Publications – Sydney Cemeteries Field Guide
This is the first cemetery field guide to be published, covering 101 publicly accessible cemeteries in the Greater Sydney area. The full-colour book includes descriptions, histories, contemporary photographs, historic photographs and contextual historical essays on cemetery design, headstone design, monumental masons, funerary symbolism and cultural heritage of cemeteries.
“Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide” is a commercial book publication sharing the expert knowledge of public historian Dr Lisa Murray with the wider community about the history and heritage cemeteries around Sydney. Whether you are interested in family history, exploring lesser-known parts of Sydney or finding a beautiful spot for a picnic, this comprehensive, expert guide has something for you.
The manuscript was commissioned by NewSouth Publishing in 2015. The full-colour book was published in December 2016, launched at Camperdown Cemetery.
I love cemeteries. They are a heady mix of art, architecture, garden design, history and belief. Sydney’s cemeteries form beautiful open spaces – part garden, part outdoor sculpture park, part museum – that are a pleasure to wander around. There is much to admire in the skilled carving demonstrated on headstones in our cemeteries. The inscriptions record the names and dates, occupations and virtues of Sydneysiders. Together these monuments provide an invaluable social, literary and economic record of the district.
The cemetery gazetteer or field guide is an internationally popular format but has not been widely published in Australia. The National Trust of Australia (NSW) recognised the heritage values of cemeteries in the late-1970s and commenced a state-wide survey of burial grounds in 1981; Sydney was the first region completed. The National Trust has published a policy paper and conversation guidelines on cemeteries, but has never produced a guide or overview of Sydney’s cemeteries. There was a clear gap in the historiography and there is a wide market and readership for such a publication.
I have broad history and heritage knowledge of cemeteries. My doctoral thesis “Cemeteries in Nineteenth-Century New South Wales: Landscapes of Memory and Identity” (University of Sydney, 2001) was an administrative and cultural history of our cemeteries. I am the former Cemeteries Officer, National Trust (NSW) (1997 -2001), and have since volunteered on the National Trust Cemeteries Committee over the years, undertaking cemetery surveys across the state.
The National Trust (NSW)’s Cemetery Masterlist was the starting point for developing a list of publicly accessible cemeteries in the greater Sydney area. Each site was visited over the course of 12 months, with field notes and impressions being recorded and contemporary photographs taken for each site. A total of 1,937km was covered by car visiting all the cemeteries (in addition to some river time visiting Bar Island Cemetery). Due to the time constraints of producing the manuscript (12 months) each site was visited once, with one chance to capture the beauty and essence of each cemetery.
Research was undertaken at the State Library of NSW and the Society of Australian Genealogists, as well as online utilising digitised newspaper on Trove, for each cemetery, drawing upon the many cemetery transcriptions and histories recorded by family history societies. This book would not have been possibly without the extraordinary work and commitment by so many historical societies and family history groups to document our history and heritage of our cemeteries. The resources included at the end of each cemetery entry in the book point readers to where they can find out more about a particular cemetery. This list highlights the amazing contribution of these groups. These resources are also combined in a comprehensive bibliography which is published as a public Trove list: Sydney Cemeteries.
Composing a field guide has many methodological challenges. Only 101 cemeteries out of the 118 cemeteries, churchyards and lone headstones visited were included in the heritage guide. There were some ground rules for inclusion. It had to be publicly accessible; not on private property. It had to be a general cemetery or denominational cemetery; not a single headstone or headstones moved from elsewhere. It had to be within the Sydney metropolitan area; I used the Hawkesbury-Nepean River as my rough boundary for the Sydney basin. The bodies should still be there.
The fieldwork, research and writing was undertaken over a 12 month period. The manuscript was submitted to the publisher in March 2016 and the book was published in December 2016.
Each Sydney cemetery is unique and has its own charm. My understanding of the development of burial practices and funerary monuments has facilitated an informed analysis of Sydney’s cemeteries in regards to their uniqueness and characteristic qualities. For each cemetery in this field guide, I give a short description, overview history and point out some unique, rare or interesting features, such as design elements of the cemetery, outstanding grave furniture or unusual headstones. A date range for known burials is provided, and a handful of notable burials are listed. Cemetery transcriptions and other information for each cemetery is provided. I have also included tips for preparing for a visit, when guided tours by cemetery friends groups take place, and some suggestions about what else you can take in nearby.
The field guide is divided into nine regions, so you can explore an area and find cemeteries close by: East, South, Inner West and West, Parramatta, North, North West, Outer West, Hawkesbury and South West. The regions are colour coded on page tabs to assist with navigation through the guide. Maps for each region help illustrate the extent and included cemeteries. Within each region, cemeteries are clustered geographically so you can travel from one cemetery to the next.
