25 July 2021

The Joy of Public Talks in an Old Cemetery

In mid-2020, at the height of the coronavirus restrictions in Queensland, in-person public history events were few and far between. I had previously been scheduled to deliver a couple of history talks during that time but these were indefinitely postponed. The Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery were unable to present their regular tours, and unfortunately the 150th anniversary events we had lined up were also called off.

The easing of the restrictions allowed us to run limited tours from late June, but many indoor history events were still cancelled due to virus concerns. This presented an opportunity for a new idea of mine - outdoor public history talks in the South Brisbane Cemetery. The fresh-air setting was perfectly suited for a socially-distanced audience, and we had a nice shady, grassed open spot for this near the office and utilities. And so 'History Among the Graves' was born, the first event of this type in Australian cemeteries (as far as I know).

These were organised and presented with fellow FOSBC member Tracey Oliveri, the first one taking place in August not long after the 150th anniversary of the first official burial in the cemetery. The subject was, naturally, '150 Years of the South Brisbane Cemetery' and it turned out to be a beautiful winter morning, with over 20 people turning up for the talk, followed by a 20-minute Q&A session, and then coffee, cake and a chat.

'History Among the Graves', South Brisbane Cemetery, August 2020. (FOSBC)

The success of this event prompted two more 'History Among the Graves' talks - 'Secrets of Cemetery Symbols' (September), and 'Folklore and Death' (November).

The format is for Tracey and myself to alternate short segments, with attendees using printed colour handouts to refer to images of the subjects we covered. They are much like a guided tour, except everyone gets to sit down on the chairs or blankets they brought, nibble from a picnic basket, and soak up the Sunday morning peace and quiet of a beautiful, historical setting. The attendees also get to hang back afterwards for a chat over tea and coffee, and we had an information stall set up to handle any other cemetery-related queries.

All in all, I found these talks to be a very enjoyable and productive way to talk about history with an audience. I would definitely recommend them to any other cemetery Friends group as a way of engaging with the public (we signed up several new members over the course of the three talks), and they are great for people with mobility issues who might not otherwise be able to attend a tour. We will definitely be doing more of these in 2021 and beyond.

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