Meet Adelaide Cemetery Volunteer, Artist And Engineer Zoe White

PHOTOGRAPHY: Daniel Purvis

Zoe White has been volunteering at South Australia’s oldest working cemetery for a little over a year-and-a-half. She dedicates her weekends to guiding tours and organising events on the West Terrace Cemetery’s beautiful grounds.

“I’d always loved the cemetery as a place to come and paint,” Zoe says.

“I’d come here if I wasn’t a volunteer.”

The cemetery is over 180 years old and home to more than 150,000 souls. That’s a lot of history to recall.

At first, Zoe worried about how much she was required to remember. Any concerns were very quickly brushed away by the incredible stories she learnt and re-tells. Drawing on her personal curiosities, her favourite tour focuses on the symbolism of history.

“It’s about the early colonists and famous Adelaide people such as the Bonython Family and the Kingstons,” she says.

“It also looks at ordinary people who have been buried here, too.  I think it’s very important to remember that it’s a place with people from all walks of life.”

Being part of the Friends of West Terrace Cemetery volunteer program has its perks.

“I’ve met some really awesome people and made some great friends out of coming here. I’ve learnt a lot about this place through them and I’ve grown to love it more. That just makes me want to keep coming back and sharing those stories with other people who come through.”

By day, the 30-year-old is an aircraft pavement engineer. She studied civil engineering at university and now works with an aviation group designing aircraft pavements and airfields.

“I always wanted to be an artist. I decided to study civil engineering after school because I thought visual arts probably wouldn’t be a good job to do straight away. I joined EHD [Civil Aviation Safety Authority] and got sent off to Katherine in the Northern Territory and did some work at the RAF base there.”

People generally think of cemeteries as a place of sadness and mourning. Zoe sees them as a beautiful place to draw inspiration for her artwork. Her paintings were part of SALA in 2017. She loves the way light interacts with the headstones.

One of Zoe’s paintings

“I really wanted to capture the light in the paintings here, and also the juxtaposition of the place. I wanted the paintings to be hyper-coloured and reflect the feeling it gave me as a place of beauty.”

She also sells her work on the side.

“I’ve got some friends who have family buried down on the peninsula and they want me to do some cemetery landscapes of their family gravesites, which is quite interesting.”

She is also painting a commissioned piece of a burial ground in England.

Approximately 50 burials occur at the state heritage listed cemetery each year. During tours, many questions revolve around what happens when you die.

The cemetery offers a collection of tours including night tours (every second Friday), twilight tours, day tours, and self-guided tours. Some incorporate a theatrical element. Actors tell the stories of characters buried onsite, one of whom is the Somerton man, an unidentified male found dead on Glenelg’s Somerton Beach in 1948.

Other points of interest are an olive grove (used to make olive oil available at Adelaide Central Market’s Jagger Fine Foods), and the gothic-style Smyth Memorial Chapel. New volunteers are welcomed with open arms.

“You don’t want this place to be forgotten.”

West Terrace Cemetery hosts a number of tours. For more information, visit the website

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