Sam Holleran 2023

University of Melbourne, Australia

Forever infrastructures: subterranean imaginaries, memorialisation, and care in Australia’s urban cemeteries

In Australian cities, historic cemeteries once located at the urban fringe are now central. To accommodate growth, many have been relocated or pared down, making way for parks. This article draws on an ongoing project examining the tension between memorialization, urban ecology, and recreation. It focuses on the attempts of community groups to digitally and physically document burials and maintain headstones in Pioneer Memorial Parks: cemeteries turned into parks where (most) headstones have been removed, but human remains linger belowground. Conversion of ‘underutilised’ cemeteries into parks started in the 1930s but opposition halted a number of the biggest headstone removal projects, and the program was largely abandoned in the 1980s. This paper examines five cemeteries-turned-parks in Melbourne and Sydney drawing on interviews with volunteers who care for remnant headstones (often incongruously located amidst playground equipment, or adjacent to sport fields). While these volunteers are, almost without exception, female and over 65, they are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous and come from a range of class backgrounds. Their work is animated by the premise that cemeteries (even deconsecrated ones) are ‘forever infrastructures’ for the safekeeping of not only mortal remains but also statuary and physicalized records of communities. This paper explores the relationship between cemetery sites and surrounding communities, particularly the ways that grave tenure and memorialization intersect with race, class, and Indigeneity. Demands for acknowledgement of the belowground dead often come into conflict with the ‘prerogatives of the surface,’ for example: protecting property values, and shielding those easily upset by the idea of interments under recreational spaces.


The Cemetery Research Group runs two events a year: in May and in November. Follow the links and send in an abstract