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landscape architect’s perspective on Rookwood Cemetery

Michael Lehany Sites and Scenes 1999

As the largest Victorian era cemetery in the world, Rookwood Necropolis demonstrates landscape planning and design on a large scale. The original section of Rookwood Necropolis is what is termed a garden cemetery. This type of design was popular in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in England and France. The original design incorporated many features of a formal garden – winding paths, fountains and ponds, rose gardens and other ornamental gardens, and summer houses. There were also avenues of trees and carriage turning circles.

The original 200 acres were designed with a central circle where the mortuary train pulled in, with each of the denominational sections radiating out from the circle. The Church of England had the largest area, followed by the Roman Catholic. There were also Jewish, Wesleyan (Methodist), Presbyterian, Independent, and General cemetery areas. A map dating from 1868 shows how each of the denominational areas was like a tear-drop in shape. Brick kerbing was used to mark the paths and garden beds. Trees were also planted to define paths, edges, and denominational areas. The extent of bridge edging and gutters along drives and paths is unique in a public landscape in NSW and reflects the social and political importance of the Necropolis at the time of its layout.

The cemetery employed gardeners to maintain the grounds. There was a nursery, where plants were grown and then planted in the cemetery. Charles Moore, the director of the Botanical Gardens in Sydney from 1847 to 1896, provided many of the plants which were introduced into the cemetery.

The Necropolis was, in effect, a new park for Sydney. The lavish landscaping encouraged the public to visit the grounds with beautifully laid out gardens. By the early twentieth century, the Necropolis had become a popular place to visit on Sundays. Indeed it rivalled the Botanic Gardens. The quaint drawing from The Illustrated Sydney News in 1875 showed couples promenading around the grounds. The accompanying article praised the development of the site: "The grounds are tastefully laid out with shrubs and parterres, divided by neatly-kept paths." Seats and shelters were provided to meet the needs of visitors. All the trees were labelled with botanical names for the information and education of visitors. Later on tea rooms were established in the cemetery, and it became a popular meeting spot on weekends.

One of the focal points of the landscaping is the Serpentine Canal. It is an open brick-lined drain, which, like a snake, weaves its way across the centre of the Church of England No.1 Cemetery. The Serpentine Canal is an engineering feat and technically very important. The drain runs through a series of ponds, decorated with urns, fountains and statues. Alongside the drain were ornamental gardens. These gardens featured plants such as camellias, magnolias, palms, and japonicas, as well as daffodils, jonquils, and freesias. The Serpentine Canal is crossed at regular intervals by cast iron and wrought iron bridges.

The plantings used were not simply pretty to look at. Many also had symbolic associations. It was common for burial plots to be planted with species symbolic of contemporary views on death. Evergreen conifers (pine trees) and cypress were symbols of immortality and the after-life. Roses were extremely popular in the nineteenth century and regarded as the "queen of the flowers". Roses, particularly red roses, are symbolic of love. Ivy was understood to symbolise remembrance.

The extensions of the cemetery show how cemetery design has evolved. The early landscaping of the cemetery, dating from the late nineteenth century, contrasts dramatically with the low-maintenance lawn cemeteries, memorial rose gardens and columbari of the late twentieth century. There was also a movement away from formal avenues of trees, to more informal arrangements of native trees and shrubs in the 1960s and 1970s. The gardens surrounding the crematorium however, mimic the formal design of the early part of the cemetery.

The cemetery also contains some patches of native vegetation, which provides an important habitat for native wildlife, particularly birds. These remnants are of great importance for scientific research and harbour many endangered species.

The rare native vegetation and birds, as well as the original landscaping with ornamental gardens are just some of the reasons why Rookwood Necropolis is so important and should be kept as.

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