I’ve just returned from my first cemetery visit. Out of 10 grave sites, I only found 2. That’s a 20% success rate, people. So, what went wrong?
I’ve often read about people visiting cemeteries, returning triumphantly with photos of their ancestor’s grave sites. And finding that helpful relatives had basically written a small biography of the person’s life on the headstone, miraculously listing all those missing details they have been hunting for years.
We were visiting family interstate in Queensland (Australia, for those more distant). “Ah ha!” I thought. “Maybe I can find an opportunity between the rellie and friend visits to slip off for an hour or two to check out a cemetery and see what I can find. Maybe I, too, can find a cornucopia of family information.”
Ah! Such simple naiveté.
My husband happens to have a lot of ancestors buried in Toowong Cemetery, including his maternal great grandparents, his 2 x great grandparents AND his 3 x great grandparents.
So, full of hope and blissful ignorance, I set off for my first cemetery visit.
A Little Bit Of History
First some background from the Brisbane City Council’s website:
“The Toowong Cemetery is a Brisbane icon and was once the city’s main cemetery. It is located on the slopes of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane’s inner western suburbs, bordering Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens and the Brisbane Forest Park.
While the Toowong Cemetery was officially opened in 1875, some burials took place from 1871, most notably Queensland’s second governor, Colonel Samuel Blackall.”1
What they don’t tell you is that the cemetery is 44 hectares in size and has very steep hills and lots of holes!
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
Now, I wasn’t completely stupid. I didn’t turn up and expect to just walk straight up to the grave sites. I did a bit of prep work first.
The Brisbane City Council has helpfully provided a grave location search site where you can look up your people and write down the location of the grave site. It covers a number of cemeteries across Brisbane and for some of the cemeteries (including Toowong) there are maps available online.
So, I made a list of all the people I wanted to find, printed off the cemetery map and highlighted all the locations.
And I thought that was all I needed to do. Hmmm.
The Day Of…
The day dawned bright and clear. It is the end of autumn coming into winter in Brisbane, so I thought it would be a nice, cool day. However, Brisbane was experiencing a bit of a summer resurgence, and, if you have ever been to Brisbane, you will know this also means humidity.
By the end of the morning I was absolutely gasping for water, was massively overheated and had the beginnings of a major headache. Hydrate!
There was another set of searchers I kept meeting around the cemetery. When I saw them set up a picnic lunch under the shade of one of the trees complete with fold up chairs, I twigged to the fact I was way out of my league and nowhere as prepared as I thought I had been!
Boy, did I underestimate how long it would take. Hence the gasping for water.
So what went wrong? I had the map all marked out, right? Just find the location in the cemetery, take a photo, transcribe and move on.
In reality, matching the map to what it looks like “on the ground”, is another matter entirely. I finally figured out that the little black dots on the map corresponded with large wooden posts. But there were no other markings to help identify the rows.
Later on, in more civilised parts of the cemetery, I figured out how to identify rows and sections by the larger gaps between. In the meantime, the first set of grave sites I was seeking were at the bottom of a very steep hill with very little room to move between them.
A lot of the grave sites are falling apart. So there are bits of stone and masonry to avoid, they are very overgrown, and there are lots of holes where the ground has caved in, just lurking to twist unsuspecting ankles. Climbing up through the grave sites is no mean feat if you have any kind of mobility issues.
Which leads to…
Sneakers or boots – something with a good grip. And clothes to match the weather and conditions. Sometimes they haven’t mowed or cleared out for awhile and you have to climb through long grass with prickles and branches of overgrown bushes and trees, which means lots of scratches on legs and arms.
In hindsight, I should not have assumed I could just figure it out given enough time. Instead, it would have been sensible to visit the cemetery office first to ask for some advice on how best to undertake my search. By doing so, I may have been able to save myself much time and effort.
Instead, by the time I had come to this conclusion, many hours had passed, and the aforesaid gasping for water and headache had begun and I decided I had better just call it a day.
In old cemeteries, don’t be surprised to find that many headstones have fallen over (face first, of course!), are damaged, overgrown or just plain missing.
Check out Exhibit A below. The shrub is covering about four graves. I have absolutely no idea who two of them belong to.
Within the close up below, the red circle marks a headstone fallen face first and mostly buried. With the shrub growing over the entire grave, it would take some major work to clear it out. It is possible one of my husband’s ancestors is buried here, but we’ll probably never know for sure.
While I was preparing for the visit, I found a number of stories about Toowong Cemetery’s spooky reputation with many strange things happening there over the years. In particular, many people noted how often their cameras malfunctioned in the cemetery but were later to be found to be working perfectly fine. I noted the stories as that. Just interesting stories and moved on.
On the day of my visit, I took a number of photos that had nothing to do with the graves I was searching for. I just thought they would make interesting photos to illustrate the blog.
I must have taken about half a dozen photos at least. However, when I returned home and checked the photos, only the photos I took that directly related to grave sites I was searching for were on the camera! I don’t know what to make of that as I’ve never had that problem with my digital camera before which is a very simple point and click. But it is fun to have my own story to tell!
About half way through, I began to wonder whether I was actually counting and identifying the correct rows. I thought it might be a good idea to do some comparisons, so I took photos of a sample of headstones in the section I thought the grave sites should be located. I don’t have a smart phone so couldn’t do a look up of the BCC grave location search site on the spot. It had to wait until I returned home. However, it gave me a cross-check to see if I was even looking in the right area and would help plan my next visit.
As it turned out, I was searching in the right areas. There just weren’t any marked graves or the headstones were lost or destroyed. But at least I know.
Would You Recommend This To A Friend?
Now, after reading all of the above, it probably sounds like I had a miserable time. And you are also probably wondering why you’d even want to do such a crazy thing as tramp around an old and probably hazardous cemetery.
But you know what? I had a blast. Old cemeteries are fascinating places. People can sometimes get really creative with headstones and will surprise you with their inscriptions. I also became a bit reflective after wandering around crumbling headstones for a few hours which I found relaxing rather than depressing. I’m strange like that.
I learned a lot from my cemetery adventure and will be better prepared for my next. Maybe I’ll even bring along a picnic lunch!
Did you find any interesting details about your family members from headstones? Or perhaps you’ve had your own interesting or spooky experience during one of your cemetery adventures?
In my next post, I’ll share the meagre discoveries I was able to find.