Celebrating the Trees of South Brisbane Cemetery, & Killing Their Children

A visit to the South Brisbane Cemetery in early 2014 brought something of a major surprise.* Council workers had been hard at work and the internal roadways were lined with neatly-stacked piles of freshly-cut tree branches (see photo below). As far as my colleagues in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery know, this is the first time in this century that such extensive work has been done with the trees, which have been getting out of control in recent decades.

Cutting down trees is never popular but we are not talking about the arboraceous Grand Old Ladies of the cemetery - the kauri pines and the Moreton Bay figs and others that have been around longer than most people and add such character to the necropolis. It is the new growth that is being cut back, the young trees sprouting up in graves and pathways and that in years to come will irreparably damage those same graves and paths.

When the cemetery was established on the riverside slopes back in the 1860s/70s much of the land there was cleared. Early photographs show far fewer trees than we have there now. Maintaining any wooded historic cemetery requires a working balance between nature and heritage, which means carrying out the occasional clearout of new growth before it can cause further damage. The fact is that the primary purpose of the cemetery is as a resting place for Brisbane's dead. It is not a national park or a wildlife reserve, but then again the importance of suburban biodiversity can't be dismissed. The trees support a wide range of fauna including tawny frogmouths and other birds, possums (look out for the possum boxes in the trees, or the critters that always interrupt our Moonlight Tours), bats, frogs and the occasional fox... to name a few. For that reason alone it is imperative to encourage a healthy and diverse tree population at the cemetery, which is exactly what we have even after the recent cleanout.


Trees and graves are not always a good mix, as the photos below show. At least one large tree (usually the eucalypti) seems to fall every year and the heritage damage can be devastating. Last year we had two come down and several headstones were destroyed in the process. Then there is the slow damage. The roots of the massive figs will gradually push through and knock over the headstones of any grave in their path but that is something we have to live with. Those trees aren't going anywhere. New umbrella trees (another species with invasive root systems), however, need to be kept in check. There are also dozens of examples around the cemetery of trees being left to grow right next to graves and, over the decades, pushing the headstones and other stonework aside.

Over time, the combined effect of this natural damage is as bad as the sporadic outbreaks of vandalism that have plagued the cemetery over the last century. The solution, as in any suburban backyard, is to encourage plant growth without it destroying any (or too many) built structures. The Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery document ongoing damage to graves, but they also educate about the importance of the flora and fauna to be found within the cemetery.

The series of photos below show the impact of trees within the South Brisbane Cemetery. You are more than welcome to post any of your own cemetery tree (or fauna) photos to the FOSBC Facebook page.

Inside main entrance, South Brisbane Cemetery (C Dawson 2014).

Large fig near main cemetery entrance (C Dawson 2014).

Cut branches line cemetery roadways, May 2014 (FOSBC)

The roots of young umbrella trees will destroy this grave. (FOSBC)

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

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

Another tree that toppled in a 2013 storm, smashing the
headstone right next to it. 
Brisbane council workers later
sectioned the tree debris for removal. (FOSBC)

One of the dozens of pathways in the cemetery long
since blocked by trees (C Dawson 2014).

Tree growing through a grave (C Dawson 2014)

A tree grown directly through a grave. (FOSBC)

An old metal grave peg embedded in a fig tree
nook, about 2 metres off the ground. (FOSBC).

A Green Treefrog (Litoria caerulea) sits in a
cemetery fig tree at night. (FOSBC)

* Article originally published 8 June 2014.