Is there any better way to feel connected with the meaning of life than by walking among the dead?
Whenever I wander through the cemetery near my inner city Brisbane house, I think about the people who once walked the land I now walk, warmed by the same sun.
I learned of bravery and tragedy among the graves of those lost in war. When I pass by small stones raised to lost children, I contemplate pain, suffering, and loss.
Reading of a dearly beloved husband, father, and grandfather fills me with thoughts of a long life filled with joy and sadness, triumph and disappointment.
And when I find inscriptions written in languages other than my own, or expressions of faith different from the one I was brought up with, I reflect on the great differences of life, the oneness of death, and the marvel of us all sharing space, both within and beyond the cemetery walls.
Brisbane has remarkable cemeteries, from Toowong and South Brisbane to Brookfield and Bald Hills. But are we the living making the most of these expansive, tree-lined spaces?
Cemeteries exist in the same dense, land-locked suburbs where people feel short on space to move and meet each other. Cemeteries tend to be large. Cemeteries might be council-run and come with parking spaces, bathroom facilities, and drinking water fountains. Cemeteries tend to be peaceful, contemplative places and might have tall trees, meandering paths, manicured lawns and ponds, and, in some cases, kangaroos, possums, ducks, and frogs. And people who visit people they care for. In other words, cemeteries are the perfect antidote to the chaos of crowded, high-density, disconnected living.
Toowong cemetery: ‘Cemeteries exist in the same dense, land-locked suburbs where people feel short on space to move and meet each other.’ Photograph: Kris Olin/Alamy
I think about this when I visit Nan and Grandad at their place of eternal rest. I don’t see it often enough, but when I do, I’m glad for this space of quiet repose. They are buried on church grounds, and I like the idea they watch bridal parties come and go; hear families celebrating christenings, and counsel mourners grieving the loss of another loved one. When I visit, I kiss their headstones and trace the letters of their names – the shared letters of our family name – and I miss them, love them, and feel grounded in the dirt around them. Sometimes I bring my young daughter, although she never knew Nan and barely remembers Grandad. Mostly, I go alone.
Cemeteries are places for mourning. And that must be respected.
But cemeteries also have a history as recreational places, central to community life. In his study of American cemeteries, Keith Eggener points out that large cemeteries built in American cities during the 1830s filled a void later addressed by public art galleries and parks. They were places for funerals, picnicking, hunting, and carriage racing. They were such popular guidebook issued. Indeed, in Brisbane today, you can take a guided tour of some historic cemeteries; some are self-guided, and others are conducted in groups. There’s still an interest in cemeteries that goes beyond their primary purpose.
So what more could be done? A swing set under a shade sail and some more bubblers would be a start. We could welcome public lectures, art classes, or meditation meets and consider the magic of concerts in cemeteries (just to be clear: I’m thinking more string quartet than stage spectacular). For example, underground opera in the old Spring Hill Reservoir has transformed a place rich in heritage value but poor in public relevance into a beacon of Brisbane’s cultural landscape.
As ever, it all comes down to balance. Living beings are complex, different, and demanding – we want to live in the city, but we like big open spaces to play in. We want freedom for ritual, religious practices, rites of passage, and reflection, but we can’t all agree on the hows, wheres, and whys. I want to reimagine cemeteries respectfully, but I recognize many are happy with them exactly how they are. I’m sure there’s one thing on which we can agree: that we all hope to one day rest in peace. And that’s OK.