Help the city of our dead come to life
For 150 years Rookwood has sheltered the ghosts of Sydney's past. Next week it invites yout to meet them, writes Gilly Waddacor
IT may seem like a strange place to hold a party, here, in our “city of the dead”. Yet Rookwood Cemetery will do just that next Sunday when it holds a special open day to celebrate its 150th anniversary, a nod to its early days, a time when it was fashionable for families to take the train there, have a picnic and spend the day beside the grave of their lost loved ones. This is no ordinary cemetery. Amid its ornate marble and its crumbling, weather-beaten stone gravestones lurk the ghosts of Sydney’s past.
From Victorian-era paupers struck down by diseases that wiped out entire families to the landed gentry, the landscaped burial grounds of Rookwood, near Lidcombe in Sydney’s west, hold the remains of our dearly departed. Yet there is nothing morbid or eerie about it. It’s a tranquil place filled with birdsong and the overwhelming scent of flowers.
The epitaphs on the legible tombstones offer a fascinating insight into those whose bodies or ashes are interred there and a glimpse into the state’s evolving social history, although there are hundreds of tombstones whose inscriptions are so old and faded you can’t discern who lies there.
Scattered throughout the sprawling grounds are many unmarked graves, such as that of teen terrorist Farhad Jabar who in 2015 gunned down Parramatta police worker Curtis Cheng and in turn was shot dead by police, and some marked only by a simple, white, wooden cross.
It’s the final resting place of more than a million citizens of multiple nationalities and religious denominations.
Spanning 288ha, Rookwood is the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere and one of the world’s most multicultural burial grounds. To put that in perspective, Centennial Park covers 189ha. The site was consecrated in 1867 when the 79-year-old colony outgrew its two cemeteries near today’s Central Station and where Sydney Town Hall stands.
Originally known as Haslams Creek cemetery, the opening of Rookwood 150 years ago coincided with the closure of Devonshire St cemetery,
which was sandwiched between Eddy Ave and Elizabeth, Chalmers and Devonshire streets on the “town’s fringes” and had reached its capacity by 1860.
The valuable town land was needed by the living and a new resting place for Sydney’s dead had to be found. It soon became known as The Necropolis, ancient Greek for the city of the dead, or the sleeping city.
Local residents lobbied officials to have their village’s name changed from Haslams Creek due to its association with the cemetery so, in 1879, the necropolis was renamed Rookwood (believed to be a play on the English cemetery Brookwood), with the nearby village named Lidcombe.
According to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the design features, use of plants, layout, high quality and diversity of structures, monuments and details of Rookwood Necropolis are a rare surviving example of mid to late 19th-century ideals for a major public cemetery.
The four mortuary stations that once served Rookwood no longer exist and the rail spur closed in 1948.
However, the old mortuary station on Regent St, Chippendale, from where trains would depart with their cargo of coffins and mourners still stands.
The heritage agency said Rookwood’s memorials form a set of monumental masonry without parallel in Australia.
“They … are unique in themselves. Others represent changes in social burial customs since 1867. The monumental masonry and … cast and wrought ironwork are fine examples of craft processes and reflect (evolving) social attitudes to death and fashions in funerary ornamentations.”
It has one of the world’s largest collections of funerary monuments predating World War 1 and houses more than a million epitaphs recorded on 800,000 graves and 200,000 crematoria niches.
“It also demonstrates a wide diversity in burial practices and religious beliefs,” the agency said.
“As a social document and genealogical resource, Rookwood Necropolis is unique in its scale and comprehensiveness. The necropolis is the burial place of a large number of noteworthy individuals.”
Among those notable citizens are founders of retail outlets such as Bing Lee, David Jones, John Gowing and Anthony Hordern II; Chinese-born, 19th-century merchante and philanthropist Mei Quong Tart; and two former premiers, Jack “JT” Lang and Joseph Cahill.
Many First Fleet convicts and early settlers were exhumed from the old town cemeteries and reinterred at Rookwood when Central Station was built.
But it’s the ordinary, everyday lives lost that bring tears to your eyes as you move among the graves — teenagers taken tragically, children who succumbed to disease.
The Circle of Love is a shrine dedicated to stillborn children or those who died in young infancy.
Rookwood also contains a number of memorial shrines, including those dedicated to victims of the Holocaust.
Next Sunday’s open day will run from 10am to 3pm. Activities will include tours of the crematoria and mausoleum, horse-drawn hearses, grave digging and embalming demonstrations, stone masonry demonstrations, family history research, live entertainment, food stalls, the hidden sculpture walk and children’s activities.
A historic image of the No. 1 train station at Rookwood Cemetery. The Presbyterian section at Rookwood Cemetery
hosts some wonderful sandstone monuments.
Some of the sights on the Hidden Sculpture Walk.