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Incredible vintage funeral photos from Australia’s past

A motor car leads a funeral procession, watched by hundreds

The funeral procession of Inspector Charles Watson in Brisbane, 1939

A lot has changed in the last 100 years, but these historical photos give a unique insight into how Australians said goodbye to loved ones in the past. While so much has changed about how we live and die, some traditions remain the same when we gather to pay tribute to someone special.

An elaborate horse-drawn hearse outside a shopfront in Brisbane in 1892

Some people still choose a horse-drawn hearse for their loved one’s send-off, but back in 1892 when this photograph was taken, motor cars has only just been invented. The first car wasn’t imported to Australia until around 1897 and Australian-built cars didn’t start catching on until the 20th Century.

That meant that well into the 1900s, for many people a horse-drawn hearse was the only option. The hearse pictured above belonged to J & J Hislop Undertakers in Brisbane. The horses are wearing a type of covering called a caparison, designed for the formal occasion of leading a funeral cortege.

A crowd of people gathered around a white marble monument, and a close up of the monument with a funeral wreath laid at its base

These two photos shows the world-famous Waverley Cemetery in the 1890s. Located on the clifftops of Bronte, near Sydney, the cemetery was opened in 1877 and is one of the most beautiful 19th Century graveyards in the world.

The busy scene on the left shows carriages and people assembled for the dedication of the Military Forces of New South Wales Memorial. The memorial is the final resting place of four men who died in an accident during the testing of submarine mines in 1891. Major General Hutton unveiled the memorial in the presence of several thousand people, including representatives of all branches of the armed forces.

A Gothic-style train station and old steam train in Sydney, Australia

The Mortuary Railway in Sydney was opened in 1869, carrying coffins and mourners from the city to Rookwood Cemetery for burials. The station pictured was known as Cemetery Station No. 1, designed in a typical neo-Gothic style.

No trace of the railway remains today. The No. 1 station was eventually closed in 1948 and used as a chapel for 10 years, until a fire nearly destroyed it. The Gothic station was then moved, stone by stone, to Ainslie, Canberra, and rebuilt as All Saints Anglican Church.

An elderley woman stood in a grave she is digging, shovel in hand

Though funerals were being revolutionised by the railway in some parts of Australia, in more rural communities, many things were still done the old-fashioned way – like in the small rural town of Drouin, Victoria.

Taken in 1916, this historical photo shows Mrs Josephine Smith hard at work in Drouin Cemetery. The person who took the photo noted on the back that gravedigging was Mrs Smith’s favourite hobby, even at the age of 84.

A procession of 1920s motor cars driving down a street in Brisbane

Taken 10 years after the photo of Mrs Smith digging graves, this funeral photo shows the cortege for Edward Castell Osborn in Brisbane. By this time, motor cars had become a more common part of Australian life.

As Archdeacon of Toowoomba, Osborn warranted an impressive funeral procession after his death in 1926. Here, the cars are pictured travelling from St. Andrew’s Church of England in Lutwyche to Toowong Cemetery.

A horse-drawn hearse coming over a hill, leading motor cars and a crowd of people through the village

For this 1924 funeral in Canungra, Queensland, a traditional horse-drawn hearse is followed by a procession of motor cars and townspeople walking on foot to the local graveyard.

A crowd of people, sat cross-legged on the floor, eating a large funeral feast

Back then, as today, Indigenous Australians had their own unique funeral traditions. This rare historic photograph, taken in 1928 by a man called Charles Maurice, shows the people of Meer Island commemorating their loved ones. The whole community is gathered to feast in memory of the person who has died.

Mourners sat with a coffin on the back of a pickup truck, outside a building in Koonibba

This photograph, taken in 1947, shows mourners gathered for a funeral in Koonibba, South Australia. Now an indigenous community, Koonibba was founded as a Lutheran mission in 1901.

In the photograph, a coffin is on the back of a truck, accompanied by mourners on the way to the funeral.

A large funeral procession watched by hundreds of people, and members of the Navy laying funeral wreaths

These historical photos show the funeral of Joseph Lyons, the 10th Prime Minister of Australia, in 1939. Formerly the Premier of Tasmania, Lyons was the first and only Australian Prime Minister from Tasmania.

He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 59 while still in office. Well-liked by many, his unexpected death was met with deep sadness and grief across the nation, with tens of thousands turning out to wish him farewell before he was laid to rest in Devonport, Tasmania.

Though all these funerals were from a different time, it’s clear that much of those important traditions remain in the ways we say goodbye to loved ones today.

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