Volunteering with one foot in the grave

Volunteering in the local community can bring neighbours together and enhance community connections. Sometimes these volunteers contribute their time on projects in the most unexpected of landscapes, places they may never previously have thought of. They may even be working with ‘one foot in the grave!’

On a rainy Saturday in a beautiful old cemetery in Kew, I have come to meet a group of volunteers in parkas and wellies who are diligently working their magic. Crouched in various positions, they plant, weed and tidy foliage around the graves.

I carefully pick my way through the neatly well cared for graves and plantations to meet this jovial group who volunteer their services monthly at a working bee group within the Friends of Boroondara Cemetery. These volunteers have formed a tightly knit ‘family’ group who seem to enjoy the fresh air, friendship and hard work of their monthly volunteering.

Friends of Boroondara Cemetery

cemetery-volunteersPauline Turville, volunteer and President of the Friends of Boroondara Cemetery, is also a career secretary but now working part-time. In 2006 she decided to volunteer after moving to Kew on her own.  ‘ I wanted to have a local interest and volunteering was a great option to spread my wings in the local community. Through a mutual friend I became aware that a group was about to be formed at the cemetery and the idea appealed to me. I thought I’d just be pulling out weeds and clearing up but it developed into so much more, including running historic walking tours of the cemetery,’ she told me.

Pauline’s volunteering has since turned into a passion. She became absolutely engrossed in the cemetery’s history and now volunteers at the working bee as well as other volunteer work there. ‘A small committee was formed and we researched all the famous and interesting people buried here with a view to putting together walking tours of the cemetery. We realised so many important people, particularly Melbourne’s movers and shakers who helped to form marvelous Melbourne are buried in the cemetery,’ she said.

Some famous folk with graves at the cemetery are David Syme publisher of The Age; Louis Buvelot a landscape artist; Georgiana MacRae who was an artist in miniature portraits – she was also a friend of Governor and Mrs Latrobe, (first Lieutenant Governor of Victoria; and Constance Stone the first female doctor in Victoria – she couldn’t study medicine here and had to go to America to gain her degree.

Word of mouth soon spread in the local area, helped along through a few articles in the local paper that peaked the interest of locals. Before long, a group of volunteers was formed under the banner of Friends of Boroondara Kew Cemetery. ‘Meeting people and sharing stories of the people buried here has been a pleasure and a privilege. This month it’s our 10th anniversary and the volunteers are having a very special dinner to celebrate on 26th October 2016,’ said Pauline.

The formation of the Friends monthly volunteer working beecemetery-volunteers-in-action

The Friends group’s monthly working bee evolved out of the main Friends of Boroondara Cemetery group and started only last year in 2015. Helen Page can be credited with the idea of starting the working bee offshoot volunteer group.

In May 2015 Helen, a trustee of the cemetery, contacted Pauline asking if a working bee of volunteers could be started up through the Friends network. ‘We sent out an email to all the members and supporters. We did a letterbox drop of flyers in the surrounding areas of the cemetery. But then we were lucky enough to get an article published in The Age newspaper. We received a lot of interest from the general public including local people interested in gardening and local history,’ said Helen.

Helen a horticulturist with a keen interest in old gardens was president of the Australian Garden History Society for many years. During that time she often organised working bees in historic gardens mainly in country Victoria. ‘I love historic gardens but I feel a bit guilty just going to look at them, I feel I should be contributing to the upkeep of them and supporting the owners,’ Helen shared with me.

Helen was acutely aware of the unkempt state of the Boroondara Cemetery, a garden cemetery. She had a picture in her mind of the spectacular garden cemetery it could resemble with more volunteer help. ‘It had been sadly neglected over the years through lack of funds and understanding of the maintenance needs of a garden cemetery. It desperately needed continual garden maintenance,’ she said.

cemetery-volunteers-groupWord spread about the initial working bee and volunteers were asked to bring a small kit of gardening gloves, secateurs, watering cans, small trowels and spades and to wear comfortable clothing. On that first Saturday twelve enthusiastic volunteers drifted in through the main gates to be directed to a large Algerian oak tree that had vast amounts of ivy covering dozens of graves beneath. ‘Many weeds particularly ivy had got right out of hand and so most of the subsequent working bees were focused on removing as much ivy as we could,’ said Helen.

Volunteers restore this old garden cemetery

‘Graves are generally the property of families but because Boroondara Cemetery is very old, many graves are no longer tended by families as they might have died or moved away from the city. We plant and tend these graves as if we are family!’ she added.

‘The work of the volunteers revealed beautiful headstones previously hidden from view for many years and they felt excited at this discovery and their achievement,’ interjected Pauline.

‘And we soon had to find another area of equal significance for the volunteers to work with the same results. Since then we’ve had a steady core of around a dozen volunteers every month and cemetery-entrymuch has been achieved,’ said Helen proudly.

Recently Professor Tim Entwisle, director of the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens visited the Cemetery and when told about the volunteer working bees he said, ‘I haven’t seen any ivy!’ Helen replied, ‘Yes, that shows what a great job our volunteers have done!’

by Lesley Sharon Rosenthal, Volunteer Writer for Volunteering Victoria


Feel like joining the Friends of Boroondara Cemetery to volunteer?

Contact Pauline Turville, President via email: Pturville850@gmail.com

Or Helen Page via mobile: 0418 546 979

The Friends working bee is run on the first Saturday of every month from 10am-3pm at Kew Cemetery.

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