Culture //

Our family is dying young

Anonymous describes the human impact of indigenous life expectancy statistics.

Another of my uncles died last week. I received a text from my mum while I was in a lecture to let me know. When I asked how she was, she replied, “All my family is dying.”

I suppose that’s true.

I was eight or nine when I went to my first funeral. It was for someone I’d called ‘uncle’ my whole life, though he wasn’t strictly related to either of my parents. The church was hot, the service was long, and the drive to the cemetery was mundane. The reception was muted and we left early.

I’ve been to enough funerals now that they’ve begun to feel the same. The churches blur into one hall of wooden pews, and though we’ve buried our dead in cemeteries up and down the coast, they coalesce into a single stretch of land — mountains pressing in from one side, and a single-lane highway with encroaching greenery pressing in from another.

I’m writing this in Sydney while the rest of my family is in mourning in the Far North of the country. When they were laying my uncle to rest in my hometown, I was sitting in a cool lecture theatre — learning some essential aspect of our colonialist legal system no doubt.

At its most general, the Indigenous life expectancy gap means more deaths and more funerals. The way this plays out in individual lives and specific communities will vary. Lately, for me, it plays out in the funerals I keep missing— three or four in the last 18 months alone— and the shame of not being there each time. For my mum, a woman in her 60s, all four of her brothers are dead, and deaths in our extended family mean she travels back home once or twice a year now.

Our family is dying young, as the statistics suggested they might, but however incisive the statistics, they can’t convey the minutia of death— how mundane the pain has began to feel, how familiar, how expected.