Have you met the Record and Archives team? They’re hidden amongst piles of old books and history, at both Springvale Botanical Cemetery and Melbourne General Cemetery. Their work is unique and engaging, however not widely known, quite like the stories they discover. Eva Rivera, Records & Archives Officer, and James Chalmers, Burial Research Analyst, sat down to discuss their roles and everything amazing about records, archives, and the history they hold.
Could you give us an overview of what you both do?
James: I investigate empty graves at Melbourne General Cemetery to see if they can be reclaimed and made available for sale. I’ll audit an area to see if, according to our records, any of the graves have no one in them. From there, I consult our records to build up a picture of the supposedly empty graves. I need to identify who the owner was and follow their family to find out who the current holder of right may be. I follow that trail by using a range of resources, but I’m ultimately trying to find someone alive without going down a big rabbit hole.
After that, I’ll do a site search and check for hazards such as monuments, tree roots, or anything that may make the grave unsalable. If I find the grave is empty, and no family comes forward saying they are a holder of right, that then moves to another department to be continued and finalised.
Eva: The team and I manage the record collections from all nine sites, which are quite different due to the varying ages. We’ve got some fabulous old ledger and books in our repository, and the original records are so interesting to flip through as you can glean so much information from them. One of our main focuses is retrievals and digitisation so that people in the organisation can use these resources.
On top of that, we manage deceased search enquiries as people email us with a range of questions. For instance, providing a location of a family member who has passed away and is interred at one of our sites, or an enquiry along the lines of ‘my grandmother had a baby sister, could you tell us what happened to her?’ They’re varied tasks and requests, but all fascinating in their own way.
What are some of the assumptions people have about your role?
Eva: That it’s really boring. People are shocked to hear that we have these original burial records and that there is so much joy in going through those books, discovering things. You really can fall down a rabbit hole of research.
James: Not really any… I guess they don’t have the chance to make assumptions about my role because they didn’t know a role like this existed. Although when I tell people I work at a cemetery, they tend to assume I’m a gravedigger without realising how much more there is to our organisation.
Is there anything about your job that surprised you?
James: Yes! As a genealogist, I never knew Melbourne General Cemetery records existed as they aren’t available online. I certainly didn’t realise the depth and breadth of the records that we had. When I saw the room we’ve got here at Melbourne General Cemetery that holds the records, I was really surprised. It’s an absolute gold mine for family historians, however, there are only a few of us that knows it exists.
Eva: We’re in the process of digitising these records, which is a long process, but they will become accessible for use within SMCT. Nothing beats looking at the original copy though as it’s a wealth of information.