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stonemason’s perspective on Rookwood Cemetery

David Clark Sites and Scenes 1999

My name is David Clark. I am a tenth generation monumental mason. I can carve headstones and monuments. The art of the stonemason is passed down from generation to generation in the family. Just as it was traditional in England. But I’m not as skilled as the early craftsmen. This is what they call a "dying art".

My ancestor, Robert Clark, established his stoneyard beside Rookwood Necropolis in 1890. Before he set up his own business in 1890, he worked with a guy called Conroy, Ed Conroy. Robert Clark did all sorts of monumental work. He used marble, granite and sandstone for his headstones. His yard contained many examples of his work. Visitors could look at his work as they walked to the cemetery. Many examples of my ancestor’s work can be found in Rookwood Cemetery.

The golden age of the mason’s art came with the spread of wealth and literacy in the mid-nineteenth century. The plain, modest style of earlier tombstones was replaced by the more ornate, grand works of monumental masons.

Many of the monuments were finely carved, with lots of symbolism. You can see lots of symbolism when walking around Rookwood. Doves, ivy, urns. They all meant something to the Victorian people. Today people only really guess what they mean. Well, I can tell you a few. Anchors were for hope. Poppies represented sleep and remembrance. Angels were associated with heaven. The thistle, now, it was a symbol of national origin. Many Scottish people have a thistle carved on their headstone. Merv Manning – he was a manager in the Independent Cemetery at Rookwood. He could tell you more about symbolism

Like I said, this is a "dying art". The carving techniques have changed or been lost. My ancestor, Robert, he did everything by hand, cutting all the stone and the lettering for the inscription. Alby Duncan – he’s an old monumental mason – he could tell you more about the methods. The monuments reflect a high level of craftsmanship. Rookwood Necropolis has many fine examples of headstones, the best collection in Australia! It could never be replaced. The monuments reflect social attitudes to death and fashions in funerary ornamentation since 1867. Many of these monuments are of outstanding aesthetic quality.

Take, for example, the grave of John Ross Logan, is an outstanding example of how monumental masons adapted monuments to the requirements of individuals. A tram has been carved on this sandstone headstone to illustrate how Logan was accidentally killed.

There was a monument in the Roman Catholic section that was very ornate. It had lots of symbolism. Job Hanson carved it in marble. He had a big yard in Elizabeth Street. It was about double the size of my ancestor’s. He made many of the monuments in the late nineteenth century. Hanson won 1st prize at an exhibition for this monument. No-one could carve a monument like that today. And the symbolism, well... The cross is a symbol of faith. You’ve got the crown of righteousness, a symbol of Victory. Behind it are the sun’s rays. Now that probably represents a new day, like the Resurrection. The hand – the right hand of God – is pointing upwards to heaven. The hand is also holding some shamrocks. This is usually a symbol of national origin, indicating the deceased was Irish.

The draped urn on a pedestal was a common style of monument. The urn referred to the cinerary urn of the ancient Romans where cremated ashes were placed. The drapery symbolised mourning on the pedestal there are down turned torches. They symbolise a life extinguished. The wreath represented triumph over death.

Today no one has monuments like this. They all get shot into space. Well, I think it’s a shame really. Nothing can replace these monuments. They’re special. Very special .

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