‘Such is life’ has long been a quintessentially Australian saying, grounded firmly in its supposed last-minute utterance by famous bushranger Ned Kelly.
And it so neatly rounded up people’s forebearance of the tragedies of life that it appeared on the headstone of a one-month-old girl in Charters Towers in Queensland, Australia about 1888.
The stone is stark, and simply says Sacred to the memory of Grace Muriel Ayton one month, such is life. She is buried with Eustace Ayton, but no other people of that family name are in the cemetery.
Even today the Charters Towers Pioneer cemetery is a harsh place, roughly slashed and searingly hot in the summer sun. To see the phrase staring up from the fallen headstone evokes thoughts of the struggles of those in the town in an era of gold-rush endowed richness.
Who knows whether her parents were among those who benefited from the thriving boom taking place, or were simply battlers hoping to strike it rich – although obviously someone in the family could afford a headstone.
The discovery that these in fact were not Kelly’s last words have done little to dampen the Aussie enthusiasm for the motto, which appears on car stickers, merchandise (including facemasks) and countless tattoos on bronzed chests.
Kelly was hanged on November 11, 1880, before an enthusiastic audience. There was intense public interest.
The myth that “such is life’’ were his last word was taken up with gusto by the general populace. Though the phrases is not uniquely Australian – the Italians have ‘cosi v’al mondo’ used as early as 1762 and the French ‘c’est la vie’.
Charles Dickens used the phrase in Great Expectations published in 1860-61, and it was already a popular Australian phrase by the time little Grace died, hence its use as an epitaph for a life not lived.
Source: Dawson, Stuart E: Ned Kelly’s Last Words: Ah well, I suppose. Eras Journal | Volume 18 | Number 1 Viewed at https://www.monash.edu/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/1669214/eras181_dawson.pdf