​Bishop Andrew St John beside the tapestry
portrait of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch.

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch's famed garden at Cruden Farm Langwarrin was an expression of her faith and an essential element of what sustained her community-oriented and philanthropic life, Bishop Andrew St John said at the media family matriarch and philanthropist's State Memorial Service in St Paul's Cathedral on 18 December.

Bishop St John, who was an assistant bishop of Melbourne from 1995-2001 and is now Rector of the historic Church of the Transfiguration in New York, said Dame Elisabeth's faith was challenged in the latter of her 103 years, especially with the death of her eldest child Helen Handbury in 2004 and the loss of many of her contemporaries, both family and friends.

But he said Cruden Farm garden remained as an expression of her fundamental belief in the goodness of Creation and of the promise and expectation of the future as being in God's hands.

"I see that garden at Cruden Farm as an expression of Dame Elisabeth's faith, albeit a somewhat private faith as was typical for her generation and background," Bishop St John said. "But the reality was that she was a regular communicant and financial supporter of the local Anglican church, St Thomas's Langwarrin, over many years and certainly a supporter of a number of Anglican and Christian organisations, including this Cathedral."

About 1200 people attended the service, while others watched telecasts of the event in a marquee in the Cathedral car park, across Flinders Street in Federation Square and at home.

It was the second high-profile state occasion at St Paul’s this year, with the State Funeral of Irish-born former Melbourne AFL footballer and youth advocate Jim Stynes being held at the Cathedral in March after his death from cancer, aged 45.

The new Dean of St Paul's, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, led Dame Elisabeth’s service, Archbishop Philip Freier gave the blessing and the eulogists were Dame Elisabeth's only son, News Corporation chairman and chief executive Mr Rupert Murdoch, and former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, a family friend for most of his life and, like Dame Elisabeth, a keen gardener.

Those in attendance included former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, former Governors-General including Dr Peter Hollingworth and the widow of Sir Zelman Cowen, Lady Anna Cowen, four former Victorian Premiers and the incumbent, Mr Ted Baillieu, four current or ex-Victorian Governors, entertainer Barry Humphries (the creator of another "Dame", Edna Everage) and businessman James Packer.
Federal Attorney-General and Victorian MP Nicola Roxon represented Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was on leave.

Ms Caroline Almonte performed the First Movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata No.11 in A major.

The hymns, led by the choristers of the Cathedral Choir and the Choir of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne led by Mr Michael Leighton Jones, were All things bright and beautiful, Immortal, invisible, God only wise and Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven.

The service opened with the National Anthem, while the Victorian Governor, Mr Alex Chernov, and the Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce, read the Lessons, from Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13 respectively.

Dr Loewe welcomed those in the Cathedral but also those watching from Federation Square and in workplaces and homes across Australia.

"We are delighted that you share with us in celebrating her life, her generosity, and her care for others," he said.

"We are honoured to hold this State Memorial Service at St Paul’s. It is fitting that Dame Elisabeth should be remembered in the place where her image is sculpted in stone, overlooking the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Herald and Weekly Times building." Dame Elisabeth's late husband, Sir Keith Murdoch, and later her son led the Herald and Weekly Times company, now part of the global News Corporation.

Archbishop Freier said worshippers in St Paul's and in many other churches had been thinking and praying for all who mourned Dame Elisabeth as a mother and mother-in-law, grandmother and great-grandmother, friend, founder and patron.

"It is my prayer that God would meet us in our sadness," Dr Freier said. "That God would turn our eyes to him, as we look in confidence to his coming again to bring in his kingdom. A kingdom of peace; where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying; but where God himself will dwell with his people forever."

The Order of Service featured an unusual personal touch from the Murdoch family -- string from Cruden Farm tied in a "granny knot" along the spine of the booklet.

Mr Murdoch said his mother, in many ways, grew up with Australia and in her spirit and energy, embodied the finest qualities of this nation. Quoting a poem by Dorothea Mackellar, he said: "This wilful, lavish land produced my mother, a woman who was determined to assist the truly vulnerable among us. She was also determined in her devotion to my father and visceral in her love of family."

He said her first devotion was to Sir Keith.

"People who do not know that about my mother do not understand her at all. There is a reason she never remarried. To her last breath, this beautiful woman never considered herself as anything but absolutely in love with my father.

"We children were part of that love. My father was late to marriage but had longed for children his whole life.  Because he was older and in uncertain health, he was inclined to indulge us. So Mum took it upon herself to be the family disciplinarian.

"Let me just say that Mum assumed that role with none of the angst or self-doubt that consumes so many modern parents. I still remember the good smacking I got for pulling my big sister Helen's pigtails.

"In short, Mum gave a successful but shy man a life of happiness that other men can only envy. She did the same for her children. She knew we started out with many advantages in life. But the greatest advantage was the one she gave us all: We knew that we were loved.

"From a very young age, we knew that Mum's sense of obligation and purpose meant that we would not be the only ones who made demands on her. In some ways, we knew that she also belonged to Australia and that she would always put the needs of the less fortunate before her own. It started with the Royal Children's Hospital.

"Most of you can see her imprint in the big things, such as giving and raising the money. But I see Mum in the quiet little details others might not know about. For example, there was her insistence that the hospital architect lower the windows in their new building so the bed-ridden children could see out more easily. That was Mum's way, doing good by stealth."

Mr Murdoch said Dame Elisabeth recently summed up her work this way: "Looking back, I sometimes wish I had done things better, but I don't think I have lost many opportunities along the way."

"Her unmatched generosity of spirit has left an enduring impression on all who encountered her and she has left an eternally grateful family, who stand humble before her, admiring an exquisite garden that is a life lived always in full bloom."

