The Union Buries its Dead
The Union Buries its Dead opens with an interaction between the unnamed narrator and his friends and a lone ‘young man on horseback,’ who asks the group if it is safe to cross the water and is told that ‘it is deep enough to drown him.’ The groups exchange laughter, and part ways.
The next day the men join a funeral procession, and it is revealed that it is for a ‘young union labourer’ who drowned – the man the narrator and his friends had encountered the day before (though they do not yet realise this). Though the man was a stranger, he is given a funeral because he belonged to a union. The narrator describes how the procession moves through the town, with the crowd becoming increasingly intoxicated and belligerent. It is only as they approach the cemetery that the group of men realise that the deceased is the man from the river:
‘You remember when we were in the boat yesterday, we saw a man driving some horses along the bank?’
He nodded at the hearse and said:
‘Well, that’s him.’
At the cemetery, the priest attempts to deliver a convincing and touching service. The publican covers him with his hat unnecessarily as a show of respect. The narrator then describes how, as the coffin is being buried, the dirt ‘rebounded and knocked’ on it.
The story concludes with the narrator revealing the dead man’s name as James Tyson. However, that fact was soon forgotten. In doing so, Lawson offers a reflection on mortality and life in the bush that is brief but nonetheless has lasting effect.
Cultural assumptions examined
The joyful, unthinking and boisterous ‘larrikin’ cultural archetype
The assumptions that underpin this stereotypical character-type are challenged by the cynical and introspective tone employed by the narrator throughout The Union Buries its Dead. The cynicism demonstrated by the narrator serves to remind audiences of the destructive consequences of behaviour that is otherwise dismissed as thoughtless fun, and most crucially, emphasises the unforgiving hostility of the bush setting. Indeed, Lawson stresses that actions do indeed have consequences, and those consequences are more intense on the frontier.
The significance of individual identity in determining the respect people have for that individual
Lawson makes his suspicions and ambivalence about the crowd that is drawn to the man’s funeral despite him being a strange clear from the outset. The narrator very much exists as an observer and outsider in this story: he watches as the crowd converges to mourn the death of a complete stranger, simply because he belonged to a union. Essentially, he is unconvinced that this is a genuine display of affection and is somewhat disillusioned by the sight of people performing their apparent grief despite not knowing anything about the deceased man. That is not to say that he does not believe the man should be treated with respect; rather, Lawson simply believes the townspeople are overcompensating and being inauthentic in their remembrance of him.