If you are a regular Sunday morning visitor to the 150-year-old South Brisbane Cemetery you may have noticed, about one day a month, dozens of happy folk beavering away among the headstones with buckets and brushes. These are the ‘Guardian Angels’, volunteers who have come together from all around southeast Queensland to help clean the graves there.

This community activity has been running for a few years now and is organised by the not-for-profit Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (FOSBC), a group dedicated to protecting and promoting the southside’s biggest heritage treasure.

There are probably two main aims of the Guardian Angels program. One of course is improving how the cemetery itself looks. We understand that change is inevitable, and that the aesthetics of heritage cemeteries have an inherent element of historical decay, so it is important to remember we are not trying to ‘restore’ graves to mint condition. Sure, it is nice when a headstone comes up sparkling clean, but most times stubborn stains will persist and we live with that, content just to leave the monument cleaner than we found it.

We use water, brushes, carefully-applied elbow grease, and maybe a white vinegar/water solution for stubborn grime (we avoid toxic chemicals). We clean marble and granite, but avoid the more fragile sandstone monuments. We use rakes and brooms to tidy the ground, we straighten grave monuments, rearrange broken headstone pieces, reattach loose lead letters, haul away tree debris, pull weeds, and adjust leaning fences.

A lot has been achieved so far but there is much yet to be done. We can see that some parts are in dire need of a good cleaning. There are after all around 19,500 graves in the cemetery, not all of them marked but still a massive number, so we are basically just washing and tidying and trying to work through as much as we can in the coming years. It is in effect a 32-acre, multi-year spring clean.

We do this because we want the South Brisbane Cemetery to still be around in the 22nd century. We want as many of these headstones as possible to survive, as testament to the memory of those interred there. We are not here just to celebrate the lives of the rich and powerful and their grand monuments, we believe that everyone in the cemetery has their own story, including all those in the many paupers’ graves, and taken together those stories are our social history. The fact is that the cemetery, and everything inside it, will need ongoing cleaning and tidying to help it through the next century.

Cleaning can make a noticeable difference even on the smaller headstones

People Power

The other central aim of the Guardian Angel days is to bring people together and build a community by simply getting more volunteers physically engaged with the cemetery. Working there helps people form a connection with the place, and our philosophy is that the more people who care about the cemetery, the more active support there will be for protecting it in the future.

In this regard, the Guardian Angels program has been a success. We currently average about 20-30 people for each event, and these are not always the same people. There are regulars, and others who come whenever they can, and always a few new faces. Everyone is welcome. We provide equipment, advice, drinks and nibbles, and a friendly, laid back atmosphere. In recent years have seen about 200 different people attend, ranging from small children to pensioners. Most come from outside the local area, some from afar as the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Logan and Ipswich. They share a common passion for cemeteries and doing good.

There a few obvious markers of success. These include those individuals who love the work so much that they now regularly come into the cemetery by themselves to clean headstones in their own time. We also hear back from volunteers who have cleaned a grave and then researched the stories of the people in that grave, and have become somewhat emotionally invested in finding out more about them. Then there are the Guardian Angels who we bump into when they visit the cemetery for a walk and stop for a chat, and we can clearly see that they are much more interested in the place than before. Many friendships have been formed, and the cemetery has dozens more active defenders now than it did a few years ago. Some have taken to writing letters to authorities, calling for better official care of the cemetery.

The FOSBC has also grown. The group was formed by three local women (including current president Tracey Olivieri) in 2005, became an incorporated association in 2017, and thanks to our community engagement projects such as cleaning bees, tours, picnics, talks, and descendant tracing, it currently has almost 60 members. Providing equipment and supplies to keep the Guardian Angels program going does cost money and is self-funded by the FOSBC through their cemetery night tours. We are also grateful that the Brisbane City Council allow us to use the cemetery shed for storage and the amenities room as an office and kitchen.

In building this community of wonderful people (and they are), we have learned that the journey is sometimes more important than reaching the destination.

We Want You

There is, however, still much to be done. Most of the Guardian Angels come from outside the local area, so we definitely would like to get more locals involved, as the cemetery is after all in their own backyard.

It is a beautiful and peaceful setting, the volunteers are brilliant, and the work is educational and highly rewarding. We can provide volunteers with the gear and training they need, and they can turn up when they want and stay for as long as they feel like – we generally start around 9.30 am and stay to about 4.00 pm. The work is outdoors and we are all spread out (headstones make excellent social distancing markers), so it is a COVID-safe activity.

Information about upcoming Guardian Angel days can be found on our website at fosbc.com, or our Facebook page  or you can contact Tracey on 0401 005430.

Cover image: A couple of regular Guardian Angels, September 2020 – Melissa (seated right) regularly attends from the Gold Coast, while Jenny (centre, behind headstone) drives up from Logan most months.