09 May 2016

Arrividerci Roma, a Guardian Spirit of South Brisbane Cemetery

(This article was transcribed from my hand-written notes and first published in December 2013)

It is, as I put this to paper, 11a.m. on 4 December 2013. I am sitting in the South Brisbane Cemetery. The sky is blue, peppered with small white clouds, and it is cool in the shade of a fig tree. Away to the west a city council worker slowly climbs a hill in a ride-on mower. The recent rain has left the freshly-cut grass lush, and the fir and eucalyptus trees give the cemetery a park-like feel. Off to the east another worker in safety gear whipper-snips between rows of old headstones. The hum of their activity is accompanied by birdsong, cicadas, and the bustle of Annerley Road at the top of the slopes.

Mowing in South Brisbane Cemetery, 4 December 2013. (C Dawson)

Meanwhile, a few kilometres away at Mount Gravatt, the funeral of Roma Waldron, aged 72 years and the founding president of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, has just started. I couldn't get there today for a number of reasons, but being in the neighbourhood of the cemetery I thought it might mean something to spend an hour here and write a few words about Roma because this place meant so much to her. The cemetery is not perfect, it never is, but I think she'd take some pleasure to see it as it is right now, with the workers tending to it while somebody remembers what she did for this place.

Roma had devoted a large chunk of her life to to researching cemeteries, both in New South Wales and Queensland. Her long list of publications included:

(Not to mention her 'Willy Cockroach' children's book series and numerous poems).

She also, when capable, put a lot of physical energy into looking after cemeteries. However, when it came to South Brisbane Cemetery it was the emotional energy she expended that I most remember. Roma was one of three women (with Marilyn Paul and Tracey Olivieri) who created the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery back in 2005. They acted out of sheer frustration at the apparent neglect of this historic cemetery, and over the next few years these few women not only recorded every single headstone in the place, they also cleaned the debris from every single grave and pathway too.

Their legacy is a cemetery that not only looked better, but has been recorded like never before. The FOSBC records for the cemetery are second to none, and they contributed every word and image on South Brisbane Cemetery to the Australian Cemeteries Index website.

In recent years, Roma's declining health saw her take a back seat as far as cemetery work went, but she never stopped caring. Her passion was evident at meetings of the Greater Brisbane Cemetery Alliance, where she would oscillate between threatening to 'rip the nuts off' bureaucrats to shedding tears as she read cemetery poetry.

Roma Waldron, 2011.

She fought the somewhat careless construction of the Busway next to the cemetery with quite some determination, and led the charge to have excavated headstones preserved and returned to their original locations. She fought against the disrespectful carry-ons of 'Ghost Tours', which she despised, and proudly earned herself her own legal threat from serial threat-maker 'Jack' Sim. Also, one night after misunderstanding a discussion about a potential 'Cemetery Watch' scheme, she arrived at the cemetery gates demanding to see the tour license of a ghost tour guide. This led to the hilarious scene of 'Jack' Sim complaining to the police about this little sexagenarian woman. She never did, as she often proclaimed she would, 'rip his nuts off, if he has any'.

But that was Roma, temperamental, caring, testicle-removing, fearless, loving and angry. That was the kind of passion she brought to the FOSBC. Her heritage ideas could be misplaced sometimes (we had to persuade her that her plan to erect a white timber cross on each of the thousands of unmarked graves in South Brisbane Cemetery was both impractical and illegal) but she embodied the kind of love for a place that should be at the beating heart of every local history group.

So while Roma's passing brings sadness for those close to her, there is solace to be found in the fact that she had more or less completed her labours of love and left the cemetery a far better place than when she found it. Sometimes people live and die and their work can be for nought, but not so Roma, and among those who lost something with her death you can count the South Brisbane Cemetery itself.

She was and is, as the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery motto has it, a genius loci - 'guardian spirit of the place'.

Above: The first headstone in the cemetery, dated 1870. An appropriate place to leave some flowers for Roma. (C. Dawson)

1 comment:

  1. RIP Roma, a job well done
    Gail Maree Costigan-White