06 December 2017

Walking Among the Dead

"Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres - palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay - ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who've died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn't pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time." (Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One, 2004)
It has been all quiet on the blogging front in recent months, but in the meantime I've been up to my armpits in running cemetery night tours.

The tours are a community partnership between the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (BRGHS) and the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (FOSBC). Basically, the BRGHS provide legal cover for the tours, while monies raised help develop the FOSBC so they can undertake heritage and history projects.

South Brisbane Cemetery night tour, December 2017 (C. Dawson)

These things only started back in March, with me and my good friend and cemetery historian Tracey Olivieri picking up where our Moonlight Tours left off in 2013 - walking groups of people around the South Brisbane Cemetery at night, discussing general history and particular people along the way.

This year we also developed a range of other tours, so apart from the general cemetery history covered in our 'Torchlight Tour', we added 'Gruesome Graveyards' featuring some of the more dramatic stories associated with the place, a 'Hangman's Walk' looking entirely at capital punishment, and more recently the 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, welcoming back our tour guide colleague Liam Baker. We even ran a sold-out 'Hangman's Walk' over at Toowong Cemetery, and a 'Tombstone Folk' evening folk concert at South Brisbane.

The selling point for these tours has been that we tour guides have in-depth knowledge of what we are talking about, so people are free to ask us questions and have a chat as we go around. And judging by the feedback, this is what people want, as opposed to the kind of tours that feature a guide who knows little beyond the script and avoids any 'out of character' conversation with the guests. Our informal but knowledgeable approach has earned plenty of rave reviews, and the rising attendance levels speak for themselves. At first we were aiming at one tour per month, to see how things went. The first tour was quiet - 8 people - but it picked up to around 20 people for each of the next few tours, and then we hit the current patch of nine sold-out tours in a row (even with six tours in six weeks).

Where to from here? The plans for 2018 are to continue tweaking the tours here and there to make them even better. We have a lot of ideas (too many ideas!) and the trick is working out what is viable and worth devoting time in the calendar to. What we (and other groups) can offer in cemeteries is restricted by limited access to the popular slots of Friday and Saturday nights. While we have access for two Friday nights per month at South Brisbane, all other such nights both there and at Toowong are effectively locked up for now by a small business. Hopefully this situation will change in future if the Brisbane City Council are to fully realise their very worthwhile vision of opening up municipal cemeteries to a wider range of community cultural use.

All-in-all, we've shown that the BRGHS and FOSBC are more than capable of running successful tours. We've REALLY enjoyed taking these tours, but are looking forward to a short summer break among the living after all our work this year.

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