Written by Lisa Murray, contemporary photos by Mark Dunn, published by NewSouth Publishing, Sydney 2016, 398 pages, illustrated, maps, glossary, bibliography, index, Dewey CR 929.1 SYD.
This review was originally published in the Royal Australian Historical Society’s History Magazine, No 132, June 2017, page 21
Launched in December 2016 to widespread acclaim and good reviews, the beautifully-presented Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide will be of interest to the general rambler as well as cemetery aficionados. Structured like a bird watcher’s or bushwalker’s guide, Lisa Murray presents cemeteries historic and contemporary in a way that should encourage their wider appreciation, as well as arm the graveyard champion with arguments to ward off rapacious property developers and to prod indifferent management bodies. The Guide is of a size that is easily hand-held, and well suited to the needs of the wayfarer with camera in hand.
The Guide covers 101 cemeteries in the County of Cumberland, occasionally straying into the county marches south and west of the Nepean-Hawkesbury River. The County is divided into nine regions for the Guide, each with a handy map and a ‘Top 5’ list, making it easy for a traveller to visit cemeteries in the vicinity of each other. It includes a glossary, notes on monumental design and symbolic meanings, bird watching sites, tips for nearby local attractions, and ‘notable burials’ in each cemetery. It is, in a sense, a specialised or themed 21st century Baedeker or Lonely Planet, and the evocative images in the Guide beautifully illustrate the diverse and often romantic character of Sydney’s cemetery estate.
Apart from the nine regional groupings, the Guide also contains five thematic essays that add to the appreciation of the cemetery rambler, seasoned or novice. One outlines the Gothic romance of the cemetery ideal, an essay that will appeal to all lovers of the Romantic and the ruin. The essay on symbolic gestures, or ‘reading’ the meanings of headstones and other cemetery decorations, is a perfect companion to the Gothic essay. Two other essays are more practical, one an itinerary of the various headstone shapes and styles, another explaining the business of monumental masonry. The final essay provides insights into the once fashionable modes of promenading in cemeteries, of remembrance ceremonies and of visiting gravesites as a pleasurable family or companionship ritual – practices, I suspect, the author hopes might be least better understood and appreciated, rather than derided as Victorian eccentricity.
Another theme that runs through the Guide is the awful but fashionable wave of ‘converting’ many historic cemeteries to parks during the mid-20th century, and the subsequent loss of large numbers of grave markers (some documented in the Guide). Sydney’s inventory of appealing, curious and thought-provoking headstones may now be less than it once was, despite huge population increases since 1945. The melancholy of the conversions rightfully pervades the Guide and prompts some pithy observations. It should serve as a warning to any future well-meaning but ultimately ‘anti-history’ attempts to impark any cemetery. Thankfully, the late and unlamented Conversion of Cemeteries Act 1974 was repealed in 2014.
Along with the Guide’s many fine points there some small criticisms. There is a paucity of heraldic references in the Guide, which may simply reflect a rarity of grave heraldry in Sydney, but I suspect it points to one of the effects of the so-called conversions. There could perhaps have been a little more attention to historic plantings in cemeteries (surviving as well as the known lost). I would also have liked to know a little more about why there are chapels in some general cemeteries. Perhaps the heritage listings (or their absence) for each cemetery could have been noted. A bound bookmark ribbon would be useful to the wanderer. Even so, these criticisms are minor notes to what is an otherwise readable, useful, aesthetically pleasing and highly desirable guidebook for the library or glove box or backpack of any cemetery rambler in this most historic of counties.
The Guide points to opportunities for local and specialist societies to develop similar guides in their areas of interest. The RAHS Library holds at least six cemetery studies undertaken by Dr Murray, and over 370 other cemetery publications, although most are transcriptions rather than guides for the visitor. The Guide, and any emulators, will encourage many more people to both see and better appreciate our cemetery’d heritage, and the beauty and inspiration cemeteries contribute to maintaining cohesive communities and evocative landscapes, especially in these times of great social change.