Rookwood Cemetery: the last prayer

Rookwood cemetery

Why do we sweat the small stuff? We grumble and complain our way through the list of things we don’t agree with, capriciously casting opinions and rationalising the let downs. We are fierce protectors of our sensitivities and sometimes I wonder if harmony comes naturally at all. But time waters it all down and I for one, hardly remember the detail of many a life changing moment. When we’re all going to one day lay silent in the ground, why do not laugh through life and take it all a little less seriously? The first of many thoughts I kept mulling over as we wandered through the scattered headstones at Rookwood Cemetery. An entire life, every word, every touch, every wild moment, etched in the few letters of a name and surrendered to stone.

It’s good to visit the dead. Unless you’ve had the heartache of burying someone, there’s probably little reason to spend an afternoon walking through a cemetery. And yet, the cemetery at Rookwood in Sydney, is somewhat of an incredible experience, for the eyes and the spirit. From the glazed charcoal ornate Russian Orthodox headstones embedded with portraits and carefully placed beer bottles, to the old small crested headstones popping out of the grassy slopes, every cluster of graves is the story of generations. Thick granite blocks with Chinese family names in magenta, black and grey line the curve of the road opposite the names of those lost in war. Different lives, different deaths, living under the same sun and now laying under the same earth. 

In death there is quiet, a light hush in the breezy air and a sober respect. I wonder at how terrible we are at respecting life and often the people who create our world, and yet we step foot in a cemetery and we feel an ethereal sort of grace for all who have passed. And I think that’s beautiful; it makes the passing of life something honorable and pure. We have come from energy and like a whisper, we disappear, falling back into the energy of the universe. Stopping to read the inscriptions on mottled stone and standing in the middle of a stranger’s family history, I think that maybe life could be honored the same way. 

Remembrance wall

Rookwood Cemetery is the world’s largest operating cemetery from the Victorian era and the largest in the southern hemisphere. Right on the brink of Sydney’s western suburbs, 314 hectares of expansive garden grounds are the resting place for almost 1 million souls from all denominations. That in itself makes for moments of reflection and wonder. It was just over 200 years ago that the first burial ground in Sydney was established that would evolve into Rookwood Cemetery. Who could have imagined then, when Governor Macquarie set aside some land near the Colonial brickworks that prayers would one day be whispered for the Armenians, the Indochinese and Italians together? It’s hopeful and uplifting.

One patch of Victorian headstones, weathered by time and perhaps with no one left to care for them, have overgrown with tall grass and dandelions. Loose soil and wind have let them collapse against each other. With the smell of eucalypts all around and branches falling across the gravestones, I saw a small stone arch and though the date was hard to read, I saw the words “beloved” carved at the centre. Nothing may be known today about the woman laid to rest there, where she was born or how she died, but someone simply wanted her to be remembered forever for what she was most; loved. Seems to me that’s the last prayer for us all. 

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