Paul Kaesler isn’t sure how many people are buried in the cemetery on his rural property, but experts say it’s likely he is not the only one with graves in his backyard.

Set back from the River Murray in South Australia’s Riverland, Mr Kaesler’s farming property is home to a cemetery with a capacity of 280 plots.

Just 16 headstones and 12 unattributed crosses mark the graves of those known to rest in Kaesler’s Cemetery.

More are thought to have been buried there, but the exact number, and who they were, is unknown.

In the past, with no town cemetery nearby, the site was primarily used for local families and people who died while travelling along the river, in the early days of the 20th century.

People who died aboard paddle steamers, like the P. S. Tarella, were once buried at stops along the river.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia PRG 1258/1/3442)

“If someone passed away in transit on a paddleboat, they were generally brought off at the nearest landing, which quite often was our place,” Mr Kaesler said.

“It was always part of the farm.”

The cemetery was gazetted by the state government in 1902 and re-gazetted by the local council in 1917.

More than 100 years later, people are still being being laid to rest there — with the last burial taking place just last year.

From past to present

Surrounded by scrubland and red dirt, the cemetery has been maintained across the years by the Kaesler family, with the property handed down from father to son.

In more recent years, the Loxton Waikerie Council assumed management of the site.

But Mr Kaesler’s connection and commitment to learning about the people buried there, including his ancestors who died in the early 1900s, remains strong.

“I’m a history buff and always have been, so it’s interesting to see who’s in here and what’s happening,” he said.

The dust and scrub landscape of the Riverland is home to the historical cemetery.(ABC News: Elyse Armanini)

Mr Kaesler’s initial research into who rests in the cemetery, and where, has been bolstered by “ground truthing” techniques — which determine if marked grave sites have in fact been used for burials — and cemetery mapping surveys.

“I had a couple of neighbours who have been here for three or four generations who said, ‘Paul there are definitely more than 25 unmarked graves in that cemetery’ and we’ve found at least nine at this stage,” he said. 

“I’ve been tracing this for years to find out who they were or whereabouts in the plot they might be, so we don’t put someone in the same spot and make a bit of a mess in the process.”

More buried history

As a forensic science adjunct lecturer at Murdoch University, death and burials are part of Edda Guareschi’s daily life.

She said while Mr Kaesler’s backyard cemetery was unique, it was likely many more existed across Australia and around the world. 

Several local families have connections to Kaesler’s Cemetery.( ABC News: Elyse Armanini )

“The fact legislation exists about the possibility of having burials on private land means they are probably more common than we can think,” she said.

In South Australia, burials can be made within a lawfully established cemetery, or in an approved natural ground, but burials on private property are only permitted under specific circumstances with strict regulations.

Dr Guareschi said where people wanted to be buried had changed in recent history.

“There are several reasons why the traditional burial in a public cemetery is not regarded as desirable for everybody,” she said. 

“People are connected to a special place that’s had a meaning in their life.”

It is a connection that Mr Kaesler said many people were still finding in his backyard cemetery, where burials had taken place as recently as 2023.

“It’s actually been a bit of a rush on in the last four to five months … I think there’s been three or four [buried],” he said.

“It’s interesting to see people who come along and say, ‘I don’t want to be with the crowds in the big Loxton Cemetery’.”

Paul Kaesler will be buried in the cemetery joining his parents, grandparents and ancestors.( ABC News: Elyse Armanini )

Reuniting with family

Mr Kaesler intends to be buried on the property, joining his ancestors.

“My mother is in here, my grandfather and grandmother are in here, and we are planning on joining them,” he said.

“It was originally part of the family farm, so you feel a bit of ownership to the whole thing.”

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