Rhonda Nicholls put her head on the tiny, white coffin holding the remains of her infant son and sobbed discretely. Baby Michael, one of her and her husband, Cedric’s eight children, had been taken from them 47 years before, buried in a, so called, pauper’s grave and lost to the family for almost five decades.
Now, Michael was back home and about to be re-buried in Armidale, on Gumbangerri Country, in the northern tablelands of New South Wales. For Rhonda it was a big miracle: “I couldn’t stop crying but they were tears of joy to see my baby one more time. It’s also very sad and it’s like my husband, I go through it all over again, like we did on that day he passed away.”
If it was a miracle then it was based on 5 years of exhaustive, detective work. The sudden death of Baby Michael’s brother Dawson in 2014 prompted a family promise from siblings Zona, Dianne and Steven to find Michael and bring him back to nation. The repatriation on cultural grounds was not only an extraordinary achievement but a first for Australia according to the family.
Rhonda Nicholls and Cedric Kelly were living in Kempsey on the NSW mid-north coast when Michael was born in 1971. They were the days when doctors would only treat Aboriginal patients on the verandah of the local hospital before midday and when social workers were looking for any excuse to take kids away.
Michael didn’t thrive and was flown by air ambulance to Camperdown Children’s Hospital in Sydney. Rhonda and Cedric had no way of getting to Sydney, so the in-laws bought a second-hand panel van and they all piled in for the ten hour drive south.
“We never had the chance to say goodbye to him there. We never had the chance to hold him, to kiss him goodbye. We were never given that chance.”
When they got to Sydney they went straight there and Baby Michael was in a ward alone, and very unwell. They spent as much time as they could, left their address with the nurses and went to stay overnight with family in Redfern.
The next morning, Michael was dead, and Rhonda never saw her baby again: “We never had the chance to say goodbye to him there. We never had the chance to hold him, to kiss him goodbye. We were never given that chance.”
With financial help from Charles Perkins’ Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs he was laid to rest, or so they thought, in Sydney’s Rookwood, the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere.
For the family, to bring him home to nation, they first had to find his unmarked grave and were directed to three different possible burial sites.
When taken to the third grave, they discovered an unrelated, homeless war veteran, William Bede Gallagher had been buried on top of Michael. Not only was it an insult to their traditional burial custom but the multiple interment had happened without the family’s consent and posed a major impediment to his exhumation. But that didn’t stop the sisters, Zona and Dianne who set out to find Bede Gallagher’s family and seek their approval to disturb his grave and remove Michael.
While formal notification in the Government Gazette and the mainstream newspapers turned up nothing, Zona, using Google and the Geni family-tree website, was able to track down Bede Gallagher’s grandniece, Linda Smith in Victoria, who promptly authorised the exhumation.
“They’ve been going through it for 5 and a half years. Five and a half years, going here, going there, where’s their brother? The stamina and courage and strength of that family is astonishing”
The day of the exhumation was extraordinary, full of uncertainty and tension. Was Baby Michael actually in the grave? It soon became clear when forensic archaeologist and now family friend, Dr Louise Steding reported the discovery of Michael’s tiny white coffin and a tell tail crucifix left on it, back in 1972. Tears flowed as his remains were placed in the hearse for transport to Armidale. For Louise it was emotionally draining but nothing in comparison to what the family had to endure.
“They’ve been going through it for 5 and a half years. Five and a half years, going here, going there, where’s their brother? The stamina and courage and strength of that family is astonishing, she said.
The five-year ordeal prompted sisters, Zona Kelly and Dianne Ball, to campaign for the recognition of cultural burial practices and the right to return loved ones to Country. In NSW they have lobbied against, “Renewable Tenure” a policy which could see remains of family members exhumed after 25 years and the burial plots resold.
“It wasn’t a funeral it was a celebration because what you attended today is something that never really happened in Australia”.
Throughout Australia there are thousands of unmarked Aboriginal graves. In the Northern Territory a community cemetery burial register has never been mandatory. The NT Labor government tried to fix that problem last year but sparked online opposition nationwide after the draft legislation was seen to threaten traditional burials in Arnhem Land.
Baby Michael will never be alone again buried next to his brother Dawson and surrounded by extended family. For Zona Kelly it was the first time a domestic repatriation of remains had happened within the country.
“It wasn’t a funeral, it was a celebration because what you attended today is something that never really happened in Australia," she said.
- A Grave Injustice will air on Living Black tonight, NITV (Ch34), 8.30pm.