Tidy old graves in Brisbane: Giving Back (A review)

a teen doing community activity.

When I was younger, I thought of cemeteries like a black and white picture: old, sad, forgotten. After spending the afternoon at South Brisbane Cemetery, my prejudices were changed through the simple act of cleaning.

I was at the cemetery for a Guardian Angels cleaning day run by Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery. It is open to all members of the public once a month, and the idea is to help clean and tidy old graves and help maintain the cemetery. It’s a great way to give back to the community and learn more about Brisbane’s history.

South Brisbane Cemetery is one of Brisbane’s oldest cemeteries and is now heritage listed. It opened in 1870 and is located next to the Brisbane River at Dutton Park, just close to the Harmony Gardens playground.  It’s a lovely cemetery with many leafy green trees. The section pictured below is the oldest part of the cemetery. The first person to be buried here was Jane Hockings.

image of girl walking through cemetary.

Thomas and Jane Hockings emigrated to Australia from England in 1841. Jane lived to age 74, and died on the 31st July 1870. She was buried on the 1st of August 1870, becoming the first recorded burial in the cemetery.

old grave sites in brisbane.

Sometimes cemeteries are disregarded, even though they are an important part of Brisbane. I felt this when I was cleaning the grave stones. My mum and I cleaned two grave sites during the couple of hours we were at the cemetery. Both the grave sites were quite faded, dirty and not well kept. One of the headstones was even broken in half.

Not only was cleaning the graves therapeutic and a genuinely nice way to spend the afternoon, it felt meaningful. Restoring these graves felt like a nice way to give back to these people, their families and the wider community. I loved getting right into scrubbing the dirt off and splashing these graves with buckets of water. This activity was fun to do with my Mum, I think that the more people that get involved the more enjoyable this can be!

Tools needed:

Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery can provide tools to clean the grave sites, but it’s easy to build your own grave cleaning kit. You just need a bucket, soft brush, toothbrush, spray bottle and gloves. Make sure you wear clothes that can get dirty and wear a hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes.

  • Bucket
  • Large soft brush for scrubbing and removing debris
  • Toothbrush for finer scrubbing around details
  • Spray bottle for finer scrubbing
  • Gloves if you want to protect your hands from dirt and grime

kit for cleaning graves.

How I cleaned the graves:

The team from Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery gave me instructions on how to clean the grave sites. It’s really just water and scrubbing! They don’t use chemicals on the stones so they are not damaged and the surrounding natural environment isn’t polluted.  

  1. Use the large soft brush to brush off any dirt, rocks and leaves of the grave. This gives you a smooth surface to work on.
  1. Dip the large brush in a bucket of water and scrub the headstone. This will loosen the mould and dirt.
  1. Once you’ve scrubbed for a bit, get a bucket of water (or use the water spray) and drench the headstone. This will wash it off the dirt you have loosened, and you’ll begin to see its original shade coming through.
  1. Use a toothbrush for those smaller and harder to reach places.
  1. It’s then just a process of scrubbing and rinsing. Scrubbing and rinsing, until the stone is as clean as possible.

a teenager scrubbing a grave.

The result:

It’s amazing what a bit of water and scrubbing can do! Below are the two sites my mum and I worked on. We were at the cemetery for a couple of hours.

before and after image of a grave being cleaned.

a grave that has been cleaned.

I really enjoyed my time in the cemetery and learned a bunch of cool new things. I learned about some of the history of South Brisbane Cemetery, and how to clean a grave (a skill I wouldn’t expect to be under my belt). I would definitely recommend this activity for anyone who enjoys the outdoors and wants to give back to the community. It is a worthwhile activity for a bunch of teenage friends, or as a family group. Spending time at the cemetery was surprisingly refreshing.

Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery run cleaning days once a month. Just come and help for as long as you like, between 9am and 4pm. Find more details about the upcoming monthly cleanings days here.

Written by Jamie Burstow

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