A Burial At Sea

A Burial At Sea is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a novel set in Australia and China in 1885-95, provisionally titled Kerosene Creek.
15 June, 1894.

Captain Hamish Nelson, known throughout the Swire Shipping Co. as ‘Horatio’, was irritated to have his siesta disturbed. The death of a passenger was no novelty to him, but there was something disturbing about the sight that greeted him as the steward opened the door of the steerage cabin, and the stink of engine oil, damp clothes, sweat and vomit assaulted their senses like the first gust of a typhoon. In the lower bunk he made out the shape of an emaciated body, covered to the chin with a damp, grey sheet, the long nose made thinner and sharper by death, the wide-open eyes fixed on the crucifix swinging on a string of beads from the bunk above. Short bristles of grey hair poked through the tightly drawn skin on her scalp. The dead nun’s companion, on her knees beside the bunk, resembled a dark mushroom sprouting from the linoleum.

“When did this happen, Sister?”

The nun twitched, as though caught nodding off in Mass, and scrambled to her feet. A lock of red hair escaped from beneath her coif and she tried unsuccessfully to tuck it back in.

“The Lord has been calling his beloved daughter from the moment we embarked, Captain. The Holy Mother…”

Catholic mumbo-jumbo.

“What killed her, do you think?” he interrupted.

“Our sister was a martyr to seasickness…”

“But is she is infectious?” his irritation increasing, “I have thirty passengers to think of, let alone my crew.”

“Sister Magdalena begged me to take her ashore in Haiphong. She was French…” As though an explanation was needed for wanting to be buried in such a heathen country.

The steward handed the captain his reading glasses and he ran his finger down the manifest. “This is Sister Magdalena, embarked Sydney? So you must be Sister Agnes, am I right? You are bound for Hong Kong?”

“That is… was our mission, Captain.”

Christ almighty, do these nuns have no sense at all?

“Are ye’ aware that Hong Kong is under quarantine for plague?” He pointed at the body under the sheet, “D’ye think she…?”

“Neither of us has been to Hong Kong before, Captain. Neither of us has been in contact with the plague.”

“To the best of your knowledge.”

The captain consulted the manifest again, “I have two passengers listed as doctors. One’s a Chinaman… a Doctor Sun something-or-other, and Frenchman who joined us in Haiphong.” He passed the list back to the steward, “Better call them both.”

The young nun stood her ground, defiantly, in spite of the tears in her eyes, “Sister Magdalene and I are both nurses, Captain. I think we know what plague looks like.”

She’s no older than our daughter, he realized, and just as feisty.

 “I’m sure you do, Sister,” regretting his earlier irritation, “But we need a qualified doctor to sign the death certificate.” He turned to the bosun, “The cabin will need to be sealed and fumigated.”

Dr Sun. Urbane, Chinese. About 30, western haircut, neat moustache, three-piece suit, trace of an American accent? He ignored the living nun and asked for the porthole to be opened.  He raised the sheet covering Magdalena’s face and held a small mirror to her mouth. Probably keeps it for trimming his moustache. The glass fogged immediately—not a sign of life, but the humidity in the cabin. He gingerly felt for a wrist pulse, then solemnly declared the patient to be, indeed, dead. Could not be more specific, but he no longer practised medicine and had scant experience of infectious diseases. The captain asked him to sign the log to that effect.

Dr Yersin, about the same age, looked cool in a suit of tropical linen. Scrubby beard, awkward, very little English. He signalled for the door to be closed and Sister Agnes to remain, “Pour la bienséance.”

“To maintain propriety,” she translated for the captain’s benefit. Surprised she remembered so much French from the convent.

Yersin lifted the black crucifix, looked surprised at its weight, and passed it to her, then he cleared everything else from the top of the locker, and wiped it down with a damp cloth.  He laid out a multi-bladed pocket knife, a pair of scissors, tweezers, a spoon, a pencil, a small notebook and a packet of envelopes. He lifted off the sheet and folded it neatly, revealing an emaciated Chinese woman of middle age, in a stained cotton shift. He pulled back the eyelids, the whites bloodshot from constant retching. He inspected the yellow caking around the lips and scraped a sample into one of the envelopes.

