel.”The wind tipped the boat over and all seven drowned, children as well as adults. Photo:
The graves at Denmark Cemetery preserve the stories of early settler life. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Drowning deathsSeven headstones lie in a row at the centre of the cemetery. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Fairies fly around the lawShire of Denmark spokesperson Claire Thomas said it can’t grant the ‘fairies’ any rights to restore the graves as the rights belong to the families of the deceased, under the WA Cemeteries Act.”We want to make it clear that we haven’t given [the Tombstone Fairies] permission,” Ms Thomas said.”Because that’s not something we can do.”Passionate Tombstone Fairy Ross McGuiness said the fairies flew ahead with their plans nonetheless.”There were over 200 headstones that needed work,” he said.”So it was more or less that if the fairies came and did some work on the headstones, no-one would know who was responsible.”We’re not defacing them, we’re not altering them.”We’re simply making them legible so that people can find their family members when they come looking.”
Three of the headstones of the Smeed family who drowned in 1911. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Early settler life and deathDenmark cemetery first opened in 1911, when the town remained a fledgling farming settlement of around 300 people.