Coo-ee: Grave Problems in Wangaratta

By Simon Ruppert

1901 was not a good year for Wangaratta cemetery trust.

Wangaratta’s borough councillors, acting as cemetery trustees, confronted not one, but two scandals. 

Around March 16, 1901, a Benalla woman died while in Wangaratta hospital. Her family arranged for her burial in Wangaratta cemetery.

At her interment, her family was horrified to see that her grave was to be just 45cm deep.

To worsen the situation, the family realised that the interment was in the Wesleyan section, not the Presbyterian one.

After the funeral, the family went to local newspapers who published their complaints. 

This adverse publicity forced the councillors to hear the family’s complaints. 

The councillors then asked the sexton to explain. He wriggled like a fish on a hook.

First, he denied that the coffin was covered by less than 1.2 metres of earth.

The clergyman officiating at the woman’s funeral corroborated the family’s story.

The sexton protested that he had only five hours notice of the funeral.

Then he whined that he had been away.

A man acting for him had dug the grave in the sexton’s absence.

The sexton was paid for the work.

Next, the sexton complained that he had not been paid enough.

The grave had been dug in public ground and he had only received $3 for his work.

It was pointed out that this was the amount set for the task.

Finally, he explained that another coffin had been in the hole, taking up much of the 1.83 metres depth.

That was because the sexton had chosen to open an old grave to save himself or his friend work.

The councillors offered to obtain an exhumation order from the Chief Secretary of Victoria and have the sexton move the dead woman’s coffin to the correct Presbyterian section and bury it at least 1.83 metres.

The councillors, acting as trustees, judged that the sexton’s mistakes did not warrant action against him.

Instead, they announced that all graves must now be 2.13 metres deep.

It would have been better to sack the sexton. Two months later, there was another scandal.

An 11-year-old child from Moyhu had died in an accident. Her father, Tom Winterton, complained that his child was buried in a previously used grave.

The sexton had dug the new opening too small.

To get the child’s coffin in, the sexton had forced the foot of the child’s coffin down with kicks.

The previous coffin was damaged by his actions, leaving its previously buried dead exposed during the child’s interment. 

At the inquiry, the councillors agreed that it would be a scandal if true.

The sexton said he welcomed investigation.

Winterton demanded that the child’s grave be re-opened to prove his allegations. 

Suddenly the sexton equivocated.

The grave was re-opened. It demonstrated that there had indeed been a scandal.

The sexton kept his position until February 1902 when he was "restructured" out of a job. 

The cost of interments also rose 50 per cent in cost.