Outstanding heritage values and cemetery features are celebrated in a series of top five lists, which provide an alternative thematic way to explore Sydney’s cemeteries: top five cemeteries for views; top five churchyards; top five for picnics; top five for birdwatching; top five floral displays; top five seraphs and angels; top five tools of trade and occupation headstones; and top five spelling mistakes on headstones.
Six essays punctuate the book and provide broader contextual history about the development of cemeteries and memorial design in Sydney. The ‘Introduction’ explains the different types of cemeteries and the government administration of cemeteries, as well as introducing the research methodology. ‘Gothic romance: the cemetery ideal in Sydney’ describes the evolution of cemetery design and the reason for the shift from churchyard to church cemeteries to general cemeteries. ‘What headstone is that?’ provides a simple guide to the different shapes and types of memorials you can encounter in cemeteries and encourages readers to learn how to describe them. A short essay on ‘Monumental masons’ depicts major trends in the design, material and production of memorials. ‘Symbolic gestures’ reveals the hidden meanings of headstones expressed through their ornamentation and symbolism. Visiting cemeteries was once considered fashionable. In the essay ‘A stroll in a cemetery’ I outline Sydney’s love affair with cemeteries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A glossary and bibliography of broader readings about the history of cemeteries, death and dying in Australia are included. Specific cemetery resources are listed with each entry and compiled together in a Trove list. The comprehensive index includes cemeteries, suburbs, people and subjects.
“Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide” has been written for a broad general audience. The tone is conversational, not academic, and the short entries for each site make the book easy for the reader to dip in and out. The book is lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs, making it appealing to a general audience. But in its compilation of histories, geographical focus and comparative information, the guide has also been structured to be a source for historical, biographical and genealogical research and a compendium for architectural historians, local historians, librarians and teachers.
The field guide has thus-far been well received and is garnering positive publicity that is promoting the history and heritage of cemeteries to a wide audience.
Contribution to the broader knowledge of heritage practice
I find it staggering how undervalued Sydney cemeteries are. This field guide aims to change that. I wrote this guide to share with readers the unique qualities of Sydney’s cemeteries. If you are not driven by family history to visit a cemetery, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start looking when you get to a cemetery. Each cemetery is presented to the reader as a chatty assessment of its qualities: the landscape, the memorials, the history. The idea is to encourage readers to get out and visit the cemeteries. Through the field guide people can discover how to ‘read’ cemetery memorials and the landscape, thereby increasing their enjoyment of cemeteries and their heritage values.
Through the text, readers learn about different conservation practices and maintenance regimes that have been applied to cemeteries over the years, including cemetery conversions and controlled overgrowth. It is mentioned if a cemetery is listed on the State Heritage Register. The book celebrates the extraordinary contribution of family history groups, historical societies and genealogists to the documentation of our cemeteries. Readers are encouraged to seek out their cemetery transcriptions. The book also actively promotes cemeteries friends groups and their tours, as well as self-guided tours that are available to the public.
The publicity cited above has raised the profile of the history and heritage of Sydney’s cemeteries to a wide, general audience. I am also making myself available throughout 2017 to speak (for free) to historical societies and family history groups to promote the book and encourage wider community engagement in the heritage of cemeteries. The conservation and maintenance of cemeteries is regularly raised in question time and this provides a good opportunity to discuss the challenges of maintaining our cemeteries. The importance of visiting our cemeteries is always emphasised as a key way to express the value in which we hold our cemeteries.
In addition to the book publication, I am writing a blog “Sydney Cemetery Adventures” <sydneycemeteryadventures.wordpress.com>. The blog is promoted in the book. The aim of the blog is to publish further research on cemeteries, individual memorials, and promote talks and podcasts available to the public. This allows continued community engagement with the project and for extra research and knowledge to be shared.
About the author
Dr Lisa Murray is a public historian and works as the City Historian at the City of Sydney Council. With over 15 years’ experience in the field of public history, Lisa is passionate about making history accessible to the public. Lisa is an award-winning author of planning histories and a regular contributor to debates around public history, including being a speaker at TEDxSydney 2013. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of cemeteries in 19th-century New South Wales and is a current member of the National Trust (NSW)’s Cemeteries Conservation Committee. Lisa’s profile and list of publications is available on Professional Historians Australia (NSW).
Worked on the project:
Author Lisa Murray. Published by NewSouth Publishing.
What the Judges said:
“An incredibly thorough gazetteer that you would want to have handy whenever you visit a cemetery in Sydney. As the author says cemeteries are ‘a heady mix of art, architecture, garden design, history and belief’ and this guide explores it all! A must have.”