Friday, September 22, 2017

A Visit to Rookwood Necropolis

A Visit to a Sydney Cemetery

Image Sharn White ®

I recently visited Rookwood Necropolis in search of the grave of my great great uncle, George Morrison, who died as a five month old infant in 1882. Although I went armed with a map and information about the grave's location, I was unsuccessful in my search. Those of you who have been to Rookwood will be familiar with this beautiful cemetery's size and complexity. The kind staff at Rookwood have offered to mark the grave so I can find it on my next visit. I hope you enjoy my ramble through through the Old Presbyterian Section of Rookwood Cemetery. First though, let me introduce you to my wanderings with a brief history of how public cemeteries such as Rookwood Necropolis came about.

Traditionally, graveyards were located on consecrated ground - land owned by churches. Graves were usually close to a church on church owned land. The concept of public cemeteries was introduced to the world in the 19th century. This came about for several reasons. With increasing urbanisation and population shifts, church graveyards, often small in size, became overcrowded. This presented both logistical and sanitary concerns. The way death was regarded in a world which was experiencing an increasing transference from religious to secular beliefs, promoted an interest in new kinds of burial places. My 'Sydney Cemeteries, A Field Guide', [1] tells me that Sydney was at the forefront of the new cemetery design movement that swept across Britain, Europe and America.[2]

Sydney, in its early colonial days had few churches to house graveyards but still needed to bury the dead. Public land was set aside for burial sites although traditional church graveyards were established on consecrated ground as churches were built.[3]

St Mary's Islington. Image permission Siobhan Lawford ©

In the 19th century as death began to be viewed as with less morbidity and sometimes, less religiously, enthusiasm emerged in Britain and Europe with regard to creating well designed, public cemeteries. Historically, cemeteries or burial sites have had had more than one purpose. They are obviously places where the dead are buried, but they also serve a significant social function in societies. Cemeteries have always been places where people gather together to participate in  religious and social rituals and ceremonies.[4]

To enhance the social function of cemeteries, new designs determined that they be places for people to enjoy visiting - designed in orderly rows or circular patterns of graves, with walking paths and attractive garden surrounds. This idea of a place where people could pay respect to deceased loved ones while enjoying a stroll through gardens, was the concept behind Rookwood Necropolis which opened in 1867 in Sydney's west. This year it is Rookwood's 150 year anniversary.

The old Presbyterian Section at Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

The 200 acre site for Rookwood Cemetery, originally known as Haslem's Creek was chosen for its proximity to a railway station. The land was purchased by the New South Wales government in 1861 as the site for the Rookwood Necropolis. (Necropolis is the ancient Greek word meaning city of the dead).[5]

Mortuary Station, Rookwood Necropolis c 1865, NSW State Archives [6]

"Upon arrival at Haslem's Creek Necropolis, there is a railway siding about a quarter of a mile in length, which conveys the funeral trains right into the ground - to the Cemetery Mortuary, which is a handsome stone structure in the midst of the ground..."[7]

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

"Arriving at the Cemetery, the visitor at once sees that those in charge have succeeded in laying out the place so as to produce a very pleasing effect."[8]

Rookwood Necropolis,  Image Sharn White ©

Here he might lie on fern or withered heath,
While from the singing lark (that sings unseen
The minstrelsy that solitude loves best),
And from the sun, and from the breezy air,
Sweet influences trembled o'er his frame ;
And he, with many feelings, many thoughts,
Made up a meditative joy, and found
Religious meanings in the forms of Nature !
And so, his senses gradually wrapt
In a half sleep, he dreams of better worlds,
And dreaming hears thee still, O singing lark,
That singest like an angel in the clouds ![9]

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

Of such as, wandering near her ancient solitary reign,
beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid...[10]

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

'There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight...'[11] 

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
---Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.[12]

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

The Presbyterian section of Rookwood Necropolis is in one of the oldest parts of the cemetery. Many of the headstones have not survived. The headstones of Joseph LOVE and Jane and Gavin SCOULAR stand proudly among the spring flowers.  

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©
Other headstones have not fared well, lying almost forgotten, like paving stones in the ground. 

Rookwood Necroplis, Image Sharn White ©

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth now.[13]

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

'Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er read...'[14]

Rookwood Necropolis, Image Sharn White ©

Rookwood Necropolis is well worth a visit. Events such as a recent Sculpture Walk and the 150th anniversary Open Day 24 September 2017, are an excellent way to familiarise yourself with this wonderful garden Necropolis. Events are listed on the Rookwood Necropolis website. 


1. Lisa Murray, Sydney Cemeteries, A Field Guide, University of New South Wales
    Press Ltd, 2006. p. 20.
2.Lisa Murray, Sydney Cemeteries, A Field Guide, p. 20.
3. Sydney's Historic Cemeteries,
    accessed 22 September 2017.
4. Cemeteries and Cemetery Reform, 
    22 September 2017.
5. Wikipedia, Necropolis, accessed 20 September 2017.
6. Photograph, Mortuary Station, Rookwood Necropolis, circa 1865, NSW State Archives,
7. Australian Town and Country, The Sydney Necropolis - Haslem's Creek, 9 December 1872, p. 20., 
    National Library of Australia, Trove,
    22 September 2017.
8. Australian Town and Country, The Sydney Necropolis - Haslem's Creek, 9 December 1872, p. 20., 
    National Library of Australia, Trove,
   September 2017. 
9. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fears in Solitude
    accessed 20 September 2017.
10. Thomas Gray, (1716- 71), "Eligy, Written in a Country Church-yard", 18th Century Prose and 
    Poetry, Rachel Cook, accessed 20 
    September 2017.
11. Robert Frost, Home Buriel, Poetry Foundation,
12. William Wordsworth, She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, 
    20 September 2017.
13. William Shakespeare, Sonnet II, Open Source Shakespeare, 
    accessed 22 September 2017.
14. William Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXXI, Open Source Shakespeare, 
    accessed 22 September 2017.


  1. You are the sources Queen. Good on you!!

  2. Thanks for this great information Sharn. I have an ancestor there and hope to get there one day

  3. Really enjoyed your wander. Beautiful photos. Hope you find the grave your GG uncle

  4. I found my self walking with you - I well remember trying to find the grave of my great grandmother in the 80s. The sun was baking us and after over an hour or more wandering we eventually found it overgrown with a small forest of saplings. She had no headstone as it was a pauper's grave but thanks to a nearby headstone we figured out which was hers. My father and I wanted to put a headstone on it but it was going to cost $1000 to buy the plot before we even started. We were than able to re-use the grave which didn't really appeal so we opted to place a memorial on the grave of her husband in Victoria instead. It was a double plot and obviously was where she had intended to be. You have reminded me though that I must go back again.

  5. Enjoyed this Sharn. Very interesting.

  6. Loved wandering through with you... looking forward to reading more on this blog.

    1. This changed as I was writing my comment, much nicer and brighter .. perfect for you.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Apologies, incorrect link...

    I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thank you, Chris