I imagine for everyone there’s a place where the air compresses with the weight of collected memory. A street or suburb or dirt track where a child’s eyes saw the days go by, horribly long, frustratingly swift. For me those places lie in Burwood and Strathfield.
Driving through those streets that I no longer know, trying to get to Rookwood cemetery – blocked off by highways new to me but probably 20 years old – I find myself driving down the street where I lived until I was 10. I didn’t intend to drive down there, through that storm of tiny long-gone moments. The drivers around me knew the streets better, knew when to take the inside lane, when to slow for a turn, but they didn’t know the landscape as I did. I saw a place invisible to them. I could barely see what was there, my eyes expecting children on their bikes and scooters, our old fence, our tiny Morris Minor in the driveway, the white stucco on the house that, unaccountably, I hated. And yes, the street is narrower, the houses smaller, all the dimensions of the place are reduced.
The cemetery is also changed, so neat and trimmed. I remember a wild place, of fallen headstones and rampant grasses, a place I would reach by bike to ride around and feel the emptiness. Now it is tamed and signposted, the roads all smooth and the various denominations carefully separate. I drive past a sign indicating the War Graves section, then the Muslim section, where large shrubs and small trees turn a cemetery into a garden. Three men with clipped beards walk back to a car. Paying their respects. My turn-off comes soon after, and I have to find the right set of people in this sombre time, where gatherings of mourners mill around with heavy, soft faces.
Historically, the dead don’t rest in peace in Sydney. The first cemetery that we know of was created in 1792.
In the early days of Sydney’s settlement, most European settlers died and were buried within a mile of their place of arrival. The exact location of these first burial grounds is unknown. The large number of deaths after the arrival of the second fleet in 1790 made finding a suitable site at a distance from the settlement a matter of urgency.
The site chosen, at the corner of George and Druitt Streets, was used between 1792 and 1820. In 1869 when that site was required for the new Town Hall, the remains of those whose graves were uncovered by construction were transferred to Rookwood. Subsequent excavation around the Town Hall has revealed that this exercise was far from thorough, with the discovery of many more tombstones, graves, coffins and skeletons.[i]
When the Old Burial Ground was closed, the Devonshire Street cemetery was established, but this in turn was officially closed in 1888 so that the main train terminus could be extended from Redfern to Central. Relatives were informed that they could move the remains of their loved ones to a place of their choosing. The unclaimed bodies, and their headstones, were removed to Botany Bay in 1901. But again, not every grave was relocated and last week the entire country heard of the discovery of bones – believed to be from the old Devonshire Street cemetery – during excavation work for the ill-fated Sydney light rail project.