The Bush Undertaker
"The Bush Undertaker" is a popular short story by Australian writer and poet Henry Lawson. Along with "The Drover's Wife", "The Bush Undertaker" is one of Lawson's first sketches, and is among the stories for which he first gained attention as an accommplished writer. The story concerns an eccentric old man, who lives alone with only his dog for company, and his discovery and treatment of a friend's deceased body.
The sketch begins with old man preparing dinner for himself and his beloved dog, Five Bob. Dinner consumed, the man gathers a pick and shovel and travels to a "blackfellow's grave about which he was curious."
He digs up the bones, places them in a bag, and starts for home. He discovers the body of a man, parched by the intense Australian sun. After close examination, the deceased man is determined to be a friend of the old man, an alcoholic named Brummy.
The old man, somewhat ingeniously, devises a way of carrying Brummy back home, but he is startled by numerous large, greasy black goannas. He wonders why the peculiar lizards are so abundant today. He only discovers later, when he shoots one near the house, that they are attracted to Brummy's body.
When the old man returns to his home, he decides that Brummy deserves a respectful funeral. He buries his friend, and decides that something must be said. He is unsure of Brummy's religion, or if he even has a religion at all, but the old man does his best. Presently, he rises, takes up his tools, and walks back to his hut as the sun sinks on the "grand Australian bush."
- The Bush Undertaker:
- The old shepherd who lives alone; his only companionship comes from his beloved dog, Five-Bob. He is considerably eccentric, and often speaks to himself. He is respectful of his dead friend, though this obviously does not extend to many others, as he often exhumes the graves of "blackfellows" out of sheer curiosity.
- Five Bob:
- The old man's loyal and beloved sheep-dog. Lawson is suggestive that the dog is several years old; "a dusty sheep-dog rose wearily..." The old man's tattered shirt was bought "jist two days afore Five Bob was pupped."
- Had been deceased for approximately three months prior to the discovery of his body. The body itself has been preserved by an excess consumption of rum, and "dried to a mummy by the intense heat of the western summer." When alive, Brummy had been a good worker, yet had wasted his money on alcohol.
"The Bush Undertaker" continues a theme explored in many other Lawson stories, that prolonged exposure to Bush life will inevitably result in its inhabitants becoming "weird" or unbalanced.
This short story presents the reader with perhaps Lawson's most bizarre character. The old man, put quite simply, is an eccentric individual. Years of isolation in the remote bush, with only his faithful "four-legged mate" Five-Bob for companionship, have intricately sculpted this old man's mind to cope with the otherwise-maddening loneliness of his lifestyle.
The almost-indecipherable soliloquys of The Bush Undertaker serve, not only as a source of humour, but also as evidence of the old man's long-term separation from civilised society. The Bush Undertaker's various exploits, including the unearthing of a "black fella about which he was curious" and his delight upon finding his mate Brummy dead alongside an almost-full bottle of rum are hardly the actions of a sane man, yet his attitudes certainly serve him well in life.
A similarly-eccentric character is humorously portrayed in another popular sketch story, "Rats."
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- "In due time the dinner was dished up; and the old man seated himself on a block, with the lid of a gin-case across his knees for a table. Five Bob squatted opposite with the liveliest interest and appreciation depicted on his intelligent countenance..."
- "Dinner proceeded very quietly, except when the carver paused to ask the dog how some tasty morsel went with him, and Five Bob’s tail declared that it went very well indeed."
- "When he had raked up all the bones, he amused himself by putting them together on the grass and by speculating as to whether they had belonged to black or white, male or female."
- "On reaching the hut the old man dumped the corpse against the wall, wrong end up, and stood scratching his head while he endeavoured to collect his muddled thoughts..."
- "'Brummy,' he said at last. 'It’s all over now; nothin’ matters now—nothin’ didn’t ever matter, nor—nor don’t.'"
- "And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush—the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands."
- First Published: The Antipodean, 1892, under the title "Christmas in the Far West" or "The Bush Undertaker."
- Source: The Country I Come From, Edinburgh and London, Blackwood's Magazine, 1901