Sex and death: The female grave in colonial South Australia (1836-1936)

19th December 2012

Mike Adamson

The differential social status of men and women in historic South Australia (SA) placed an indelible mark on all aspects of society, and the signature of these attitudes is perceptible in the material record of the age. Cemetery data provide an excellent record spanning the first 100 years of settlement (i.e. 1836–1936), a period also encompassing profound changes in the social status of women in SA; therefore they offer a spectrum of information in which that trajectory of social evolution may be detectable.

West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide, and a selection of cemeteries from what were nineteenth century pastoral districts, were investigated for correlates between the recorded social status of women and aspects of funerary behaviour, such as size and elaboration of memorialisation. The choice of factors relate to the financial investment in each burial, thus an implicit statement of the worth of the deceased, both in concrete terms and in terms of the message or statement to the community each grave was intended to make. The year 1936 was selected as the upper limit of the study owing to the establishment in the late 1930s of the American ‘lawn cemetery’ concept, in which materials were standardised as to size, shape, composition etc.

Style is an attribute especially likely to be influenced by gender dimorphism, and was investigated through monument design, materials of construction and decorative motifs. The frequency of appearance of these attributes in male and female primary burials in a variety of social groupings (solitary, multiple same-sex burial, spousal burial, multiple mixed sex burial) was compared to the basic demographic distribution of those groups in each time and place, and variation revealed trends in the disposition of these attributes. Multivariate analysis was used to compare trends in the data, seeking covariance between the stature of burials and the sex of the primary deceased. Urban and rural districts were compared, seeking variation of social attitude between town and country.

Considerable evidence was found for gendered attitudes in the study period, with differences in the styles and degree of elaboration chosen for the graves of males and females. In the majority of cases males received the lion’s share, while with just two exceptions females received greater investment in their burial. These patterns form a mosaic in which the frequency of appearance of difference increases toward the end of the study period, at variance with the hypothesis that the record should reflect the narrowing of the legal and social difference between men and women. This study provides a foundation for future work in colonial gender studies via cemetery data, by illuminating trends and providing a methodological framework in which specific aspects may be investigated in more closely targeted studies.

Mike Adamson
Sex and death: The female grave in colonial South Australia (1836-1936)
Thesis Abstracts
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