When the news reached Melbourne that Burke and Wills were dead and buried on the Cooper, debate raged about the proper resting place of the heroes' bones. It was decided they should be reburied with all honours in Melbourne and Alfred Howitt, who had found and buried them on the Cooper, was sent back there to retrieve them. The custom of the day favoured a variety of funerary souvenirs, and Howitt collected locks of the explorers' hair and specimens of nardoo from their last campsite.
On his return journey he was met in almost every township and village he passed through by crowds and delegations wishing to pay homage to the bones of Burke and Wills. In Melbourne the remains lay in state in the hall of the Royal Society for two weeks in January 1863, where they were viewed by more than 100,000 people, out of a total city population of 120,000.
The burial of Burke and Wills was Australia's first state funeral. Held on 21 January 1863, the procession stretched for four city blocks and drew the largest crowd ever seen in Melbourne.
Even the explorers' journey to the grave was characterised by jostling for position. There were many claims for places of honour in the procession, and keen rivalry for the plum job of bearing the coffins.