“Dis-moi … the symptoms.

“It began after Singapore. She was seasick. She could not keep any food down.”

“Quel genre of food?”

“Biscuits, compote.” She showed him the box of dried fruit. “I soaked it in hot water with some sugar.”

Yersin broke off a lump of the dried fruit and dropped it into another envelope, then a spoonful of the sugar into a third.

“Stomach problems? Diarrhoea?”


“Heart beat—regular or…?”

Her heart raced so fast I thought it might jump out of her chest.

“As high as 140 beats per minute.”

“You measured it?”

“I am a nurse,” pointing to the silver watch pinned to her chest.

“Formidable.” He lifted the enamel mug and sniffed it.“Did she drink from the… robinet?” pointing to the tap over the basin.

“I made tea for her.” She showed him the tin box. “The hot water was from the galley.”

He took a pinch of the tea and sniffed it. “Oolong, or Tieguanyin?” He dropped a pinch of crumbled tea leaves into another envelope.

“Do you also… eat and drink?” He waved at the envelopes.

“In the dining room. I kept the fruit for her. I don’t like Chinese tea.”

He probed the skin around the neck for swollen glands, then he asked her permission to raise the cotton shift.

“So thin,” he sighed.

Leg and hip bones clearly defined beneath translucent dermis. Arms no more than toothpicks without muscle. Breasts mere flaps of skin on the ripple-sand of rib bones. He felt for the glands in in the arm pits and groin. He turned the corpse over and pointed to red welts on the back. “Bed soresor fléau? Apologies, I do not know the English.”

The slap, slap, slap of the scourge on that delicate back. So weak but so insistent. She shook her head “Bed sores.”

He nodded without acknowledging the lie, let the body fall back, and pulled down the shift. Bienséance again. He wrote in the notebook while she arranged her dead companion’s hands and threaded rosary beads through the stiffening fingers.

“May I wash?”

She handed him soap and a towel. He washed and dried his hands meticulously. Checking his fingernails. “Please wash also. To wash is important. For not obtain the infections.”

Yersin reported to the captain that the cause of death was unclear, but there were no indications of plague. Her symptoms resembled poisoning, perhaps salmonelle from something she ate. She was severely dehydrated from vomiting—no doubt compounded by mal de mer and the unhealthy miasma of the cabin. It could also be any of a dozen tropical parasites. An autopsy would be necessary to establish the cause of death. He would write a report for the Hong Kong coroner.

“Not posible,” the Captain set his jaw firmly. “There’s two days sailing to Hong Kong and in this heat—to be blunt—she’ll be rancid before we dock. I have to think of the other passengers. We’ll give her a sea burial.” He turned to Agnes, “I trust you won’t object, Sister?”

He thinks you’re a pushover. Don’t let him get away with it, the voice whispered.

“Will there be a priest?”

“A ship’s captain is authorised to conduct funerals… and weddings for that matter. Personally, I’m a Quaker, but we both worship the same God, unless I’m mistaken.”

Insist on a priest!

She ignored the voice “I’m sure a protestant prayer will not keep Sister Magdalena from Heaven. But I’ll say a few words in Latin, if you don’t mind.” She looked him in the eye and smiled, “To satisfy the Pope.”

It was the same sly smile his daughter would flash when she wanted to get around him.  His flinty sailor’s heart softened a little. 

He nodded towards the bosun, “Andy will see to the shroud.” To the steward, “No matter what the doctor says, I want this cabin fumigated.” And to Agnes, “Your clothes should be disinfected before you go ashore.”

“I’d like to stay with our Sister as long as possible,” she said. “Pray for her soul.”

“You can have an hour, then Andy will need the body.” He consulted his watch, “It’s 14:20 now. We’ll put her to rest at 17:00 on the after deck.” He turned abruptly and clattered up the companionway. The bosun produced a carpenter’s ruler and quickly measured the body.

Agnes replaced the black crucifix on the locker and knelt before it. She tried to clear her mind and continue the psalm. “Tibi, tibi soli peccavi et malum coram te feci…”

I have a bad feeling about this, interrupted Mary Star of the Sea, You should have stood up to him.

