Mortuary practices in Sydney

It’s dead easy to lose the plot,  Troy Lennon The Daily Telegraph December 28, 2010 1:13PM

Sydney Town Hall cemetary wall

Picture of Sydney Town Hall cemetary wall in 1842 (on left of picture), Source: The Daily Telegraph

IN A growing city, people need to find places to bury the increasing number of dead.

People in BringellyWallacia and Greendale fear their verdant region, part of Sydney‘s food bowl, may become a city of the dead as a result of the need to find new places for graves.

Ever since Sydney was established in 1788, the residents have tried to find the balance between life and death, making room to inter those who have died.

The Aboriginal inhabitants never established graveyards, preferring instead to bury their dead in mounds or at significant sites. In some cases the bodies were cremated, in others they were buried in soft earth, while on occasion the bodies would be put somewhere to dry out or decay and the remains would later be collected for ritual burial.

Related Coverage

When the Europeans blundered on to Aboriginal burial mounds they often destroyed them not realising what they were. Some people took to robbing the native graves to sell off the artefacts.

The 1789 smallpox epidemic among the Sydney Aborigines caused a breakdown in traditional burial practices and the job of burying the dead was often left to the Europeans, who buried them in places that had become customary burial grounds. At first European burial grounds were situated wherever the colonists saw fit or wherever was convenient.

The British custom mostly involved burying people in graveyards attached to a local church but there were no churches in the first years of the colony. The first official public European burial ground was established only in 1792, on George St on the site of what is today the Sydney Town Hall. The site was chosen by governor Arthur Phillip and Reverend Richard Johnson, primarily because it was then on the outskirts of the settlement.

In 1812 the original block set aside for the cemetery had to be extended as the population of the town grew. The ground was never officially consecrated, although that year there was also a land grant for the church of St Andrews. But development soon overtook the outlying cemetery and there were complaints from nearby shops and houses about the smell from the burial ground.

In 1820 the Old Burial Ground, as it became known, was officially closed and later a brick wall built around it to protect the gravestones from vandalism and desecration by wandering goats and cattle.

In 1818 a brick wall was built around part of the area known as the Brickfields (where colonists had once quarried clay for bricks) around what is today Central station.

In 1820 Sydneysiders began burying their dead at the Brickfields cemetery. By the 1840s this cemetery was also becoming full and in 1848 a private consortium of businessmen proposed buying up land in Newtown and establishing a new cemetery on a 4.8ha block.

The Camperdown Cemetery, as it was called, opened in 1849 and soon became the main cemetery for Sydney. It was here that some of the victims of the 1857 Dunbar shipwreck were buried. But by the 1860s even this large parcel of land was struggling to cope and in 1867 the creation of new grave plots was prohibited.

In 1948 parts of the cemetery were resumed and the bodies moved to make way for a car park.

In the 1860s the Old Burial Ground was selected as the site for a proposed Town Hall and land was purchased at an area around Haslem’s Creek to establish a new necropolis. Records of where all of the bodies were buried at the Old Burial Ground were badly kept and many graves remained, only to be discovered from time to time whenever renovations or other work was undertaken in the cellar of the town hall building.

When work began on Central station in the 1870s, bodies had to be moved from the Brickfields cemetery. They were also moved to Haslem’s Creek later renamed Rookwood. Rookwood had its own designated railway line, at each end of which was a station. The Mortuary Station, or Regent St Station near Central, still exists as a reminder of the need to take our dead out beyond the city.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s