Australians Ask: What Do We Do With a Folk Hero's Bones?

With Ned Kelly's skeleton finally identified, the question becomes what to do with it

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In Australia, the news that the bones of Ned Kelly have been positively identified through DNA testing is a big deal. Kelly, who The New York Times compared to "Jesse James, Thomas Paine and John F. Kennedy rolled into one," ranks somewhere between Robin Hood and the Road Warrior in Australian lore. Known as much for the makeshift armor he wore to fight police as for his bravado in opposing what many considered to be an oppressive British authority, Kelly is seen by some as a hero and harassed Catholic and by others as a simple killer. But nobody there sees him as insignificant. So when the news came that his skeleton, discovered decades ago at a Melbourne prison, had been positively identified, the question for Australians quickly became, what do we do with it?

After Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol in 1880, his body was thrown in a mass grave. But as The Times (and many others) reported on Thursday, the lime tossed on top of the bodies, which was supposed to aid in deomposition, in fact hindered it. In 1929 construction workers rediscovered the grave site, and the remains suspected to be Kelly's. Only now have scientists confirmed that the bones really are his, but a skull thought to go with them is not.

Iconic as he is, Kelly is still a divisive figure in Australia. He was a bushranger -- similar to a highwayman in the U.S. -- who killed three police officers as he rose to notoriety through a string of robberies, assaults, and mayhem. In the late 1870s and early 1880s in Australia, many saw the British as oppressive rulers, and Kelly's reputation for resisting police made him a hero, especially to those of Irish descent. His final stand, at which he and his gang wore homemade metal armor, solidified his reputation even as it led to his capture and eventual hanging. He's been immortalized in books, music, and movies ever since. But some in the country, not least the relatives of his victims, don't see him as a hero at all, but rather a particularly violent criminal.

Those family members are among the parties arguing over how to put Kelly's remains to rest. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday (local time) that the great grandson of one of the policemen Kelly killed did not want his remains to be placed in a grave that could become a shrine. Victorian Police Association president Greg Davies, speaking to The Australian, concurred. "Let's remember he's a triple murderer. Let's not create a shrine where the feeble-minded can go and lionise someone who clearly doesn't deserve to be," he said.

The Victorian state government reportedly wants to put the bones on display, a plan that appalled members of Kelly's own family. "To do that would be recreating something out of medieval times," Kelly's great-nephew Anthony Griffiths told the Australian Broadcasting Company. "This plan is macabre and disgusting." The former chaplain of Pentridge prison, where the Gaol's remains were reburied, has said the family should control what happens to Kelly's remains. "In recent times, some family members have suggested that an appropriate resting place would be beside his father, Red Kelly, in the Greta cemetery in country Victoria," he told "The Australian community should now respectfully allow the Kelly descendants to make that decision."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.