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Clunes Cemetery

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Cemetery Road North, Clunes VIC 3370

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Features

  • Historic Cemetery
  • Gruesome history
  • Beautiful building
This striking cemetery on the outskirts of Clunes was officially established in 1861, although unregistered burials occurred before then. The final resting place of around 6,000 people, this cemetery is very well presented and features a gorgeous historic chapel at its centre. 


All cemeteries are macabre by nature, but this one has a particularly gruesome history. In 1921 the cemetery caretaker, Matthew Birch, committed suicide in the yard by a self-inflicted explosion of dynamite.

Information and history of the Clunes Cemetery

A pair of beautifully presented information signs at the Clunes Cemetery display the following text:

Clunes Public Cemetery


This is the final resting place for about 6000 people. 

The first name that appears on the Cemetery Register is that of Mary Hannah Jeffery, aged 11 weeks, who was buried on 15th February 1861. The register does not record burials prior to 1861 and most of the unrecorded early graves are located in the front lower section of what is now the Church of England Section, in rows L, M, and N. There are a small number of headstones in the area but unfortunately no records of the names or numbers of people buried there remain. 

With the discovery of gold in 1851, the population of Clunes quickly swelled with miners hoping to strike it rich. When many of the miners and itinerant workers and their families moved on, they left Clunes with a loved one buried here in the cemetery. In these early days, infant mortality was high, as were the deaths of mothers resulting from complications during childbirth.

Many people buried here played a key role in the establishment and development of Clunes and the local district. They included councillors, mayors, shopkeepers, owners of businesses and hotels that serviced the town, graziers and farmers who settled in the area and worked the land, ministers of local churches and teachers who established and taught in the many schools in the area. 

The Cemetery Trust is appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria and is comprised of members of the community. The Trust is responsible for maintaining the grounds and overseeing interments. The upkeep of memorials are the responsibility of the families. 

In 1994, the Trust established a Memorial Wall for the placement of cremated remains. This wall was erected with generous donations from the Clunes Lions Club and the Clunes Helping Hand Op Shop. The second all, erected in 2003, was dedicated to longstanding Trust member Ivan Alderson. 

In 1999, a Garden Section was established in front of the Catholic Section and this area has proved to be very popular as burial preferences change. This section has been extended in recent years. 

The Chapel


The Chapel stands proudly in the centre of the cemetery grounds. It was erected in the mid-1860s, when it helped cater for the spiritual needs of the community. As was the practice at that time, trees were planted to create a peaceful garden environment for the bereaved and the Chapel enhanced this setting. 

Unknown Graves

There are about 600 burials where the register does not indicate exactly where the person is buried. The register may only state the religious denomination they are buried in. In 2020, the Clunes Cemetery Trust established an area at the end of one of the Memorial Walls where families can attach a small memorial plaque with details on it. Contact the Secretary for more information. 

Unmarked Graves

There are many unmarked graves in the cemetery grounds. Families came to Clunes hoping to strike it rich and make a fortune but sadly this rarely happened. Most families were poor and could not afford to erect a memorial for their loved ones. 

Interments

There have been about 6,000 burials registered at the Clunes Cemetery. During the 1860s and 1870s there could be as many as 4 or 5 burials in one day. These days the cemetery averages 12-15 burials per year. 

In the early years, living conditions were poor and unhygenic [sic]. There was limited medical assistance and the local midives did their best to deliver babies safely. However, Many infants succumbed at birth or during childhood from infectious diseases such as measles, scarlet fever, diptheria, cholera, etc. Others died from drownings, burns and other accidents.

In 1874, three children aged 10, 5 and 3 died when their house caught fire. Others perished when their clothes set alight in front of an open fire. There were many accidents involving drays and wagons. 

Strangers Section

This area has traditionally been known as the 'Strangers Section' and holds the remains of 56 people, including 21 Chinese burials. During the days of the gold rush, there were many itinerant people who came to the area to make their fortune and died with no family to claim them. Some are simply listed in the records as 'Unknown Man'. The last burial in this Section was in 1910. 

Names of Chinese Burials

A YEN
AH WON
GEE MUK
AH WONG YOU
AH CHONG
AH FAT
AH WING
AH GOON
AH GOON
WEE CHUT
KEM TON
WING CHIN
AH CHEONG
AH HEE
AH LEE
AH YICK
AH WAY
AH SLAM GAN
AH QUIM
AH TAP
A CHINAMAN

1920s suicide at the Clunes Cemetery

All cemeteries are macabre by nature, but this striking cemetery on the outskirts of Clunes has a particularly gruesome history.

The Clunes Cemetery is the site of a 1920's suicide of an almost theatrical nature. Matthew Birch, sexton at the Clunes Cemetery, was found dead in the yard of the cemetery lodge by his wife early one morning, his head completely blown off. 

Cause of death was determined to be a deliberate, self inflicted explosion of dynamite. Birch had wrapped a coat around his head before causing the explosion. Pieces of the head and brains were reportedly spattered about the trees and on a fence.


The following account was published in The Horsham Times on Friday 20th May 1921:

Head Blown Off
Early on Tuesday morning the dead body of Matthew Birch. sexton at the Clunes cemetery, was found in the yard. Shortly before six o'clock Mrs. Birch heard a loud noise, and on getting up to ascertain the cause found the body of her husband. who had been in the habit of sleeping out under the verandah, lying on the ground. She called her daughter and they summoned the neighbors and the police were sent for.

On an examation being made of the body it was found that the head had been completely blown off, apparently by dynamite, as some dynamite caps were found in a drawer near deceased's bed. Some matches were found near the body. On a table near the bed was found the following note: "I am tired and full up of this, and I am going to end it, for I cannot stand it any longer. I hope everyone will f'orgive me. Yours, M Birch. Bury me in that grave alongside M. Coombe." The latter was an old friend of deceased.

Later in the day a magisterial enquiry was held by the deputy coroner. Mrs. Birch gave evidence that deceased was 64 years of age. She last saw him alive about 9 o'clock on the previous night, when he seemed cheerful. He was suffering from miner's complaint, and had often said, "What 's the good of me living : can never get better." She was on good terms with her husband. 

Her daughter, Doris Birch gave corroborative evidence. 

Dr. K. A. Stephenson gave evidence that he had examined the body, and considered that death had been caused by some explosion. He had previously attended deceased at the hospital for tubereculosis of the lungs, known as miner's complaint. 

Const.S. Shields gave evidence regarding the finding of the body, and stated that apparently deceased had wrapt a coat around his head before causing the explosion as he had found pieces of the coat partly around the head and hanging on the trees near by. Pieces of the head and brains were spattered about the trees and on a fence.

The deputy coroner found that death had been caused by an explosion of a dynamite cap, and that the injuries were self-inflicted.

The grave of Matthew Birch can be found, as he had requested in his note, up the back left row of the cemetery alongside that of his old friend Matthew John Coombe, who had died three years before Birch's suicide. The only reference to Birch's grisly end on his tombstone are the words 'died tragically', which makes you pause and ponder what untold stories all the other graves may hold, despite their brief, impersonal engravings.

Murder and Mayhem on the Maryborough Goldfields! Shop high quality A1 print.
 


DID YOU KNOW...

  • Many cemeteries in the goldfields were established in the early-mid 19th century. Walking through the historic cemeteries of the area is like taking a walk through time.
 

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