“The Union Buries Its Dead” by Henry Lawson follows its narrator as he partakes in the funeral of a stranger and his experience about the stranger, both before and after his death.
Henry Lawson was an Australian poet and short story writer renowned for his portrayal of life in the Australian bush. He is one of the foremost writers of the colonial era in Australia.
THE UNION BURIES ITS DEAD | Summary
A lone horseman, perhaps a drover, meets the narrator as he was driving his horses along the river and asks them how deep the river was. The Joker of the narrator’s group remarks that it is deep enough to drown the horseman, who laughs at this and moves forth. The next day, a funeral gathers in the pub, and the people drink before the hearse arrives. It is later revealed that the “defunct” was a Union Worker who had drowned the day before, though he was a stranger to the town and a “Roman” the town decides to give him a funeral due to his affiliation to the Union. Unfortunately, liquor was stronger than creed and most of these people are drunk when the hearse arrives. The people who still have their bearings join the procession.
There are no more than fifteen people in the procession now, a drover joins the procession and leaves a man signals to the drover that though the front doors of the pubs are closed, the back doors can be used for business. We are also told how bushmen seldom grumble at such inconveniences when it is caused by death due to the respect they held for the dead.
On the way to the cemetery, they encounter three shearers two of which take for their hats out of respect for the dead and when the third who is drunk does not follow suit one of them kicked the drunk and muttered something to him. The drunk tries to remove his hat but he shoves it back into position, then suddenly he stands up throws the hat to the ground and “placed his foot on it—to keep it off his head”. A sympathetic drover comes to join the procession and quotes Byron’s verses suitable to the occasion and quips if the dead man’s ticket would be accepted in heaven, the narrator then tells us how the people’s general opinion was a that it would be accepted since it is a G.L.U ticket. Someone in the procession tells the narrator how the person they met the day before was in fact the dead man who is being buried today, this shocks him.
They reach the cemetery where the priest awaited them. The priest drops his hat carelessly on the ground and does the rites. A man in his drive to appear pious and important held the priest’s hat a few inches above his head, an act which was unnecessary as the priest was already standing in the shade. Later they found out that the man’s name was James Tyson and he did not have any marker of identity that had his union card on him, no letter to his family or keepsake just Union documents and materials. But later they did get to know that the young man’s name was not J.T. but something else, and J.T. was just the name he went by. But the narrator forgets his real name and thinks how no one would be able t provide information on him in any Missing Friends column in the newspaper as they have now forgotten his name.
The Union Buries Its Dead | ANALYSIS
The story begins by showing the only interaction that the Union man has with anyone in the story, and it amounts to just a dismissive comment absent-mindedly said to him. This can be contrasted with the respect that the union man receives after his death. The town decides to give the stranger a funeral just because he is a union man even though they come from competing sections of Christianity. This nudges the readers to the positive impact the Union might he had on the townspeople as it alone serves as a unifying thread for these people who are effectively strangers.
The narrator also breaks down this idea of solidarity as he slowly starts listing any fissures among them. “Liquor, however, is stronger than Unionism” he says, when he describes when many of the people who resolved to attend the procession and the funeral couldn’t do so as they were too drunk. Later a drover approaches the procession, becoming a part of their little march just to leave for a pub, when he gets to know that the pub can be accessed through the side and back doors. Though there is a general respect toward the dead, as can be seen throughout the story, the nature of the procession itself is casual, as can be seen when a drover recites Byronic verses pertaining to death as he was with the procession and then proceeds to ask them if the union card would be accepted in heaven.
It should also be noted that the people seemed to agree with this idea, this again shows us the support union has in the community. The idea of respect for the dead, and how the various sections of society show it is also explored in the story. Though the various pubs in the town closed their front doors off to pay respects to the dead, the pubs can still be accessed through the side and back doors. The publican turns this event into a stage for himself showing off his supposed devotion to the church, by holding the hat hovering over the priest’s head. An action that disgusts everyone else at the funeral, leading the narrator to speculate how different priests would have reacted to it had they noticed what he was doing. This can be contrasted by the drunk shearers who forced the hat out of his head and held it down on the ground to show respect to the dead man. Later we are told about the Union man’s name, “ James Tyson”. This is ironic considering how James Tyson was the name of Australia’s first self-made millionaire, whereas the Union man is a working-class individual going around with an alternate identity. Thus the Union man’s character comes full circle from being a stranger to being respected and then again fading into oblivion resting in a grave with a wrong name, not to be found out by his friends or family even if they were to send his name in the ’Missing’ column in the newspapers.
The Union Buries Its Dead | LITERARY TECHNIQUES
The story is written in first-person. The story uses several symbols and other literary techniques. The motif of the hat is the most obvious one here. The hat becomes a symbol of respect throughout the story. People take off their hats to show respect to the dead the hat also becomes a tool for virtue signalling as the publican hovers it over the priest’s head to show his ‘care’ and respect for the priest and the church. Alcohol is another motif that repeats throughout the text acting as a deterrent to social cohesion and unity.
The people who wanted to join the funeral are unable to do so because of alcohol, and the first drover leaves the procession after he gets to know that the pub is open, it is alcohol that prevented the shearer from showing his respect to the dead which he finally does after struggling against the condition inflicted by alcohol. There is also the use of irony in the text as can be seen when the name on the Union members card is revealed to be the same as the first self-made millionaire in Australia.