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sociologist’s perspective on Rookwood Cemetery

Gail Fields Sites and Scenes 1999

The design of Rookwood Necropolis and the style of monuments reflect the funerary customs of Sydney in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Necropolis was central to funerals at Rookwood until the 1920s. Horse-drawn hearses would leave the funeral parlour or home and go to Redfern Mortuary Station.

There was a whole set of social rules relating to funerals. This was known as mourning etiquette. There were rules for where carriages would drive in relation to the hearse – in front or behind. There were detailed rules for mourning dress. There were four stages of mourning which were indicated by how women dressed. Each stage of mourning had to be worn for a certain period of time. In this way, women were meant to be expressing their grief to the world.

Funerals were not the only cost involved when grieving. There was also the cost of the grave for burial, and the monument (if you could afford it). Just after the Necropolis opened, the Church of England section published a list of fees and charges. You can get an idea of how expensive it was to purchase a particular type of grave. There are different "classes" of graves. These were aimed at rich, middle, lower class, and poor people. However, everyone aspired to having an ornate grave.

Rookwood Necropolis has seen a big change in funerary customs in the twentieth century. This is because the many new cultural groups, which have migrated to Australia have brought their own traditions with them. The monuments at Rookwood Necropolis form a record of the ethnic and religious diversity of Australian society. In fact Rookwood caters for more than 80 different multicultural groups. The different cultural sections reflect various traditions and customs associated with death. There is even a general cemetery area set aside for those with no religious association or belief.

The largest section of the cemetery is the Anglican, and the second largest is Roman Catholic. The latest ethnic group to gain a portion of the cemetery is the Muslim community. Some of the religious and ethnic groups have their own chapels, such as the Greek Orthodox Chapel.

One of the more interesting features of the Catholic section is the area set aside for mausoleums. These days the term "family vaults" is generally used. They look like little "houses" and generally contain spaces for 12 coffins. They are expensive, ornate and beautifully kept. These family vaults are popular with the Italian Catholic community. Relatives are often seen on weekends changing the water and renewing flowers, or scrubbing the floors. Photographs of the deceased (or "residents") are attached to the walls outside. Family vaults are considered status symbols, and there is a degree of "show-off" involved.

The Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox communities also visit their graves regularly. In their areas you often see chairs and benches beside the graves. Visiting relatives use these seats when they visit. It is an intimate relationship with the dead, very different from the Anglo-Saxon idea.

Another colourful, and unusual ethnic group, are the gypsies buried at Rookwood. The red granite crosses, which mark their graves, are bedecked with flowers. Empty cans of soft drink – like Coca-Cola and Fanta – are left neatly on the grave as a sign of respect. This shows the grave has been visited and cared for.

Wandering around the Necropolis you get a good understanding of the diversity of cultures in our society. The stones are a link between the present and the past. The cemetery can help us to understand where the community has come from, and where we are going.

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