Bad Spirits and Bad History

One of the foundations of heritage is understanding ‘significance’ - what does a place mean to people, both individually and socially, what does it represent? The heritage listing for South Brisbane Cemetery notes that it is an important social and spiritual landmark in Brisbane, forming an ‘essential component of the ritual of honouring and remembering the dead’. This remembrance is not just social, it is also very personal. Even today, parents continue to bury their deceased children in the cemetery. For them, the place is very much somewhere to ‘honour and remember the dead’ as they live with ongoing feelings of profound grief.

This is why ‘friends of cemetery’ groups are concerned about attempts in recent years to promote or use historic cemeteries for such nocturnal activities as ‘ghost tours’, Hen’s and fancy-dress parties, pseudo-occult rituals, and ‘ghost hunting’. This issue affects not just South Brisbane, but also other cemeteries across the city. Promoting cemeteries as venues for such events can distort how other people perceive these places. Are they touchstones to our history and 'keeping places' for the memories of our loved ones, or are they fairground ‘haunted houses’ for thrill-seekers?

Of course, there are people out there who like this kind of thing, and they are attracted to any place with a ‘spooky vibe’. A large amount of online evidence shows that such people are trespassing in Brisbane cemeteries after dark to carry out ‘ghost hunts’, or to try and have some kind of supernatural experience. It is logical to assume that increased nocturnal trespassing can only increase the chances of headstone damage, intentional or otherwise. For example, the people who smashed over 80 headstones at Toowong Cemetery in 2009 were described in newspapers as being ‘Satanic-inspired’.

Many municipal councils around Australia have banned ghost tours or ghost hunts in their cemeteries because of issues of disrespect. It remains to be seen whether or not we can protect Brisbane cemeteries from such activities into the future.