Hawthorne Avenue, Rookwood, New South Wales 2141, Australia
Size: 777 acres
Number of interments: more than 1 million
In 1862, the government of New South Wales purchased 200 acres of the Hyde Park Estate, owned by Mr. Edward Cohen, near the village of Haslam’s Creek for the site of a new cemetery. Once the necropolis was dedicated, burials began in January 1867. This year, Rookwood Necropolis is celebrating its sesquicentennial.
Nearly 10 miles outside of Sydney’s business district, the original cemetery was designed with divisions for Roman Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Jewish, and Independent congregations. Each section was sized based on the denomination’s number of adherents in the 1861 census. That original 200-acre cemetery is now only the northwestern corner of this enormous cemetery. The Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Independent, General, and Catholic Cemeteries all have curvilinear layouts, while the Anglican Cemetery is based on a grid.
The original 200-acre cemetery lay along the rail line from Sydney to Parramatta. A spur was built to carry funeral trains into the cemetery to stations serving Anglicans, Catholics, and nonbelievers. The first funeral train ran in April 1864. Train service ended in 1848.
In 1878-9, 577 acres were added to the cemetery. At 777 acres, the Rookwood Necropolis is the largest graveyard in the Southern Hemisphere. More than a million people have been buried or cremated there. A whopping one million epitaphs have been recorded on 600,000 graves and 200,000 crematorium niches. In fact, although it wasn’t the first crematorium in Australia, Rookwood’s Spanish Mission-style crematorium is the oldest that continues to operate. It opened in 1925.
The necropolis is so large that “vistas came be found within it that are completely contained within the cemetery landscape, providing an aesthetic retreat for the senses of the viewer,” according to its National Trust listing. When it was added to the National Trust of Australia (NSW) in 1988, Rookwood was commended for being a “comprehensive and tangible manifestation of the social history of Sydney, documenting the cultural and religious diversity of the Australian community since 1867.” Rookwood serves over 90 culturally diverse communities, also displaying Australia’s diversity of religious beliefs and burial practices in its monuments and memorials.
The National Trust listing goes on to note that “the progressive layering, development, and diversity of styles of memorialization document the conceptual move away from the 19th century perception of death and dying to the more rationalist view prevailing at the present time.” The Friends of Rookwood offer several tours that point out historical points of interest, including some twilight tours. I’ll link to the 2017 tour schedule below.
More recently, Rookwood acknowledged that the Dharug people—part of the oldest continuous culture in the world—are the traditional custodians of their land.
The largest public open space within urban Sydney, Rookwood serves as a haven for birds and native fauna, including 19 species of frogs and reptiles. In addition to native brushtail possums and grey-headed flying foxes, the cemetery hosts colonies of imported rabbits, hares, and foxes. Several species of cuckoos and honeyeaters breed in the cemetery trees. A large spectrum of birds migrate through. The cemetery also provides habitat for two endangered plant species: the downy wattle and the small-leaved Dillwynia.
Buried here are Peter Dawson, a singer and composer who became famous as a gramophone recording artist; Louisa Lawson, a suffragette who owned a newspaper and wrote poetry and short stories; John Fairfax, who emigrated from England with five pounds and later purchased the Sydney Herald; and Roy Rene, who performed as Australia’s most popular vaudeville star Mo McCackie.
Rookwood has a large War Graves area, some of which commemorates the Australian landing at Gallipoli during World War I. Many of the graves are cenotaphs in memory of soldiers buried in Europe or whose bodies were never recovered. The cemetery has a thoughtful video on their website.
150th anniversary events
Friends of Rookwood walking tours
An illustrated history of Rookwood
Harry Houdini’s visit to Rookwood’s spiritualist graves
A paperback copy of The Sleeping City: The Story of Rookwood Necropolis edited by David A. Weston is available on Amazon for a whole lot of money. I got a hard cover copy via ebay for much less.