Rookwood Cemetery: Haunting Ground of the Living

Just over 10 miles west of modern Sydney, its iconic harbor and bustling city is another city: a Necropolis, literally a City of the Dead, called Rookwood. In order to cater to the needs of the growing colony of New South Wales, It was established in a remote, sparsely populated site called Haslam’s Creek in 1867. Prior to British settlement, the area was the tribal lands of the Wangal people and an ancient aboriginal burial sites once dotted the area.

Over 700 acres of land was set aside, originally set out for nine denominations. By the 1890s, the cemetery had developed substantially; home numerous buildings including administrational, chapels, a crematorium, caretaker’s residence, sexton’s cottage and various utility facilities.

As the population of Sydney grew so did the importance of Rookwood. It would live up to its Grecian title; Necropolis; City of the Dead. Unlike Paris, that made its City of the Dead in its catacombs beneath its metropolis, Sydney had ample room to create one above ground in the sunshine. It became the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, with over one million people resting in peace, the largest still operating cemetery from the Victorian era in the world.

The cemetery was laid out as only the Victorians could, a combination of Capability Brown meets the Victorian cult of death. Its landscaping consisting of ecologically minded grids and corridors to provide connectivity to habitat for fauna along canals, streets and boundaries separating sections. A curving Serpentine Canal, ornate garden features with fountains, ponds and channels. Equipped with visitor amenities such as chapels and gazebos to shelter or picnic in, covered by ivy and surrounded by a mix of introduced and indigenous flora to make visiting the dead a pleasant day out.

A landscape designed to honor the dead contains some of the most beautiful handmade edifices; granite and sandstone headstones – vaults – crypts and chapels constructed with a masonry skill without parallel in Australia. Markers or repositories of the earthly remains of individuals, who helped carve a great nation out of untamed wilderness. Headstones record members of the First Fleet, bushrangers, artists, scientists, captains of industry, politicians alongside victims of accidents, fires and veterans of the American Civil War. In the old section, now wild and overgrown, are unmarked mass graves filled, with the victims of plague and pestilence. There are streets lined with ancient crypts containing complete families of the dead.

Rookwood also contains memorials dedicated to the fallen of World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam and a shrine to victims of the Holocaust. Also, there is a touching “Circle of Love” dedicated to aborted babies, stillborn or ones, who died as infants.

Image credit: keg2162/Flickr

Rookwood Asylum; way station of the pre-deceased.

Situated adjacent to the cemetery, Lidcombe Hospital has an unhappy past. In the past, it was known as Rookwood Asylum (1893-1913), Rookwood Asylum and State Hospital (1913-1927) and Lidcombe State Hospital and Home. Its rambling buildings had many incarnations and a legacy of darkness, that spilled over into the neighbouring cemetery.
Although attempts were made to treat inmates and patients humanely, they frequently failed. Conditions were grim, hope and happiness were an alien concepts for many committed there. Overlooking a massive wooded cemetery, picturesque gardens with a peaceful, otherworldly atmosphere offered the spirit of escape.

Rookwood Necropolis has a dark, macabre history. For over 100 years, it has been a site haunted, by both the living and the dead. However, a few places in Australia are culturally and historically as significant as Rookwood Necropolis, or as great a place of natural and man-made beauty.

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