Heritage & Trees: Finding the Right Balance

Trees and graves are not always a good mix. Maintaining any wooded historical cemetery like this one requires maintaining a fine working balance between nature and heritage, appreciating the environmental value of the trees while always remembering that the primary purpose of the cemetery is as a place of interment and remembrance.

There are several trees in the cemetery that we in the FOSBC think of as the ‘Grand Old Ladies’ – figs and kauri pines that have been around longer than most living people. These trees add a huge amount of character to the necropolis, providing shade, a leafy backdrop and a sense of quiet peace.

There are many smaller trees too, all playing their part in creating the park-like atmosphere that South Brisbane Cemetery is known for. They also provide a home for birds, possums and other animals.

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

Many new trees were planted during the ‘beautification scheme’ of that decade, which was a well-intentioned act but created some of the problems we see today. Not all these trees are welcome, as some are weeds (Chinese Elms), and other newer ones are causing real damage to the surrounding grave monuments. There was a time when there were far fewer trees in the cemetery than now, as can clearly be seen on aerial photographs from before the 1970s. Trees (usually the eucalypti) seem to fall every year – usually during big storms (see the gallery link below) – and the damage to headstones can be devastating.

Then there is the slow damage of tree roots gradually pushing through and forcing over the headstones of any grave in their path. There are also many examples around the cemetery of trees being left to grow right next to (or inside) graves and, over the decades, forcing the headstones and other stonework aside.

Over time, the combined effect of this natural damage is as bad as sporadic outbreaks of vandalism. For example, in 2019 at least 19 South Brisbane Cemetery monuments were smashed or otherwise badly damaged as a result of tree growth or breakage. The solution, as in any suburban backyard, is to encourage plant growth without it destroying any (or too many) built structures. The FOSBC document ongoing damage to graves, and the series of photos below show the impact of trees within the cemetery. You are more than welcome to post any of your own cemetery tree (or fauna) photos to the FOSBC Facebook page.

trees and heritage
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)