In the still dark of a fresh autumn Friday night, 20 locals gathered for Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust’s Night Cemetery Tours in the Melbourne General Cemetery, Parkville, as part of the National Trust’s Australian Heritage Festival. Entering via the 1853 iron gates, past the bluestone Gatehouse, it had an eerie feel but we cosied up with our group and were soon in a happy bunch.
This was the first modern-style cemetery in Victoria. Melbourne, founded in 1832, was a centre for opportunity in the 19th century. Walking amongst these memorials and hearing the stories is like an encyclopaedia of what made our city great. SMCT wishes to promote is that this is a site for remembrance and celebration. Much as it was enjoyed in the nineteenth century– when day-trippers would venture with picnics for a whole day of enjoyment — this is a ‘park’. Many of the rotundas here were built expressly for relaxation and pleasure. You are free to return during daylight hours, at no charge, to see many of these graves and construct your own ‘picture of Melbourne’.
With links to all echelons of Melbourne society, you enter here a city of stories, of the lives which contributed colour, depth and dignity to this city of ours, and to our national heritage. Stories ended here link to all the significant sites of Victorian history– the ports, the law courts, theatres, brothels, prisons, and suburbs, as well as boom cities such as Ballarat, Bendigo and beyond with their links to gold. What shouts most is that this was a city of new world dreams and opportunities. All the lives examined show the finish of their achievement under her banner.
With phone torches alight, the group straddled cobblestone drains, gravel paths, walking between graves and under trees, as we followed our ribald guide, Mark, a National Trust volunteer of 17 years, possessing all the inside scoops you’d hope for from a long-serving history lover! The grounds are well maintained and we walk easily at night, with bats flying overhead.
Housing over 300,000 burials, with three mausoleums, nearest the gate is the Prime Minister’s Memorial Garden, where many greats are remembered and even some buried, Malcolm Fraser, for example. We gain an insight into the high mortality rate of the 1800s, convict conditions in a penal settlement far from home, government infighting, women’s lives, and bureaucracy-in-action. We also see examples of philanthropy and generous gifts for the betterment of society.
This step back in time gives us a view into all aspects of the past — medical, social, economic and gendered, and this is reflected in the stories of each life. With 29 stops, we cover artists, politicians, elder statesmen (Sir Redmond Barry), convicts, musicians, explorers (Burke and Wills), the judiciary, scientists, natural historians, medicos, famous writers (Marcus Clarke), union rebels (the Eureka Stockade’s leader, Peter Lalor), and governing leaders (Hotham) amongst others. You will be amazed at the company kept here!
Situated beside the prestigious University of Melbourne, and adjacent to Princes Park’s sporting precinct, and Carlton’s cultural strip of Lygon Street, this venue is very much ‘amongst the living’. It is moving to stand amongst this city of the deceased and look outward, to the world you have just come from.
Hanging out with the dearly departed provides great inspiration for our own lives. I wondered: what will they say about my life were a night tour to happen upon a headstone with my merits? Book yourself a place to check out your ‘cultural relatives’.
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.
Night Cemetery Tours run 22 April – 19 May, 7.30pm (180 minutes) at The Melbourne General Cemetery. Full Moon Tour Saturday 13 May. Purchase tickets here.
The venue is accessible.
Check out The Australian Heritage Festival for other heritage event details.