Last Friday I attended the Celebration of the life of Madge Sceriha. Madge has been an active member of our Amnesty group for more than ten years and active in her support of Human Rights causes for most of her life.
As we entered the venue for the ceremony, we were handed the outline of the ceremony. On the front cover was a photo of Madge and underneath was printed her farewell to us all
“Bye now! I’m off to that big cosmic compost heap at ENERGY CENTRAL!
If I have a choice, I’ll join that energy stream that is the “wind beneath the wings” of Social Justice,
An end to poverty and violence in all its forms – especially to our environment.”
MC and long term of friend of Madge, Betty McLellan welcomed us and acknowledged the traditional owners of the land around Townsville, the Bindal and Wulgurukaba peoples. We then listened to John Lennon’s beautiful song “Imagine”.
Betty explained that the ceremony had been prepared by Madge right down to the details of the flowers on the coffin. These were an arrangement of Madge’s favourite colours and included Red for her socialist upbringing, yellow symbolising Amnesty International and Human Rights, Green for the Environment, Pink for survivors of breast cancer, and red and yellow for the Indigenous people of Australia.
Betty then read to us Madge’s account of the early influences on her life. She came from a singing family – both her mother and father regularly sang the songs of the Workers’ movement. Madge’s grandmother was instrumental in the formation of the Labor Party branch in Mackay and her militancy had a big impact on the rest of the family. One of Madge’s favourite songs was the classic song “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” which we then listened to.
Joe Hill had been an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was executed by firing squad after being framed on a murder charge. His final message to his colleagues in the IWW was “don’t agonise – organise”. Betty told us that famous singer and activist Paul Robeson sang this song to workers building the Sydney Opera House during his visit to Australia in 1960.
Marriage and motherhood were an important part of Madge’s life during the 60s and 70s and it was during the 70s she began part-time studies at JCU towards a B.A.. Her studies introduced to her to the feminist movement and activism and during this time the Women’s Electoral Lobby was an important political influence. The song that marked this stage of Madge’s life was “Never turning back”.
Madge went on to study for a Social Work Degree and became active in the work of the Women’s Centre and Independent Advocacy in the Tropics – an advocacy organisation for people with disabilities. The final two decades of Madge’s life were devoted to activism on a whole range of Human Rights issues. It was at this time that Madge became involved in our local Amnesty International Action group. Madge was a regular participant in our First Friday vigil for refugees and asylum seekers. Madge was also a member of our Townsville Human Rights choir and the Amnesty International Kazoo band.
(Photo – Amnesty International Kazoo band at Climate Change Rally 2015 – Madge in red hat at left of picture)
Madge’s final message to us, conveyed by Betty, was that she was handing on the baton to us to keep up the struggle for social justice and human rights. We were invited to scatter petals on Madge’s coffin as we listened to Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah”.
This moving ritual was followed by the eulogy given by Madge’s son Michael. Michael said that for much of his life he had been able to bask in his mother’s glory. People on hearing his name would often say – “you must be Madge Sceriha’s son”. Michael shared a conversation he had with Madge in the week before her passing when she told him that she was not scared of dying but was “curious how the process would pan out”. Michael said how fortunate he and his sister Rhonda were to have a mother like Madge. Compassionate, enthusiastic and optimistic were some of the adjectives Michael used to describe Madge.
Long time friend and colleague Ros Thorpe then gave a tribute to Madge and recounted the wonderful contribution that Madge had made to the Family Inclusion Network. Ros told us that Madge had been active on social media promoting the causes she believed in right to the end – her final Facebook post was made only three days before her passing. Ros’s final words summed up what many of us were feeling :”Goodbye Madge we will honour your memory”.
One of Madge’s favourite activities was singing and she was a founding member of the wonderful “Seniors creating change”– a singing group whose mission is to empower older Australians to call for an end to elder abuse. The final musical item was from Seniors Creating Change singing their theme song “We are the Seniors”. We were lead from the church by Seniors Creating Change singing the chorus of another of Madge’s favourite songs “Always look on the bright side of life”.
Following the ceremony people stayed on and continued sharing their memories of Madge. Federal MP Cathy O’Toole told us that Madge had come to see her only three weeks earlier. She presented Cathy with a list of issues that Madge believed she needed to be working on. A friend Jill shared with me her fond memories of her first meeting with Madge more than 30 years ago at the Women’s Centre.
I have my own two special memories of Madge. The first is of Madge making a special effort to join us for a short while at our November First Friday vigil for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. The second is meeting with Madge for one wonderful hour only two weeks before her passing. We talked of many things including her early years, the planning for her memorial service and what it was like to be heading for the “big cosmic compost heap at Energy Central”. I remarked that Leonard Cohen had died only several weeks earlier. Madge said the two of them had been born in the same year and died in the same year. Perhaps they would soon get to meet up!
As we listened to Leonard singing Hallelujah at Madge’s memorial celebration, I imagined Madge and Leonard singing along from Energy Central.
Farewell Madge – we miss you but we will carry that baton proudly.