Sydney's suburb of the dead

THE residents of Rookwood in Sydney might not know it but they are setting a shining example to the world of religious tolerance. Muslims, Jews, Christian Protestants and Catholics are all here together in an atmosphere of great peace.

Sadly, this wonderful example of ecumenism is possibly only being achieved because Rookwood's inhabitants are dead.

Rookwood Necropolis, 18km from Sydney's CBD is the world's biggest Victorian-era cemetery.

It covers 283 hectares, is bigger than many small towns and is in fact an official city suburb.

I hadn't even heard of it before a recent visit to Sydney and even if I had, it would not have been on my must-see and do list.

However, travel is all about serendipitous discoveries and what started as a mission in search of some of my husband's long-lost (and long deceased) Aussie rellies turned into a totally absorbing, if exhausting expedition.

Rookwood is so enormous that to attempt to explore it all without private transport means either you are super-fit or have not done your homework beforehand. We were definitely the latter but being reasonably fit we did, unlike the majority of those in Rookwood, make it out alive.

There were moments however, after discovering that Derek's rellies were inconveniently buried in the furthest corners of the cemetery, that he suggested it would save a lot of time and money if he simply collapsed on a convenient grave and quietly expired.

We'd gone to Rookwood on a hunch there were family members buried there and, after finding what we thought was the central office inquired about how to find certain graves.

"Are they Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Methodist, Lutheran, Quaker..." she started. Derek confessed he didn't know.

"You do realise," she said in a chiding manner "that there are seven offices in Rookwood for different denominations?" We confessed we did not.

"Were they buried or cremated?" No idea again.

Clearly sure now that she was dealing with a couple of Kiwi idiots, she gently pointed out on the Rockwood map how to find the Anglican and Catholic offices and offered to drive us to one of them.

We declined her offer, though later regretted it, not realising that we'd only made it a third of the way across the graveyard.

So far, we'd traversed the older section where 140 years had weathered some of the inscriptions almost into oblivion and where avenues of cypress and other trees lined the pathways that led up to St Michael the Archangel, one of nine chapels in the cemetery.

We'd also stumbled on the remains of the 1869 mortuary station - in the 19th century funeral parties regularly travelled to Rookwood by train.

Nearby through the trees we'd spotted what we'd first thought was another office but on closer inspection discovered a "street" of vaults, some made entirely of black glossy granite.

We'd reached the Independent churches office by way of the Holocaust shrine - there are 10 others in the necropolis including one commemorating the Armenian martyrs and one especially dedicated to stillborn babies and very young children, called the Circle of Love.

Derek now had to take a gamble as to whether we headed for the Anglican or the Catholic offices. Given the impressive number of children listed in the family records under his ancestors' names he opted for the Catholic office.

To reach it we passed the first one of three flower shops in Rookwood and found ourselves in the midst of a Greek funeral taking place at St Athanasius Chapel. Beautiful Greek Orthodox chants were being broadcast from the chapel and in the adjacent tombs mountains of floral tributes were piled up on the grave.

The memorials to the dead were rather more extravagant in this section - lamps flickered in special glass cases, banks of artificial flowers adorned the graves and photos of loved ones were inscribed on tombstones.

In the course of looking for the family ancestors from the less than exotic lands of Yorkshire we stumbled upon Syrian, Romanian, Belorussian, Lebanese, Chinese and Latvian sections and not far away was the newer Muslim cemetery.

It's estimated that up to a million people have been laid to rest here, more than 640,000 in marked graves and 230,000 in cremation plots.

By the time we'd found the long-lost relatives our feet were telling us we'd probably seen almost all of them. Our map indicated a cafe on the far side of the cemetery but we doubted we'd make it.

The flower shop sold ice creams but somehow it seemed inappropriate to be scoffing magnums while a Greek family was in mourning a matter of metres away.

Instead, we picked a few of the wild freesias and roses that grow among the graves (there are rare native plants and also roses lost to cultivation everywhere else growing in the necropolis) and laid them on the site of the unmarked grave of three of the youngest of the extended family who had died aged six, four and two.

There was much more we could have explored - the Victorian serpentine canal which is due for restoration, the intriguing sounding Rebecca at the Well, even the grave of the founder of the David Jones department story empire.

But it was time to leave before we joined him prematurely as the result of exhaustion.

Next time we'll take a car (but not, hopefully, a long black shiny one).

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