...Eddie Mabo's tombstone opening...
A tombstone opening is a time for celebration, mourning is over, the spirit of the dead is released and so too is the family released from mourning. After a tombstone opening a widow or widower is free to remarry.
The Mabo family chose 3 June 1995, the third anniversary of the High Court judgment, to stage the celebration. Guests were invited from around Australia. The nation was represented by Mrs Anita Keating, the wife of the Australian Prime Minister and Aboriginal, and Islander Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner, attended on behalf of the Federal Government. Bonita and her family had spent the past twelve months planning and furiously saving for the event.
The tombstone opening commenced with a march through the streets of Townsville led by Murray Island warriors. There was a mixture of Islanders, Aborigines and Europeans in the huge crowd that came to celebrate Mabo day, the anniversary of the High Court judgement. But they also came to celebrate and honour the man who overturned terra nullius.
On the afternoon of 3 June 1995, more than 500 guests assembled at Townsville's Belgian Gardens cemetery for the official unveiling of Eddie Koiki Mabo's tombstone. Amongst them were family, friends, colleagues, local politicians, unionists, academics and more than 200 Murray Islanders who'd flown from Mer.
The ceremony commenced with a Meriam hymn, an anthem that Mabo would have known from his childhood. At the grave side Bonita Mabo and Anita Keating stood solemnly side by side and reconciliation between black and white Australians seemed a real possibility that day. There was another reconciliation too, with the island community Mabo had quarrelled with and fought for all his life.
A ribbon was cut, opening the entrance to the graveside and Eddie's aunties and uncles, Bonita Mabo and Mrs Keating entered to witness the unveiling. Another Meriam hymn was sung as the layers of cloth were slowly peeled by his relatives to reveal the shiny black headstone and the smiling bronze face of Eddie Mabo.
The ceremony was concluded with Koiki's favourite hymn, Bakimau Bakiamu Iesu Im (Go Towards Jesus) and then a prayer from his fellow plaintiff Father Dave Passi. And then a multitude of onlookers stood at the graveside and photographed the headstone. The tombstone not only honoured Mabo's achievements, it was a symbol of hope and change.
The traditional feast that accompanies a tombstone opening was held that night in the YMCA basketball stadium on the outskirts of town. A thousand people lined up at trestle tables laid out in the shape of an octopus, in honour of Malo, the Murray island octopus God. On the tables were bowls of turtle meat, chicken, pork, sop sop, rice, damper, cakes and fried scones. After the feast Murray Islanders danced on into the night.
Keywords: ceremony, desecration, Mabo, Bonita, Tickner, Robert, tombstone ceremony, Townsville, 1995
Bonita Mabo and family members at Eddie Koiki Mabo's tombstone, 3 June 1995.
Author: Graham, Trevor