Rise of the ‘grave nomads’ brings forgotten outback stories to life

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Trevor & Suzie Tough seek out secrets of long-forgotten graves. PIC: Supplied

The phenomenon of cemetery tourism is transforming the Big Lap experience of growing numbers of grey nomads … and it seems we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

The rise of the so-called ‘grave nomads’ is continuing apace, with increasing numbers of caravanners and motorhomers finding  that tracing their ancestors’ final resting places, or just researching the lives of pioneers is adding a whole new layer to their travels.

Academic Hilda Maclean from Griffith University says grey nomads are playing a key role in ensuring  another link with Australia’s pioneering past isn’t permanently severed.

“Scattered across the vast reaches of outback Australia are dozens of tiny burial grounds and lone graves which stand as a silent testament to the lives lost exploring and settling this wide brown land,” she said. “There is an urgent need to photograph, record and geo-locate these graves and make this information discoverable to family and local historians who do not have the capacity to visit the graves themselves.”

She says if nothing is done, the names of these pioneers will be lost as time and weather obliterates their grave markers.

Grey nomads have been eager to embrace projects set up to locate and hopefully identify  overgrown graves. West Australians Trevor and Suzie Tough and their friend Alex Aiken have been trying to relocate and mark graves with durable aluminium plaques engraved with any details known about the deceased.

On a recent trip to the Kimberley, they found cattle stations littered with old, overgrown graves from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr Tough said every grave carried a story at risk of being lost.

“We have installed about 150 plaques on more than 30 properties,” he said. “This has resulted in enormous support from the station folk, with referrals guiding us to old graves, anecdotal and family stories and lots of knowledge from old people.”

The idea of saving these windows into Australia’s past has really taken off, and has led to the birth of the Outback Graves Project, which has earned the help of locals, Shires and historical societies.

“There are many retired folk who find our project just as captivating as we do,” said Mr Tough. “Once you start looking into the stories that go with these outback graves, it opens up some wonderful history, with threads that lead to more and more stories.”

As Hilda Maclean notes, with the declining rural population there are fewer people to look after cemeteries … and grey nomads can make a difference, even by pulling a few weeds.

“There are many ways to assist with the preservation of Australia’s past, commensurate with people’s levels of energy and interest,” she said. “Cemeteries are fascinating places to visit …  my own love of them was fostered by my father for whom no motoring holiday was complete without a visit to the destination’s cemetery.”

  • Are you a ‘grave nomad’. Email us here to share your experiences.
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