The Union Buries Its Dead

Plot

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 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?’ 

‘Yes.’ 

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 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

The Larrikin

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. Lawson stresses that actions do indeed have consequences, and those consequences are more intense on the frontier. 

Identity and Respect

Lawson makes his suspicions and ambivalence about the crowd that is drawn to the stranger's funeral, 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.

quote table

Quote
Technique
Idea
“The dead bushman’s name was Jim, apparently; but they found no portraits, nor locks of hair, nor any love letters, nor anything of that kind in his swag—not even a reference to his mother; only some papers relating to Union matters."
Accumulative listing
Importance of unionism, Isolation
“The fall of lumps of clay on the strangers coffin doesn’t sound any different from the fall of the same things on an ordinary wooden box at least I didn't notice anything awesome or unusual about the sound.”
Matter of fact, Aural description, Cynical narrative voice, Melancholic tone
Inevitability of death, Mundane nature of burial
“Didn’t know the name till we saw it on the coffin; we knew him as ‘that poor chap’”
Inference
Unionism and Mateship, Isolation
"The departed was a 'Roman,' and the majority of the town were otherwise—but Unionism is stronger than creed.”
Juxtaposition
Strength of unionism
“There’s the Devil, I looked up and saw a priest”
Irony, Metaphor, Paradox
Larrikin identity, Religion
“He stood up, braxed his back against the fence, knocked off his hat, and remorsefully placed his foot on it - too keep it off his head till the funeral passed.”
Accumulative listing, Visual imagery
Mateship, Australian culture/rituals
“I have left out the wattle because it wasn't there. I have also neglected to mention the heartbroken old mate, with his grizzled head bowed.”
Anaphora
Exploration of images of the bush
“Liquor, however, is stronger than Unionism; and, when the hearse presently arrived, more than two-third of the funeral were unable to follow."
Descriptive language, Comparison
Australian drinking culture
“The joker of our party said it was deep enough to drown him, and he laughed and rode farther up”
Foreshadowing
Larrikin
“Straightened himself up, stared, and reached helplessly for this hat, which he shoved half off and then on again.”
Cynical tone, Comical description
Australian drinking culture, Exploration of Larrikin identity

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