Melbourne historic cemeteries are a quiet, peaceful exercise option during lockdown

On a sunny day in lockdown, Melbourne's parks, gardens and bay shores are packed with people getting their two hours' exercise with a stroll. Sometimes it can feel as if it's peak hour for pedestrians.

Not so in Melbourne General Cemetery with its entrance off College Crescent in Parkville. Its quiet curving laneways, winding between a forest of Victorian-era memorial pillars, were trodden by only a few on Thursday afternoon. But who decides to walk in a cemetery, and why?

"This is our first time here, as a change of scene," said Anita Maslov, walking with Joe Baker and Staffy-cross dog Babylon. "We've been going to Royal Park otherwise. It's great, so peaceful. I think it's quite meditative."

"I love graveyards," added Baker. "It's visually stunning, isn't it? It's not one of your really old English graveyards, but there's some really cool stuff in it."

Opened in 1853, Melbourne General is the final resting place of many of the city's notable citizens. To the right of the elegant entrance gates is the Prime Ministers' Memorial Garden, in which lie the remains of Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Gorton, with a memorial to Harold Holt.

Stepping out of this calm shaded space into the cemetery proper, the walker enters a high-Victorian world of funerary art, with pillars and gravestones shaded by occasional trees. In the tradition of the era, it was designed to be a public park, with pavilions to allow strollers to rest.

"It's been a privilege to provide a healing sanctuary to those living within our five kilometre radius. Our local community knows they are always welcome here, to exercise, walk the dog, cycle, and recharge during this challenging time," said Jane Grover, chief executive of Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust which manages Melbourne General and eight other locations.

"We have 422 acres (170 hectares) of spectacular parkland at Springvale Botanical Cemetery alone, uninterrupted water views of Lake Australis at Bunurong Memorial Park [in Dandenong South], and countless hidden paths to discover at Melbourne General Cemetery, just to name a few."

Another walker exploring those paths was Darren Salerno, walking with friend Andrew Dutton. "I think it's very peaceful and calming," he said. "Also interesting. We look for the graves of the Underbelly guys, they're all here, and Walter Lindrum's – we love that one."

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Lindrum's grave is remarkable, being topped with a sized-down replica of a snooker table complete with cue and balls. Not far away is the Elvis Presley Memorial within an artificial stone grotto with succulent plants, a stone marker displaying photos of The King.

On a more sombre note, a vast 36-tonne granite monument pays homage to the explorers Burke and Wills who died on their return trek after crossing the continent. John King, the only man to survive that expedition, lies more modestly some distance away.

Rather than being grim, the atmosphere in the cemetery seems serene and contemplative, far away from the angst caused by COVID-19 in the living world. Though walking in a cemetery is, understandably, not for everyone.

"I've brought a couple of friends here, and they weren't into it," said Dutton. "They were like 'Are you serious, you've brought us to a cemetery?'"

Melbourne General Cemetery is at College Crescent, Parkville. See smct.org.au 

More Melbourne cemetery walks

St Kilda Cemetery. In St Kilda East, this cemetery opened in 1855 and is steeped in colonial-era history. Among those laid to rest are Australian prime minster Alfred Deakin; Victoria Cross recipient Albert Jacka; Christina McPherson, who helped Banjo Patterson compose Waltzing Matilda; Tilly Ashton, founder of Melbourne's Braille Library; the marvellously named Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens; and the notorious Caroline Hodgson, otherwise known as brothel owner Madame Brussels. See smct.org.au

Boroondara General Cemetery. Opened in Kew in 1855, this cemetery is notable for its grand examples of Victorian-era funerary art. Look out for the much-praised Springthorpe Memorial, the Cussen Memorial, and the Syme Memorial – linked with David Syme, a dynamic early editor of The Age who was buried here in 1908. Other notables at peace include the marvellous EW Cole, eccentric owner of the famous Book Arcade; Dr Emma Constance Stone, Australia's first woman doctor; and colourful businessman John Wren, subject of Frank Hardy's popular novel Power Without Glory. See kewcemetery.com.au 

Footscray General Cemetery. To the west of Yarraville, this atmospheric layout of gravestones and palm trees opened in 1869. Among its notable figures laid to rest are "bush poet" John Shaw Neilson, who worked as a labourer and drew his imagery from nature; orchid expert William Nicholls whose vast floral collection was bequeathed to the National Herbarium; and controversial novelist Ethel Stonehouse, who once claimed "I have only read three books in my life, and have written five". See gmct.com.au 

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