What's in Store For Brisbane City Council's Cemeteries in 2016?

I have recently been involved in discussions with Brisbane City Council cemetery management, and it looks like changes are afoot in how the public will be able to ‘engage’ with these places in 2016.* Cemeteries are classed as ‘parks’ under council laws, and the BCC are now keen to open them up to a wider range of community use with such activities as picnics, band concerts, film screenings, tours, historical information boards, etc.

Nothing is finalised yet, but these new activities will be regulated under a new permit system that allows different individuals and organisations to hold various cultural events in cemeteries, providing set conditions are met. There is a focus on attracting a variety of different people, and nobody has a ‘monopoly’.

Activities that raise no money, or only a ‘small’ amount, will be fee-free. All money raised will go into a ’communal’ Heritage Fund controlled by the BCC, from which funds will be granted for various cemetery heritage projects. This Fund would also include donations and bequests from members of the public.

Talks are also underway to improve cemetery funding. Considering that the BCC charges $5,735 for new graves in their historic cemeteries, I’d say they have an obligation to their customers to keep their ‘product’ up to scratch. I understand that works are already underway to fix internal roadways and bringing trees under control (I have written about the threat posed by cemetery trees before).

This new situation creates new opportunities, but also new threats.

The opportunities come with allowing people to offer new cultural activities in municipal cemeteries. As a historian, I hope to see other people stepping up with new ways of respectfully presenting cemetery history to the public. I emphasis the word respectfully here because this new system needs to be carefully monitored. BCC must never forget the primary function of their cemeteries as resting places for the deceased. They sell graves to paying customers with the clear understanding that the BCC will provide a safe and respected place for their loved ones. All other uses of cemeteries must be secondary to - and compatible with - that primary function.

The BCC has a mixed record on this issue. Before 2010, it seemed they had little idea of what was going on in their cemeteries at night. Commercial operators were exploiting the cemeteries for a whole range of for-profit activities, including ghost tours, ghost hunts, and various ‘party’ events. Customers were being charged big money, but the operators didn’t pay a single cent for using these ratepayer-funded facilities. They didn’t even have permission for some of these activities.

This situation ended after the ‘Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery’ proposed not-for-profit night-time fundraising tours, drawing a hostile response from the private tour operator. The subsequent hullabaloo forced the BCC to step in and reassert control over their cemeteries. They banned ghost hunts, and introduced a tour license system that made tour operators actually pay for the privilege of exploiting cemeteries. Tour content and marketing was also regulated to wind back any disrespectful schlock-horror themes, although there is strong evidence that a tour operator was still performing supposedly-banned ‘pseudo-occult rituals’ during cemetery tours in 2015.

Hopefully the new system will be another step forward, but it is absolutely crucial that the BCC set clear parameters for what is - and what is not - allowed in their cemeteries. The primary concern must always be to respect the memory and the families of the deceased people interred in BCC cemeteries.

Cemeteries don’t exist for the benefit of historians, musicians, actors and cinema-goers. They exist for the benefit of those people dealing with the death of loved ones. I’m all for imbuing that space with some positive, creative energy, much like I have recently written about for Boggo Road Gaol, but BCC will need to take their caretaking role seriously.

I'm currently speaking with other people about issues with the proposed uses of Brisbane cemeteries in 2016, but what kind of parameters would I personally like to see the BCC put in place?

First of all, a commitment to historical accuracy is vital. I’m not talking about honest mistakes - we all occasionally make technical mistakes with historical data - but I’m more concerned here about outright invention and twisting of facts just to create a more 'interesting' story. I’d like to see the BCC take on a role in which they pre-approve historical content presented in their cemeteries, under their permit system, to ensure it is appropriate and respectful. After all, protecting the heritage of cemeteries does include ensuring that their history is correctly told. Myself and other writers have dealt with the issue of dodgy cemetery history on several occasions before, and I for one will continue to do so if the situation is not rectified.

Secondly, there needs to be a crackdown on people in the 'paranormal industry' promoting municipal cemeteries as hotspots of ghostly activity. This has a negative impact on how cemeteries are perceived. Sure, the places have an association with death, but that is a serious, functional and personal association, and not a funtime haunted house for zombie walks, horror movies, fancy dress parties and role-playing ghost-hunters. We saw the devastating vandalism of 82 graves at Toowong Cemetery in 2009 linked to 'Satanic wannabees', and promoting our cemeteries as paranormal playgrounds does nothing to deter such idiots. Let our dead rest in peace, and stop profiteers from pretending that they aren't. Again, this all comes back to ensuring that people who buy grave plots from the BCC get what they are paying for.

The Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (of which I am a convenor) have already heard from a few people with ideas for cemetery events in 2016. We are willing to act as community advisers for anybody with project ideas, and also to advise on logistical issues such as insurance, etc. The FOSBC can be contacted at fosbc@outlook.com or private messaged on their Facebook page.

Chris Dawson

* Article originally published in December 2015