22 March 2024

Volunteers on a mission: 'You can’t see the graves for the grass'

| John Thistleton
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Preparing for another trek into the far flung reaches of the Catholic parishes around Goulburn are Marcus Imbens and Dennis Borham.

Preparing for another trek into the far-flung reaches of the Catholic parishes around Goulburn are Marcus Imbens and Dennis Borham. Photo: John Thistleton.

Dennis Borham is looking for a Catholic cemetery about 80 km north of Goulburn.

“I can’t find it,” the long-serving volunteer mower said. “It’s probably hidden under the grass, somewhere out Peelwood way, about 60-80 km that way,” he said, indicating north of Goulburn.

Dennis suspects many more cemeteries have vanished for the same reason. Well before he arrived at the Mary Queen of Apostles Parish centred on Goulburn, he was mowing grass at forgotten cemeteries.

Mowing church property since he was a boy, he has stepped up his efforts in recent years after attending a friend’s funeral.

“The mass was beautiful, the people were beautiful, comforting and everything else,” he said, recalling that service.

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“But when we got to the cemetery, you could not see the graves for the grass. You couldn’t see the headstones for the hedge. I thought this would never do,” he said, and has been mowing voluntarily ever since.

When he came to the Goulburn parish everything looked in order, until the day he joined a working bee at an old cemetery 40 km away at Spring Valley, and he wondered how many more cemeteries were like that.

“A lot of these places, you would never have heard of them,” he said. “They are totally isolated; some of them are still in use, some haven’t been used for 50 years; the same as church properties, as the communities change.

“There might have been a mass celebrated at the church at one stage, but not any more. The people have either drifted away or died, so the site just gets neglected because nobody knows about it.”

So the search continues for him and his volunteering colleague, Marcus Imbens, a volunteer caretaker of the Goulburn Club who mows the grounds of St Peter and Paul’s Old Cathedral, as well as travelling hundreds of kilometres each week with Dennis.

In his ute, hauling two ride on mowers, two push mowers, spades, shovels and crowbars, their cemeteries search is widening. Dennis says the furthest church going northeast is 100 km away. The furthest one going south is 52 km away.

As priests in outlying parishes die and are not replaced, the area is added to Goulburn. Crookwell and Taralga, which once had their own parish priests, now come under the ministry of Goulburn.

“As a result you get an area of so many thousand sqkm and in that area there’s a huge amount of church ground, huge numbers of church cemeteries,” he said. “We were working on one part that used to be an old school, a thriving school. Not anymore. We had two mowers going on that for six hours and never got the grass cut.”

Organising a working bee at Marulan about four years ago, Dennis appealed to the ageing parishioners for a hand, reminding them they were the ones who volunteered when they were younger.

“People in their late 90s turned up,” he said. “One person was 100 who came and sat on one grave and cleaned that particular grave.”

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A retired financial counsellor, Dennis lives in Bungonia with his wife Tanya with whom he has raised foster children. Today he and Marcus mow cemeteries and church grounds at Mummel, Marulan, Taralga and step in at other old cemeteries when the mowing falls behind or becomes neglected.

He’s wary around dead trees in graveyards. A dead limb could break off at the slightest bump and fall straight down on the volunteers. Cattle and sheep get into cemeteries and rub up against headstones, sending them toppling over. He looks out for ditches and other hazards too.

“I was sitting on my ride-on mower and the grass was two feet above me and I could only see (one foot) in front of me and never hit a headstone,” he said. “That was no design of mine, that was the good Lord looking after me,” he said.

Placing an advertisement in the parish bulletin asking for motor mowers, labour and mechanics, he received a call from a man travelling through Goulburn to Melbourne who offered to pay for mechanical repairs to the value of $500, enabling him to repair a mower.

“Mowing cemeteries is a very good thing for an introvert,” he said. “You don’t have to talk to anyone and I’m basically an introvert.”

If you would like to volunteer to help Dennis, or help in other volunteering roles call the parish on 0403 631 797.

Original Article published by John Thistleton on About Regional.

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