Since I could walk, I have explored cemeteries across Australia with mum. We particularly like old cemeteries and those with points of difference like the one in Macedon, Victoria that has the most beautiful sculptor above the grave.
So when my Mum and Dad drove up from Melbourne to visit my family before flying off to Europe for the remainder of the year (some people have all the luck), I took the opportunity to the whisk mum off one afternoon to visit Rookwood cemetery. Miss N and I have visited a number of times already so knew just where to start our adventures.
Rookwood cemetery – www.rookwoodcemetery.com.au is phenomenal. It is the largest necropolis in the Southern Hemisphere and is sprawled across 286 hectares with over a million interments. There was no way we could see all of it in afternoon. In fact, after 3 hours I think we only explored 1/8 of it.
The Rookwood cemetery was established back in 1868 – young by world standards but quite old for an Australian site. From 1867 until 1948 it even had its own railway line with mortuary stations serving each of the three sections of the necropolis.
We drove to Rookwood Cemetery and parked just near St Michael the Archangel Catholic Chapel. We had discovered the Catholic Historic Walk Guide map which led us around the section, pointing out many of the marvels along the way. Don’t stress too much if you don’t have it on the day – there are little pointers across the site.
The Maher Cross is the largest grave site in the area and is quite imposing. Timothy Maher was a merchant and furniture maker during the 1850’s and 60’s. He ran Moore’s Labour Bazaar in Pitt Street, Sydney which was the largest furniture store across all the colonies during its time.
Constructed from Carrera marble, the cross was constructed over the family vault and indicated the morality and respectability of Maher’s work and thrift that made it possible. The detailed symbolism of Maher’s cross: the symbol of one of the Evangelists carved into each arm of the cross; the winged lion representing St Mark; an angels head symbolising St Matthew; a bull representing St Luke; the eagle representing St John and so on again affirmed his success. The sheer size needs to be seen to be believed.
The Serpentine Canal is an engineering feature well worth investigating. It has been extensively restored with a $90,000 grant by the Anglican Trust initiating the work.
Our next stop was the Vaults starting with a look at the McMahon family vault. Vaults intrigue me. At one time it was traditional for the dead to be embalmed and interred above the ground in these family owned constructions. Interestingly, the cemetery no longer sells vaults as they are running out of space, although existing vaults can be used by family members.
Being a Catholic area we came across vast lines of burial sites of fathers, sisters and brothers (priests, monks and nuns). They are clustered in orders with each gravestone the same as the one before. The majority of those buried were actually born overseas with Ireland, Italy and Poland being some of the more highly represented countries. Interestingly, some orders from far regional outposts such as Wagga Wagga. Mum and I wondered why they had been brought back to Sydney for burial.
The Italian Vaults remind me off the streets of some of the small towns I have visited around Italy. The provide shelved burial spaces within a family ‘house’. They are massive constructions of marble with beautiful inscriptions and photographs immortalising the deceased. The area seemed to be relatively new and we noted that they are frequently visited.
Our last stop was the Frazer Mausoleum which is the largest monument in Rookwood. Completed in 1894 for Irish immigrant John Frazer. He arrived in Australia with barely a coin to his name and went on to make John Frazer & Co. one of the most influential mercantile houses in Sydney. He died in 1884, leaving an estate of 405,000 pounds with his family putting some of the money towards the mausoleum.
A number of his family were also interred within the Mausoleum, but all of their remains were dis-interred and cremated in the not so distant past due to fears of vandalism. Frazer’s descendants donated the structure as a bird sanctuary and asked that the windows were removed to allow the birds access. Six months after the window were removed, the windows were boarded up to prevent vermin.
We walked around this structure taking images and looking at the gargoyles and other details before returning to our car for a drive around the rest of the cemetery. We quickly became lost and spent a good 30 minutes finding our way out! We promised to return again. The kids have asked if they can bring paper and charcoal next time to take some grave rubbings (we set ourselves the task of finding the oldest gravestone).