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Magazine — 16.12.20

In Loving Memory: Beauty In A Sleeping City

The main train station in Australia’s biggest city stands as a link to the global city’s peers. It rests on the same land that was used as the city’s colonial cemetery, and every construction project over the last few decades has become temporarily halted in its tracks after finding the remnants of a disused cemetery. I learnt this on a commute to university in 2019, walking across the main concourse, existentially aware that the land I walked upon was once used as a cemetery.

In the mid-18th century when the cemetery became overly derelict it became clear that a solution was needed. In 1860, land was purchased on the edge of the city as it stood then, about a 20-minute train trip by today’s standards. As the city grew to accommodate the 5 million people that now call it home, the necropolis grew too. It now stands at 780 acres within the confines of Greater Sydney, a sleeping city that lives adjacent to the central business district, making up two halves of the city and its history.

Rookwood today is one of Sydney’s largest open spaces, separated from the built-up greys of Sydney by a wall and a mysterious aura of time and memory. Standing at the centre of the cemetery it is hard to even imagine the living world that surrounds it, the normal skyline hidden behind an overarching field of tombstones. Yet there’s no haunting emptiness, walking around feels calm and still in a way I didn’t expect. Walking amongst the graves that date back to 150 years, it is hard to imagine that the people buried here, who continue to exist within an ever changing city, once lived and walked the same routes I do. I couldn’t help but existentially consider the simultaneous permanence and temporality of the way Sydney is today, how it was yesterday and how it will be tomorrow.

Cemeteries are a unique place, not a site of tourism and picnics as they once were, yet still remaining a part of the city’s values. It holds onto the values of the deceased interred within and of mourners, of the city as a collective and of a city gone by.  Walking around feels strangely soothing, you become aware of the plurality of identities that have existed within Sydney. The identities of Sydneysiders have changed since colonisation, but here they are memorialised; a shrine to the individuals who may otherwise be forgotten in the growing city. The words inscribed, the languages written shared to strangers and mourners equally: ‘here is who we were’. Perhaps I’m just being dramatic, but walking amongst the sleeping city, with its mausoleum streets and road signs celebrating diverse religions, it sang out how the city has changed in a beautiful way.

A physical ode to the values shared through the city, what surprised me upon visiting was the interconnection of nature and heritage. The grave hidden in the northernmost section is the oldest, presumably seldom visited given their age and the generations passing gradually losing the oral history of those buried in the ground here. While the lonely graves seem sad, the beauty of these graves was found in their new value. The neglected gravestones masked in a skew of grass growing taller than some, the paths barely visible, a revival of the Native Grasses that existed here far before the lives memorialised. While this was something I presumed was a result of neglect, it became increasingly clear that the intention was actually revitalisation, by creating a space to presume native flora within the city. The coexisting of the natural and built environment in a unique site stood out to me, especially in a city like Sydney which tends to keep its buildings and its nature separate.

As I walked further south towards the homes of the newest residents in the sleeping city, the changing nature can be seen shifting again. The connection to the global community, the modernity, knowledge and growth are all made clear within the necropolis, interred alongside the people who established these values within the city. Rookwood Necropolis stands in a position within the city, it exists to mourn the city that has gone by, yet it is intrinsically part of Sydney as it rests today.

Issy Golding is a Sydney based writer, journalist and caramel slice enthusiast. She writes mainly on Australian politics, gender issues and surrealist poetry. She loves hanging out with her dogs by the beach and walking through independent bookstores.


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