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Food for thought at Melbourne General Cemetery

Photo of Melbourne General Cemetery by Canley via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Canley via Wikimedia Commons

Prominent restaurateurs, café owners, vignerons and merchants laid to rest at Melbourne General Cemetery have inspired a foodie tour taking place at the necropolis this week (April 7).

Foodies will pause at notable grave sites to taste the signature dishes of the city’s legendary eateries, which are being re-created by Allan Koh, the head chef of Springvale Botanical Cemetery’s Cafe Vita et flores.

With Italian music playing in the background, guests on the $123-a-head tour which is part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2017, will pay homage to those who helped Melbourne become the gastronomic haven it is today, including the family behind one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Florentino.

Wine merchant Samuel Wynn, who opened his first shop selling ‘colonial wine’ on Bourke Street in 1918 is also among the city’s leading hospitality industry lights buried at Melbourne General Cemetery. Wynn was behind the café Denat, which was taken over by Rinaldo Massoni in 1928, to become the celebrated Florentino, now owned by celebrity chef Guy Grossi.

Rinaldo died aged just 50 in 1941 after taking ill on the day of his wife Grace's funeral. He was buried at Melbourne General Cemetery and their son Leon carried on the business.

Photo by Alpha via Flickr

Philanthropist and restaurateur Antony Lucas died in Sydney, but was buried according to Greek Orthodox rites in Melbourne General Cemetery in 1946. He and his wife Margaret opened their first restaurant, the Town Hall Café in Swanston Street, Melbourne, in 1894. With a staff of 70, it accommodated an astonishing 650 diners. Its success led to the Lucases opening a further two restaurants in the city, the Paris Café and the Vienna Café, later the Café Australia.

Visitors on the food tour will also be able to pay their respects to celebrated restaurateur and cookery writer Mietta O’Donnell, Melbourne’s ‘Queen of Cuisine,’ who was laid to rest in the cemetery in 2001. In her eulogy, friend Wendy Harmer said: “If we understand that the soul is nurtured by good food and music, wonderful conversation with genuine friends and memories which touch the heart, then Mietta was a truly soulful person.”

Cemeteries as community spaces

In Victorian times, many urban cemeteries were laid out as relaxing spaces where people where could escape the hustle and bustle of city life, as well as pay their respects to the dead. Cultural events in cemeteries are still something that can create mixed feelings among the general public, however. The Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust "unreservedly" apologised to a family for a booking error delaying a family burial at Melbourne General Cemetery, on dates coinciding with the foodie tour. It stressed its number one priority was delivering the services required by grieving families.

Opened in 1853, Melbourne General Cemetery is one of eight cemeteries within the care of the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust and is the Trust’s oldest cemetery.

Still open for new burials and cremations today, including in its striking new mausoleum, the cemetery’s beautiful 43-hectare grounds were designed like a public park. Hosting regular guided night and full-moon tours, it is among other historic urban cemeteries around the world that have begun to be embraced as a space for the arts and other events where life and death are contemplated.

Queensland-based contemporary circus company Circa is behind Depart, an ethereal evening of dance, acrobatics and music that uses old cemeteries as its performance space. The show was first staged at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in London last year and is set to tour three further UK cemeteries in Hull, Blackpool and Brighton, this year.

Marking its 150th anniversary this year, Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery is calling for established and emerging artists to apply to take part in its ninth annual outdoor sculpture exhibition, Hidden (26 August – 24 September). Rookwood, which lays claim to being Australia’s oldest, largest and most multicultural cemetery, is still open for burial and cremations and conducts over 5,500 funeral ceremonies annually.

Photo by J Bar via Wikimedia Commons

This year it is looking to exhibit sculptures with themes reflecting the spirit of Rookwood, including history, culture, grief, loss and different cultural beliefs around burial and memorialisation.

Last spring, Adelaide’s biggest cemetery, Centennial Park, played host to La Vita, an exhibition that was part of the South Australian Living Artist Festival. Fittingly, it said that art in all its forms is a way to help express emotions that are hard to put into words, describing the exhibition as a means of facilitating moments of contemplation, conversation and reflection.

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