30 September 2021

Fixing Brisbane Cemeteries

The Courier-Mail ran an article back in July about the condition of graves in Toowong Cemetery. The story outlined damage in this heritage-listed site, including intrusive tree roots, weeds, collapsing grave surrounds and fallen headstones. It also promoted demands that the Brisbane City Council should pay to fix up broken graves (there are over 120,000 graves in the cemetery). There aspects of the article I agree with, and others which are problematic.

I help organise Queensland Cemetery History Tours over at Toowong once a month, as well as conducting research over there, so I am aware of the state of the place. These problems are also familiar to me as a member of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (FOSBC) - check out this gallery of headstone damage at South Brisbane - and they are no doubt recognisable in varying degrees to the volunteers over at Balmoral and other historical cemeteries around Brisbane. These issues are not unique to Toowong.

This tree fell after a big storm in early 2013 and smashed several South Brisbane headstones, most of which will never be repaired. (FOSBC)

A sapling left to grow between two graves will eventually push aside the stonework - South Brisbane Cemetery. (FOSBC)

Darcy Maddock, the president of the Friends of Toowong Cemetery, is quoted in the article as saying that the BCC does a generally good job with cemeteries but that tree damage needs to assessed. This is absolutely correct. There are issues, however, when the owner of the ‘Ghost Tours’ small business (Cameron 'Jack' Sim) demands that ‘the council needs an emergency fund to rapidly repair broken sites.’

The article acknowledges that the extent of damage at Toowong is estimated to be ‘multi-millions of dollars’. Where would this money come from? BCC already allocates $12,000,000 of ratepayers’ money to maintaining the 12 cemeteries under its control. Toowong has received the lion’s share of funding for historical cemeteries over recent decades, with vastly superior facilities and landscaping compared to other old cemeteries such as Balmoral and South Brisbane. If more money were to be spent on Toowong, where would it come from? Increasing rates or cutting council services elsewhere? Less money for other cemeteries?

It is worth noting here that someone (hiding behind the cloak of anonymity) attempted to get our monthly Thursday night history tour at Toowong stopped earlier this year, with one part of the argument being that revenue from tours there should not go outside the electorate. My counterargument was that Toowong Cemetery is funded by ALL Brisbane ratepayers, not just the local electorate. This new demand for extra spending at Toowong only proves my point. The cemetery belongs to the whole of the city.

It is also important to remember that the graves legally belong to individual families, and it is their responsibility to fix them if the grave is in disrepair. At the same time, the BCC needs to do more to monitor new and existing tree growth in order to limit damage.

The members of the FOSBC understand that the cemetery decay can be managed but not stopped. We can, however, extend the life of the heritage fabric, and raise awareness of what needs to be done into the future, and we do get a lot of work done through proactive, award-winning community programmes such as the Guardian Angels cleaning bees. The volunteers remove tree debris and weeds from graves and pathways, wash headstones, clear drains, move loose stone slabs, remove weed-tree saplings, record existing monument damage and notify families where possible, remove broken branches, notify BCC of dead or diseased trees, and are recording the cemetery flora. This is funded by our hard work presenting guided tours there.

One of the two skips we filled up with tree debris at South Brisbane last week (FOSBC).

I understand that the Friends of Toowong Cemetery might not be in a position to do this kind of work right now (the article describes them as ‘a volunteer group of four elderly people’, which no doubt underestimates their size) but there is an opportunity for more community activism in building up group numbers.

A second issue with the article, aside from funding demands, is that Mr Sim claims that Toowong Cemetery should be ‘one of the great tourist destinations of our city’. Cemetery tourism is fine within limits, and if done respectfully, but the primary function of Toowong is still as a functioning cemetery - a place of love, rest and remembrance. I’m not sure that the kind of ‘tourism’ Mr Sim has in mind is compatible with that function.

Mr Sim also claims that ‘people have to know about this history or we will lose it’. Frankly, it is absolutely hypocritical of him to say this. He has done his level best to stop OTHER people presenting history tours if he feels they will ‘compete’ with his small business. The FOSBC is just one group that have been on the receiving end of this behaviour from him over many years. Mr Sim has taken advantage of the BCC tour license system to lock in most Friday and Saturday nights for himself at Toowong and South Brisbane - even though he doesn’t use them all - and thereby blocking other people from presenting any cemetery events on those nights. The chart below shows the current roadblock to 'letting people know about this history'.

So when he says he wants more tourists in cemeteries, he means just for his own business - at $45 per person - while asking that ratepayers cough up more to look after them. I won’t go into my opinion of the standard of ‘history’ that Mr Sim presents, although I have been told that he recently claimed on television to have seen a statue move in the cemetery.

The FOSBC believes that increasing public engagement with historical cemeteries should be built around community-led, not-for-profit history and arts activities that are respectful, and not turning these special places into novelty haunted houses in the name of private profit.

So yes, there is a problem with heritage decay in old cemeteries, but this exists right across Brisbane (and any other historical cemetery in the world). Rather than spending ‘multi-millions’ at one cemetery, an approach is needed that treats all our cemeteries equally, with proportionally fair funding for all. It also requires building increased community engagement. The kind of community-led approach we have taken at South Brisbane has its limitations, but we are trying our best to do what we can to resolve some of these issues.

1 comment:

  1. "When graves legally belong to individual families, and it is their responsibility to fix them if the grave is in disrepair".

    I recently applied to the council to have my mother's ashes interred with her parents. The interesting thing is that I had to state who the Burial Rites holder was, ie the person who purchased the plot originally. In this case it was my grandmother who purchased it for her husband, then was later buried there herself. Despite the fact that my mother and uncle arranged for grandmother's funeral, there was no record stating this, no up to date (well at least until 1999) contact for that plot, just the details of the original 1968 purchase.

    My point is, that the council has no-way of contacting relatives of those with damaged graves. Sure those of us with relatives in Brisbane Cemeteries have an obligation to check and effect repairs which we have done with my Grandparent's plot; we do with my husband's parents and grandparents but what about great-grandparents - I have no idea of where my paternals are buried.

    This would be the case for so many people, and this doesn't even cover those have no interesting in familial resting places. It also brings up the question of the quality of work in the restoration. In my husband's case his grandmother's and aunt's plot had been restored when the aunt was buried in the 70s. When we visited the plot in the 2000's we noticed that the lettering had worn off. They would have spent good money on it.

    I am not criticising your work but it leads to conversations which need to be had, as I suspect you are already having.