I meet the best people in cemeteries. People keen to have deep and interesting conversations. Recently I caught up with someone I originally met at a guardian angels cleaning day at South Brisbane Cemetery. We chatted for hours while slowly eating ginormous muffins from the Voglia restaurant in the Montague Markets.

When I started my research project examining everyday engagements at South Brisbane Cemetery, I didn’t expect to form friendships or discover so many great local places. It’s a happy side outcome from my research. It’s interesting to consider how my visits to South Brisbane Cemetery, seeped into my exploration of West End, and how this speaks to my broader interest in space and place.

I plotted down on the map below, some of my recent West End finds:

Map of places I have visited in West End.
Drone view over the cemetery and Brisbane River

On the map, these are spaces that exist in relation to other landmarks like roads and parks. Often people think of space as a surface we move through or over in order to get from A to B. The thing is, space is never just a surface. As the late Doreen Massey explained in her book For Space (2005), we are always moving through a myriad of stories upon stories. Spaces are not empty surfaces but rather turned into places through experiences, encounters, and the meanings assigned to the spaces in people’s everyday lives. There are deep stories in places like West End, long held attachments and forms of community.

The above map can’t explain why I love the smell of old books, or why I will visit any second-hand bookstore I can find (like Bent Books) just to experience the wonder of being surrounded by books that have passed through many hands over generations. It can’t understand the sense of community I experienced at Posto café, as I watched people greet the barista in the alley window by name. The map can’t describe the thrill of finding the perfect shade of Christmassy green pants from Euphoria Boutique or the pleasure of having an open space like Voglia for long chats with a friend. The map can’t tell you that I associate the You Came Again restaurant with the best of friendships and the time spent there with my closest friend.

In a similar way, my research is interested in the distinction between how space is planned/managed, and how it is used/experienced. Understanding these distinctions can contribute useful insights into the way spaces can facilitate human, animal and environmental flourishing.

As a researcher, it’s like zooming out and examining the wider forces that influence the formation and management of spaces, and also zooming in and considering what people are actually doing in these spaces, how they experience them in their daily lives, and the meanings they associate with the place and its various elements (such as wildlife, plants and monuments).

These are important investigations, because we cannot exist without space. Space is fundamental to living (and arguably, dying). Not only because space is the backdrop in which we live our lives, but because it is entangled with our very essence, so much so, that it becomes almost invisible as an entity. However, when space is intentionally positioned in regard to its service to human/animal/environment flourishing, it opens up a new way of thinking about space.

I was thinking about these nuances when I looked at this drone image of South Brisbane Cemetery. You can see near the Eleanor Schonell bridge on the left of the image below, there is a faint patch of yellow trees. In the second image, you can see that on the ground, these trees are extremely vibrant, and leave a carpet of yellow in early summer in Brisbane, which is magical to experience. When it comes to space, you can’t consider the zoomed-out view without including the on-the-ground perspective also.

When I was deciding on a space to research, I found, quite startlingly, we don’t really know what happens in cemeteries that are integrated into the urban environment. It’s like there is a zoomed-out understanding of these spaces, without the on-the-ground component. It’s the gap my research seeks to fill. I decided on South Brisbane Cemetery as a case study site because of its heritage status (listed at both local and state level). This means it will remain as a feature urban landscape. I’m interested in how urban cemeteries such as South Brisbane Cemetery could be better understood and utilised as integrated spaces in the community. I’ll give three examples of the type of insights place-based research can provide.

What is a hill good for?

When I have been examining the archival material of the cemetery, there is a distinct focus on drainage. That is part of the reason why South Brisbane Cemetery was selected (in 1866) for its location on a hill. Over one hundred and fifty-five years later, when I speak to people in the cemetery, the varied topography is something that people notice and enjoy in their daily lives. The reason: it adds to a sense of wellbeing because it provides a useful place for exercise, and it makes the space more interesting. Without talking to people, I am not sure I would have made that connection of varied topography as one of the significant elements of the cemetery (and how this is distinct from the original design premise).  With increasing limited access to quiet green spaces in inner-city suburbs, the cemetery appears to be a place that people increasingly use for its quiet and beautiful terrain. See, a hill is not just a hill. It is more than its geographical descriptors.

A square or a mosaic?

Cemeteries are often held in public imagination as segregated spaces for body disposal and bereavement activity. It’s like they are imagined as a square that sits among but separate from the rest of the urban environment. However, when you talk to people who use the space, and observe behaviour in the cemetery, it’s not as segregated as some might imagine. I’ve chatted to UQ university students who use the cemetery as a thoroughfare and enjoy the contemplative experience as part of their daily routines. In conversations, people often don’t realise, until we are in the conversation, that they have noticed particular graves or that there are trees or particular sections of the cemetery they especially like. Community walking groups use the space as part of their daily exercise. Pedestrians and cyclists sometimes opt to use the cemetery roads due to it being perceived as safer than the surrounding busy roads. These are the types of insights I am able to glean from chatting to people who use the cemetery.

It is also possible to see how urban living extends and lingers in the cemetery through objects too. One day, when I was walking around the cemetery, I found an abandoned Neuron bicycle, pictured below. These public scooters and bicycles facilitate the integrated mobilities that are part of inner-city urban living. Presumably, the user of this bicycle left the bike and went on the rest of their journey on foot. The bicycle, sitting amongst the graves, is symbolic of the ways in which the cemetery is, indeed, integrated, rather than segregated.

This is significant because research points to human flourishing in connection with how spaces are integrated in the wider community, rather than considered only in relation to their defined purposes in policy. Spaces are better when they are considered as connected mosaic pieces, rather than squares or boxes in the landscape.

Where is the green space?

Many people I meet in the cemetery reside in West End. They often visit the cemetery and the surrounding Dutton Park green spaces, partly due to the lack of green spaces in West End. There is strong evidence linking access to green space to human wellbeing and people tend to seek out experiences in green spaces because it adds value to their daily lives. South Brisbane Cemetery appears to offer people a unique green space experience because it has a reverent and peaceful atmosphere which translates into an unhurriedness that people appreciate. In the image below, it’s possible to see how the cemetery is a large green space area among other urban infrastructure such as bridges and housing.

I didn’t expect to explore West End as a consequence of my cemetery research. But I guess, that’s the thing about spaces. They are never truly isolated or segregated. People connect spaces in their everyday lives, and these connections impact me too. As I met more and more interesting people from West End, I found myself drawn into the uniqueness and friendliness of the place. And I find that’s a very good thing. 

If you enjoy South Brisbane Cemetery, and would like to be part of this research, please contact me HERE or send me a message on Instagram @cemetery.place.

All images supplied