  • The Virgin Mary first appears to Agnes when she is ten years old. The Holy Mother is hovering in the steam above the copper as she washes her father’s work clothes.
  • Make sure you add ammonia,” instructs the VM, “It dissolves the grease.”
  • “I know,” replies Agnes. “My mother taught me that.”
  • The Queen of Angels reaches down and lifts a trouser leg from the boiling, soapy water and inspects it closely. “I’m pleased to see that Malachi still has the cleanest overalls in the village. I’m going to let you off a dozen Hail Marys today.”
  • Agnes pushes the bubbling mass of garments back under the water with the simmer-smooth wooden copper stick. “Thank you Holy Mother.” She genuflects, and crosses herself with a soapy finger.


The body of Sister Magdalena lay on a plank set on two trestles, level with the railing at the stern of the ship.  The nun shared the canvas shroud with an iron gear wheel, a shoemaker’s last and several lumps of rusty engine parts. The captain, first mate and bosun stood to one side of the plank, Sister Agnes stood alone on the other side. A sailor in starched white uniform stood at attention at the head of the plank.  Dr Yersin and Dr Sun, plus a dozen curious passengers, watched from a respectful distance. One passenger stood apart from the rest—tall, dark skinned with an eye patch. He appeared more interested in Dr Sun than in the ceremony. When he noticed Agnes looking at him, he smiled back at her, showing a gold tooth.

Look away, whispered the Mother of Divine Counsel, He’s the Devil, waiting to snag her soul.

She scanned the horizon for a landmark, a building, a mountain, so in the future she could locate Magdalena on a map—Mother Superior was sure to ask. Ridiculous. She tried to concentrate her mind on the pitifully small canvas-wrapped parcel before her. The oil-stained cloth, cut from a hatch cover, rough sewn with black cobbler’s twine. Hardly a proper vessel for a nun’s last voyage. She wanted to tell someone that Magdalena’s fine needlework was famous in a dozen convents.

Vanity was not one of Maggie’s sins, pronounced the Mother of Divine Grace shimmering in the salty air above the railing, The Lord won’t judge her by the stitching of her shroud.

The captain opened his prayer book and read: “Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

She hadn’t prepared a eulogy, but when the Captain nodded to her, it poured out like a torrent from a spring.

“Sister Mary Magdalena, you were born in Taiping, China in 1835 and given the name Jing-fei, which means “fragrant stillness”, a name you tried to live up to, but you were known to fail when confronted with cruelty and injustice. You took the name of the blessed saint when you entered the order of the Daughters of Charity. You brought comfort to the sick and downtrodden in Africa, in India and in the goldfields of New South Wales. Your next mission was to the victims of the black death in China. But…” Agnes paused, then took a deep breath, “However it was not to be.”

She looked up into the red ball of the sun hanging above the horizon at the end of the ship’s wake. She addressed it directly in a voice choking with bitterness. “Why not? Why did you deny your daughter time to complete her mission on earth? Why did you make her suffer so much pain?  What is your excuse…” she paused, “Your excuse for casting our sister aside like a…” she waved her hand in the direction of the shroud, “Like a bag of…?”

The passengers turned away in embarrassment, grew restless, then began whispering among themselves. At length, she recovered her poise and laid her hand on the rough canvas. “Lord, grant that Sister Magdalena sleep in peace beneath your waters until you waken her to glory. In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti. Amen.

The captain nodded. The sailor lifted his end of the plank. Nothing happened. He shook the plank, but the shroud would not move. The first mate stepped in to assist and they raised the plank higher, until… Sister Magdalena, weighed down with more ironware than necessary, abruptly overcame the coefficient of friction and slid down the plank, across the railing and into the foaming wake.

Captain Nelson saluted. Agnes untangled the string of rosary beads from her fingers and threw it in a high arc so that it landed in Magdalena’s receding ripples. A few of the watchers clapped. It wasn’t clear whether the applause was for Sister Magdalena or Sister Agnes’s prodigious throw.

June 2021