The De Salis (or Cuppacumbalong) Cemetery is one of a small number of late 19th century private or family cemeteries in the Canberra region. By the end of the century private cemeteries were becoming something of a dying (pardon the pun) breed, originally having been necessary due to the lack of public cemeteries, in particular for pastoral families and their workers on stations in Australia’s interior.
One of the nice things about this particular cemetery is the walk you have to do to get to it – a 3km round trip along the Murrumbidgee River from the historic Tharwa Bridge. See my separate review on this easy walk – the Tharwa Explorer Walking Track – which was especially beautiful in autumn when I did it.
The cemetery is situated high up by the junction of the Murrumbidgee and Gudgenby Rivers and a short distance from the Cuppacumbalong Station homestead – the former home or workplace of the cemetery’s occupants.
Buried here is pastoralist and politician, Count Leopold Fane de Salis and five members of his family who lived on the Cuppacumbalong Station for varying periods between 1855 and 1894. Also interred here, but carefully segregated from the De Salis family members due to their lower social status are ten Station employees (including convict workers).
Family members are buried in the western part of the cemetery while employees were interred in the eastern part. My final picture attached depicts the tombstone of the last interment in the cemetery, that of a station worker who was buried in 1903.
In all there are 16 recorded burials here with interments between 1876 and 1903, marked by four headstones and the De Salis polished granite obelisk. The obelisk is surrounded by a dry stonewall which can be entered by means of a wooden stile at the rear. Four immediate members of the De Salis family, including Count Leopold Fane de Salis, are buried within this walled-in area while two, more removed, family members are buried outside, their grave being marked by the rather ornate tombstone depicted in picture 4 below.
What is especially unusual about this cemetery is that the whole thing is elevated about 4 feet or 1.5 metres above the surrounding land and is, itself, surrounded by a dry stone wall, the stones coming from nearby Mt Tennent (the lower part of which is visible below the mist in picture 3 attached).
I imagined that this elevation was to protect the graves from flooding should the river rise. Indeed, at least three coffins are known to have been carried away in floods here. But no, while potential flooding was a factor, the main reason for the elevation was that it was impossible to dig graves at this vantage point due to a layer of granite which gravediggers hit at about one metre deep.
When the first grave for the Count’s son, Rodolph Fane De Salis, was dug here the deceased’s brother recorded in his diary:
“Johnny Noone and helper commenced the grave at 11 o’clock and worked until dark. They despair of ever getting it deep enough… Dyball and Harris help and by 2 o’clock in the morning it is 4 feet deep. The last 3 feet were through solid decomposed granite and the men had to work with a will to get it done – every blow of the pick struck fire”.
Don’t you love the name Johnny Noone ? —– Ok, I digress.
Not to be denied their desirable vantage point in death, when Rodolph’s mother, Charlotte, died in February 1878, the family hit on the idea of raising the cemetery up by adding mud (surrounded by the dry stone wall referred to) instead of digging down. The result is the rather novel cemetery we see today.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on Tharwa. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Cuppangabalong Woolshed – or to start this loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – The Australian Capital Territory’s Oldest Village.