Establishing the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery
by Roma Waldron, 2009
I had been working on a project of taking photo’s of headstones in many cemeteries, and when I spoke to my friend Tracey Olivieri about it a few years ago she suggested that we start with South Brisbane Cemetery, also known as Dutton Park. Because of its size we worked out it was going to take about four months. Little did we realise that the cemetery was going to literally consume our lives and that a few months would end up being several years.
During the last 20-odd years I have visited hundreds of cemeteries and taking photos of every headstone, but I had never come across one that made me want to cry until I visited the South Brisbane Cemetery. I was shocked by the deplorable condition of this heritage-listed cemetery, where many prominent and everyday folk supposedly lie in peace. Many graves were covered in leaf litter and tree branches, and the roots of large trees were causing some to break up and collapse. The cemetery is only five minutes from the city centre, but it looked like it could have been in the middle of the bush, miles from anywhere.
Tracey and I began taking the photo’s but found the going pretty tough. We had to tread very carefully because if we put a foot wrong we could have fallen and caused ourselves a serious injury. As we drove home several hours later we knew something had to be done to bring this cemetery to some decent standard, but we weren’t sure where to start. Over the next few weeks we paid more visits and decided to record the sad state of the cemetery.
Our aim was to create our own listing from the photo’s and send these off to a cousin in NSW who had an internet site. Being into family history for over 20 years, I had found that cemeteries were sometimes the only place to find missing relatives and had always proven to be a great research tool when other avenues had failed.
I decided to visit the BCC Mt Gravatt cemetery office and see if I could get a listing of everyone who was buried in South Brisbane cemetery, but was surprised to be told that it was against privacy laws. I was also told that if we took photo’s we could be sued. This surprised me because when I was doing similar work in NSW I had received nothing but cooperation from all of the local councils I approached.
We believed that the BCC, who were responsible for the maintenance, had to be reminded to do the job they were supposed to, which was a lot more than just mowing the lawns every month. Even a lot of that work was not being done by the council, but rather by people from community services.
The more we visited the cemetery, the more headstones we found, semi-buried under grass and debris. We started to dig them out and found some were of servicemen who had fought in world wars and even one from the Boer War. Some had suffered the horrors of prisoner-of-war camps, yet here they were lying forgotten.
Tracey had an idea to start a friends group. She suggested I be president, she would be secretary and our close friend Marilyn Paul would be treasurer. With us all in agreement the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery was born.
Eager to get started we gathered our brooms, rakes and shovels and set off. We were determined to make this cemetery a place to be proud of. In the beginning we were there four times a week, and before long the place started looking better. We raked and swept graves and pathways, carefully scrubbed headstones, dragged heavy tree branches to the side of the road and piled them up. We would go home tired but felt we had achieved something worthwhile. We took many photo’s of ‘before and after’. We also bought hundreds of bunches of artificial flowers to place on the graves.
Four months after we began we had taken photo’s of every headstone, all the graves that had no headstone, and every unmarked grave. We contacted community services and had the assistance of six young people every week for quite a while. Before long we noticed people coming in their cars. A couple at first and then each day the numbers increased. More flowers began appearing on the graves that were now being painted and we would talk to everyone we saw if they appeared to be having trouble locating a family grave.
It took nearly 12 months and then the council began to provide us with more rakes, brooms & wheel barrows, which we appreciated.
It is now four years since we began, and the work continues because of the large number of trees continuing to drop leaves, the South Brisbane Cemetery is very different from the first day we went there, and is now a place to be proud of.