The Secret Life in Cemeteries

Feathertails & Button Wrinklewort

Rokewood Cemetery grasslands in the spring

Modern cemeteries may be boring. Designed for low maintenance with white gravel or manicured lawns, the view may be good but there is sameness in all the regimented rows. You may need to be selective but if you decide to visit a country cemetery you will often find there is more to look at than just tombstones, gravel and arum lilies.

Having visited about one hundred cemeteries in Victoria, nearly all have something to offer the field naturalist. If you are interested in flowers then there is usually no shortage of members of the lily any iris families. Queen of Peru, freesia, sparaxis and ixias abound. If you are lucky you will also see remnants of local indigenous vegetation, chocolate lilies, lemon beauty heads, milkmaids and orchids.

Most people go to a cemetery to visit a loved one or to find catch up on local or family history. Some cemeteries make the most of their history and provide good displays and signage. It is well worth a visit to the Smythesdale Cemetery where the locals have gone to a lot of effort to explain the history.

It is worth taking a closer look

You may have an interest in wrought or cast iron and there are numerous examples of a craft that is disappearing. Buildings may intrigue you and there are plenty to see and in various states of repair. Cemetery monuments are a whole topic on their own.

If you haven’t been tempted to have a closer look then perhaps the symbolism and language of the flowers hidden on the tombstones is what you need to see. It may be the anchors which the seafaring interests of the interred, or the ivy indicating friendship, or fern fronds for sincerity and sorrow. The torches, hourglass, shells, books, harps, oak leaves, all tell a story. Even the type of rose used be it a bud, or full blown may indicate the age of the occupant.

Flowers and leaves have special meaning

I have a particular interest in weeds and have found many that I have only previously seen in books, ones like Kickxia, Amsinckia a and Miner’s Lettuce. Oxalis purpurea is seen in nearly all cemeteries and is sometimes called cemetery oxalis.

If you are interested in lichens then you need go no further than a cemetery as the tombstones are an ideal surface for them to grow. Fungi may also be encountered, perhaps not the variety seen in the Wombat forest, but an interesting selection.

When it comes down to it wrought iron, angels and urns aside, cemeteries are really important place for the conservation of threatened flora and fauna species and communities. Cemeteries require careful management to protect rare remnants of vegetation. While some people won’t see beyond the grass and think it looks untidy, field naturalists will want to come back in spring to see the wildflowers.

Woorndoo Cemetery in the spring

Cemeteries are special places and it is up to the trustees and the local community to manage them to protect all the values. Further information about managing native vegetation in cemeteries may be found at

One response to “The Secret Life in Cemeteries

  1. Reblogged this on Orangecemeterydepartment's Blog and commented:
    A really nice post on life in the cemetery. A different point of view for most folks.

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