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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS -

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.

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