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End of an era for Willunga cemetery

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Helping people choose a grave site, liaising with the funeral director and grave digger and recording burial details might sound morose but not to David Manders who has been doing just that for 30 years as curator of St Joseph’s Cemetery at Willunga.

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“Knowing that I have been able to help people at the most difficult times, that gives me a real buzz,” David explained on the eve of his retirement.

“It’s amazing how little people know about what to do when there’s a death.”

The 73-year-old Willunga parishioner was an obvious choice when the then parish priest Father Peter Milburn was looking for someone to volunteer as curator of the historic Southern Vales cemetery.

David had worked for a funeral director for 15 years and even lived in a funeral parlour at Alberton with his wife Kathleen. From 1989 to 2011 he was employed in the crematorium at Centennial Park.

Reflecting on 45 years in the industry, David said the job had made him “think about my own mortality”.

“When I see a speeding car…I am a lot more conscious of what can happen, and what does happen,” he said.

“At Centennial Park I always seemed to be cremating people who were younger than me.”

But David, who was raised an Anglican and converted to Catholicism after taking on the curator role at Willunga, said his faith was stronger because of what he had experienced.

“I see people who don’t believe and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, they are completely devastated whereas people who have had tragedy in their lives and have faith seem to be able to carry on…there’s a certain calmness,” said David who attends Mass at Mary of Galilee Church Aldinga.

“I saw some terrible things working for a funeral director but I would think ‘I am here to be professional and arrange the funeral’…I had to switch off.

“You have to show empathy but sometimes there are no words to say to people.”

David’s caring qualities and professionalism were acknowledged in 2015 when he was awarded the Darren Leuders Customer Service Award from the Cemeteries and Crematoria Association of SA.

Since David began volunteering at the picturesque cemetery – one of the oldest in the State – it has undergone significant expansion with 850 new grave sites created and rose gardens, a gazebo and memorial area for cremated remains established.

But David stressed that he had received a lot of help from parishioners over the years, particularly before he retired from Centennial Park.

The number of burials has been increasing in recent years due to the ageing congregation and cremation memorials are in demand.

The oldest part of the cemetery has graves dating back to 1867 but in 2000, the 150th anniversary of St Joseph’s Church, the University of Adelaide was invited to investigate the suspected burial of remains in the western part of the cemetery. It is believed the tombstone had been accidently broken and removed by a plough in the 1940s or 50s.

The remains were found using electrical resistivity which detects anomalies in density of the soil. Upon exhumation they were examined and determined to be those of an unknown early settler who died circa 1840. The remains were reburied in a new grave with a memorial and plaque erected above it (pictured right).

Parish records also show there was a farmer aged 108 buried in the cemetery in 1901 but the whereabouts of his remains are not known.

One of the saddest times for David was the funeral of two teenagers killed in a car accident near Willunga.

The cemetery attracts people interested in the history of the region as well as families of the departed.

“People come here just to sit at the grave…it’s very peaceful,” he said.

Both David and Kathleen are active members of the Galilee Catholic community and are also heavily involved in Meals on Wheels.

With two adult children and six grandchildren the couple plans to spend more time with the family and travel now that David is retiring as curator at the end of July.

And the cemetery will be in good hands with David currently training his replacement, Tony Harding.

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