The rhythmic scrape of shovel on stone is the perfect requiem to a hard-working man. “I don’t hold with backhoes,” John Shay says, letting fly a shovelful of earth as exclamation.
“I dig to a nice shape. The backhoes just dig rough and square. You have some graves that are too wide, too long and you can’t even put the casket-lowering device on them. A decent grave should be 6ft7in (200cm) long and 2ft3in (69cm) at the shoulders.
“The other thing I don’t like is laying them this way and that. We were always told to dig them facing the east so a body can sit up and watch the sunrise if they’ve a mind to.”
Sometimes you literally stumble across stories and so it was with the old gravedigger. We’d come to Moliagul Cemetery on the trail of John Deason, the co-discoverer of the Welcome Stranger – the world’s largest recorded nugget – and struck gold.
“You know that nugget might have sat in the kitchen of my house when it was first found,” John muses. “Old man Deason used to have the place before my folks went out there in about 1931.”
The Shays and Deasons remain neighbourly in death as in life – generations of families laid side by side in the gum-ringed graveyard.
“I’ve dug my mother’s grave. I dug me wife’s grave two year ago – the youngest son helped me do that.
“For a long time I knew Vera wasn’t too good. The doctors had been treating her for 20 years for her heart. She was very lucky to see her 60th birthday and she ended up getting to 75, so we couldn’t complain.
“I was proud to dig her grave. It’s the last decent thing you can do for someone, isn’t it – to bury them. I have buried a lot of my own cousins, uncles and aunties too – right here.”
In all John estimates he’s dug over 1800 graves since he was first asked to dig half a dozen in Tarnagulla Cemetery in 1970.
“They couldn’t get the graves dug in other cemeteries so they asked me to come and dig ’em. I finished up with 14 cemeteries, but I never took Wedderburn or Dunolly to begin with. Then there started to be quite a few cremations and I thought I’ll take the others.
“Some weeks I mightn’t do any – some of the really little country ones might only have one of two funerals a year, but in the bigger ones you might have anything up to 17 a year.
“I have dug up to five a week, but that was going back to when I was younger and fitter. I can’t work as quick now as I used to – I’m 75, coming up 76 after all.
“Down at Marong where I have dug for a long time I knew the chap who was the shire mayor. He used to say: ‘There’s no good you getting a job on council, John – your shovel work’s too quick’.
“Some of the graves in Inglewood are getting a bit tough for me. Inglewood has a lot of ironstone in it. That’s hard, I tell you.
“These days it takes me a good two days to dig a grave because I can’t push myself any more. This one here’s for a Mrs Gordon. I don’t know her, but I hope she likes it.
“To me death is nothing to be afraid of. It’s like when it happens it happens. No one gets any say. You can be here today and go for a drive and be gone tomorrow.
“The biggest problem I reckon is that people never talk about it. And when something happens the family don’t know what has to be done.
“The first thing you have to do up here in the country when someone dies is you have to have a grave to be able to bury them. Once the undertakers know they have got someone they ring me straightaways to see when I can have a grave dug. Then they go to the family and say, ‘we can have the funeral on a certain day’, but they can’t have it before because they have to give me time to get it dug.
“Nearly everyone else uses backhoes. My son is thinking of getting one. I plan to keep on digging while I can because it keeps me fit and active. I reckon if I give up, me muscles and joints will just seize up and that will be the beginning of the end.
“I will be buried here with the wife. My son will most likely dig my grave for me.
I only hope he doesn’t use a backhoe.”