Mr Kennett said the congregation was gathered "not in sorrow but in celebration of a wonderful life wonderfully lived". He said people met many others they could admire and respect but few who changed the way they thought and acted.

The former Premier said he was uncomfortable describing Dame Elisabeth merely as a philanthropist because she gave not only money but of herself to every organisation she became involved with, allowing them to grow and to be supported by the wider community.

"She was always optimistic, always full of beans and yet like us she has been through difficulties," he said.

"To know Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was to love her."

Bishop St John said the garden at Cruden Farm, fashioned by Dame Elisabeth in the more than 80 years that she lived at the property, a wedding gift from her husband, was a prime example of a Paradise Garden, "a garden that at one and the same time expressed Dame Elisabeth's faith, that was the focus for her family life and that was in a very real sense a springboard for her remarkable philanthropy and community involvement".

"The concept of the Paradise Garden is rooted in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures," Bishop St John said.

"Indeed, the Holy Bible begins and ends with a garden: the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis and the restored Paradise Garden in the Book of the Revelation.

"But the concept of the Paradise Garden was more ancient than that. It was part of ancient Persian culture. Indeed, in Persian, the word for 'garden' is the same as that for 'paradise'. It was Islam that took the association and developed it and produced such wonderful examples as the Moorish Gardens of Andalucia in Spain, including the well-known gardens of the Alhambra Palace, and also the Mughal gardens of north India, such as that of the Taj Mahal. Those gardens were images of Paradise, with their fountains and other water features, trees for beauty and shade and fruitfulness, plants which provided colour, beauty and fragrance as well as food -- often, but not always, enclosed. That Islamic tradition came into the European tradition through the monastic and collegiate gardens."

Bishop St John said Dame Elisabeth was "a born gardener who instinctively knew that in creating a garden, she was creating a little bit of paradise -- a place for present enjoyment as well as a foretaste of what is our true destiny as human beings"

"In fact, the first time I met Dame Elisabeth 25 years ago was in association with that garden. It was the time of her granddaughter Penny's marriage to Grant at Holy Trinity Kew, where I was vicar at the time, and Penny simply said was it OK if Granny did the flowers. Well, not knowing who Granny was but being familiar with such a question from brides, I said: 'Sure.' Well, the day came before the wedding and into the church driveway came what I described at the time as a pantechnicon. In fact, it was an estate van, out of which emerged Dame Elisabeth and Michael Morrison, who has of course managed the gardens at Cruden Farm for over 40 years. Dame Elisabeth in shaking my hand said in her matter-of-fact and no-nonsense way, 'Elisabeth Murdoch', and introduced me to Michael.

"Well, out of that van came what seemed like half a suburban garden's worth of branches, blossoms and cut flowers, all of course from Cruden Farm. In the next hour or so, Dame Elisabeth and Michael proceeded to create four magnificent arrangements in large urns on pedestals ready for the wedding, very similar to the beautiful ones before us today, which Michael has also done.

"It would be fair to say that Dame Elisabeth's faith was challenged in more recent years, especially with the death of her eldest child and daughter Helen Handbury and for one who lived so long by the deaths of many of her contemporaries, both family and friends. And yet, the garden remains as an expression of her fundamental belief in the goodness of Creation and of the promise and of expectation of the future in God's hands. The garden will go on."

Bishop St John said it was easy to forget that Dame Elisabeth had been a widow for 60 years but unlike Queen Victoria, they were not years of seclusion or withdrawal.

"On the contrary, Dame Elisabeth, as we've heard, threw herself into a remarkably busy, community-oriented and philanthropic life. Cruden Farm, in a way, became the springboard for that remarkable period, which has continued unabated until this year. The garden certainly became the place for her personal creativity, recreation and restoration to enable her to do this work. Increasingly, it became the vehicle for her community and philanthropic involvements... Undoubtedly, Dame Elisabeth's philanthropy was marked by generosity, which need hardly be said in this company since it is so visible and well-known. But her philanthropy was more than that. It was also intelligent and informed and wholehearted. St Paul writes, 'God loves a cheerful giver'; Dame Elisabeth was certainly such a one."

Bishop St John concluded with reference to St John's Gospel, chapter 21, which uses the image of the garden to locate the Resurrection of Jesus. On the third day, after Peter and John had looked into the empty tomb and left, Mary Magdalen remained and encountered the Risen Christ but did not recognise Him.

"Rather, she supposed Him to be the gardener and questioned Him accordingly as to the whereabouts of the body of Jesus, the One she loved and Whom she had come to mourn," he said. "Albrecht Durer depicts the Risen Christ in a large gardener's hat, with a decent shovel over His shoulder. The Risen Christ said her name, 'Mary', and at hearing her name, Mary Magdalene recognised Jesus Who had been raised. But in one sense, Mary was correct in supposing Him to be the gardener because in a sense He was. For in Christian understanding, Jesus is the new Adam Who by His Death and Resurrection has regained for humankind the Garden of Eden, Paradise itself, our true home.

"With this image in mind, I now think of Dame Elisabeth in the Paradise Garden, meeting the Risen Christ. I can see her offering her hand and introducing herself, 'Elisabeth Murdoch', and the Risen Christ replying: 'Well done, good and faithful servant.' But I can also hear Dame Elisabeth saying: 'Well, these borders need thinning out and perhaps the plantings beyond the lake will need to be replaced, so let's get to work.'

"Dear Dame Elisabeth, faithful woman, family matriarch, garden creator, generous and kind giver, National Treasure, we thank you, we love you and we will miss you. Rest peacefully and rise gloriously. Amen."

Mark Brolly, a staff journalist with Anglican Media Melbourne, also has worked as a casual sub-editor with the Murdoch-owned News Ltd for two years.