04 August 2020

The Original 'Friend' of South Brisbane Cemetery

Tracey raking over graves, South Brisbane Cemetery, August 2020.

I snapped this impromptu photo at the South Brisbane Cemetery last weekend. Walking up the road I was struck by the scene and the woman in the yellow top quietly raking away debris from the tops of a lot of graves there. She didn’t know I was taking her picture. It was a natural thing, just the normal way she spends an afternoon. This is Tracey Olivieri, the original ‘Friend’ of the cemetery, who - also this weekend – received the inaugural Honorary Lifetime Membership of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery.

You really need to have known the South Brisbane Cemetery for at least 15 years to understand how much better it looks now. Back in 2004 it was quite neglected and in a sorry state. Sure, some parts of it still need a good tidying even now, but by and large it has improved and is starting to look like someone is looking after it.

Carefully using a toothbrush to clean away cobwebs and small debris from the Jane Hockings grave, August 2020.

For several years, from 2005, the people looking after it were local women Tracey, Roma Waldron and Marilyn Paul. They had occasional assistance from a few friends but the work of raking all the graves and pathways clean, photographing and recording every grave, and getting the Brisbane City Council to lift their game fell to them. And it took them years. There was a bit of blood, and lots of sweat and tears.

It was Tracey’s idea in 2005 to start the ‘Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery’, which was fitting as she had spent a lot of time playing - and hiding - in the cemetery as a young girl. Her knowledge of and affection for this place spans decades. I have told her that she is lucky to still be visiting and caring for a place that was so important to her in her childhood. My special childhood places are 10,000 miles away and much changed. Hers is right here and heritage listed, and if anything is looking better. Which is largely down to her efforts.

So the three women worked away but things change, as they always do. By the mid-2010s, Roma had passed away, Marilyn had moved on, Tracey was busy with other things, and the FOSBC had a few fallow years. This didn’t seem right to me and I gave it a push and we came back, forming an incorporated association with Tracey as president, and got down to attracting new members. The last few years have been remarkable for us, with big research projects, tours, commemorative events, and best of all a membership of around 50, with over a hundred more wonderful people having attended our ‘Guardian Angels’ community activities. Many improvements have been made to the cemetery itself, and we have enjoyed a good working relationship the BCC.

So Tracey is busier than ever at the cemetery, but the big difference is that she now has dozens of people backing her up. She planted a seed years ago and a big tree has grown and blossomed. It could have easily gone the other way, and she might have moved on from the cemetery, but she is lucky to have seen her work take root and have so many other great people now working for the cause.

On Saturday 1 August 2020 the FOSBC hosted an invitation picnic at the cemetery to mark 150 years to the day since Jane Hockings became the first person to be interred there. We added meaning to the occasion by awarding the first ever ‘Honorary Lifetime Membership’ of the FOSBC to Tracey in recognition of her devotion to the cemetery, and to remind her that she isn’t alone there.

As for myself, as a historian, I can definitely say we have built up a great working relationship. We bounce ideas off each other all the time, can throw the framework of a brand new tour together in less than half an hour, and have a natural rapport on the tours. That includes ribbing each other in way that sometimes leaves the tour attendees asking if we are married. She drives me bonkers sometimes and we disagree on things but we move on and that's probably a sign of a solid friendship.

So anyway, well done Tracey. There are some great years ahead for you and the cemetery. You fell in love with the cemetery as a child, and now you are passing on your dreams and your mission to children today.

‘From little things, big things grow’.

Tracey addressing the picnic people, August 2020.

Me, FOSBC treasurer Rachael, and Tracey with her certificate and her two very favourite flowers - sunflowers and purple tulips. August 2020.

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