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Between the Living and the Dead

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill, Member for Coogee on November 6, 2020 in Other

Henry Lawson’s funeral at Waverley Cemetery September 4, 1922. Photo: Banjo Patterson

As the weather improves, we are reminded daily of the changing of seasons. Be it the Jewish Day of Atonement Yom Kippur, the Christians’ All Saints Day, the Hindu Five Days of Diwali, The Prophet’s Birthday or Halloween, we are entering that period of the year when reflection about spirituality and death are particularly nurtured. Geographically speaking, we are well situated to contemplate the afterlife. Few areas have the preponderance of cemeteries that we see here in the East.
In addition to several small church-based graveyards like the one at St Jude’s in Randwick, the state electorate of Coogee is home to two substantial historic cemeteries: Waverley Cemetery to the north and Randwick Cemetery to the south. Both have operated since the 1870s and are home to many historic graves including those of Henry Kendall, Henry Lawson, Dorothea Mackellar and Sir John See, as well as magnificent memorials such as the Irish Monument, the world’s largest memorial to the Irish Rebellion against English rule in 1798. Randwick Cemetery is the earliest multi-denominational burial ground in the area and one of the earliest, longest running and most intact in Australia. Both cemeteries are protected with a listing of heritage significance in their respective Local Environmental Plans (LEPs) and Waverley is also listed on the State Heritage Register.
The 16-hectare Waverley Cemetery is very much larger than the 3.5-hectare Randwick burial site, and Waverley still has sites to sell whereas burials in Randwick are limited to those who already have purchased burial rights. Both cemeteries offer access to relatively open space free from over-development and with amazing views. Were it not for the dead, the living would surely have even less open public space! Community support to maintain these spaces has been strong and effective.
Waverley Cemetery also offers a beautiful coastal walk, nice seats from which to whale watch and observe the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, and a great place to exercise. There is a certain juxtaposition in such a large graveyard not only being such a popular exercise spot, but also overlooking our nippers and all the other water activities that go on below. I’ve been told that many people choose to be buried here for the reason that it is so beautiful and alive.
The opportunity to travel back in history by observing and learning about our cemeteries is very special. Last year I joined a tour conducted by a volunteer from the Waverley Cemetery Historical Society. As we visited various graves, he told us their stories and when the grave belonged to a poet he recited some of the dead’s own poems. Thank you Doug and all of those wonderful volunteers who keep our history alive, especially for acknowledging “Wee Davey”, who was a very young unnamed and unclaimed boy killed in a horse and cart accident in 1878. The driver was so moved that he purchased the allotment, gave the little boy a name and paid for a funeral – a beautiful story.
We all have personal associations with specific cemeteries. For my mum and her siblings growing up in Clovelly, the cemetery fence, which their dad had painted, was a source of great pride. For my nieces, the focus of their interest as we walk under the grand fig trees in Chesterfield Parade leading up to the gates of Waverley Cemetery is on Halloween, which the residents of that street do so fabulously each year.
What a wonderful place we live in, where life and death, rest and exercise, fun and sorrow can all so easily co-exist!