We buried my mother in a cemetery ten minutes’ walk away from where she’d lived for the last forty years. It’s a place that’s remained rural as a suburb has grown up around it. There are gum trees on the paddocky, sloping land and white cockatoos fly overhead. It was established 150 years ago and the older headstones had that degree of tilt and benign neglect that soften their relationship with grief and turn them to landmarks of history and intrigue. My brother and I played as children in that cemetery.


My mother’s death was unexpected. She had been ill with a condition that was controlled, until suddenly it wasn’t and she died with almost no warning early one morning. I was in France; the country all four of my mother’s grandparents had been born in, where half my genetic heritage comes from. I had to wait two days for a flight to Australia and so in the meantime I walked streets I knew my mother had walked.  I always wonder, circling landscapes again and again, about ghosts and the maps I make. I went to Notre Dame. I remember finding, unexpectedly, the Goddess  figure in the very centre of the ceiling; a round panel with her holding a baby, standing on a crescent moon and surrounded by stars. I remember sitting there straight off the plane at 7am one morning with my young son asleep on my lap, we had gone there because it was  open and warm.

This time they were singing the evening mass. I bought and lit a candle, something I don’t think I’ve ever done in a church before and placed it with the hundreds of others. I thought maybe her path crossed with that candle; that, in an earlier time she would walk past those candles and that in this place time could easily blur; so much of the same thing was done here repeatedly, through hundreds of years. And I felt local there, through heritage, through repeated visits over many years, through the act of lighting a candle for my mother in the land her grandparents came from.

Then I was back in Australia and organising a ceremony to celebrate my mother’s life and everything fell together. Behind the cemetery is an artists’ colony, begun in the 1940s and still running today; a place with stone buildings in a late medieval style. Someone had the brilliant idea to have the ceremony  there, in the Great Hall with massive wooden beams and flagstone floors, candles and flowers, rather than in the sterile funeral parlour. So that’s what we did. The whole thing took place so close to where she’d lived, where we’d grown up it felt almost as if we were in another time; a village and everything we needed and all the landmarks of someone’s life might be within a short walk.

At the ceremony I talked about the saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child; I said I think it’s the same to bury someone. And that the people gathered there in the Great Hall on that day were, in effect, my mother’s village and that together we would do this thing. I spoke of my mother’s background and childhood, other speakers talked of her and then my son spoke. Amazingly, the day that had been chosen for this event was Imbolc and so he talked about the cycle of life, how my mother had died at the beginning of spring, when she was born and her favourite flowers were the snowdrops, which were out and flowering in the grounds outside the Great Hall.

He taught a song to the hundred-odd people there, the song his dad ever sang to him in the first hour of his life and we sang it for my mother. Then I asked for others to come and share a memory of my mother that perhaps no-one else even knew about and twenty or more people did that. Someone who went to school with her, friends and relatives, young people who’d grown up knowing her, her cousin who talked of meeting her when they were tiny children. After the ceremony we walked together to her burial place, a few hundred metres down a dirt roadway into the cemetery.

I spoke a blessing while the coffin was lowered, we sang another song and threw native flowers into the grave and my son read bedtime stories for her. After the last story, one of her favourites, he stepped forward and let the book fall in on top of the coffin. And we said good night and walked away. It was magical in the most basic sense; the local clay-based soil, my white cockatoo friends as guardians, being in France when I heard of her death, running her funeral with my son. And the great mystery of death, a death I haven’t really begun to comprehend yet, feels held within those circles, in place and time, through localities we had in common. Now she’s part of that locality forever; with echoes, perhaps, of her children playing there from an earlier time.