Jack Sim recently visited the city of Sydney, and explored the Necropolis that is Rookwood Cemetery, – it is literally the City of the Dead and has lived up to its name. Parts of the cemetery are wild, overgrown with a bizarre combination of bushland and exotic flowers, vines, trees and shrubs. Wildlife abounds. It has been the scene of sorrow, reunion, salvation, sadness, tragedy, violence, crime, murder and death.
Rookwood was created to accommodate a growing population, the old cemeteries of Sydney had filled up. It would be a great gothic theme park, designed to entertain the living and honour the dead.
In 1868, far from the city of Sydney (so property values were not affected) the new cemetery was opened to the public. The first burials took place in 1867; the first cremation in 1925. The “crem‟ as it is known is the oldest operating crematorium in Australia. The original cemetery was 200 acres, the cemetery today has grown to cover 699 acres (283 hectares). The remains of approximately a million people are either buried or held here.
Mausoleums, crypts and vaults dot the landscape. Grand gravestones and memorials of the rich and powerful sit side by side with more modest tombstones. Many have been damaged by more than a century of vandalism, neglect or decay.
One of these graves is the Frazer Vault – Built in 1894, this grand mausoleum dominates the Rookwood Necropolis. It once belonged to the Frazer family. The largest mausoleum in Rookwood, this vault was once the resting place of seven members of the Frazer family:
John – died 27 October 1884, aged 57 (founding father)
John – died 15 December 1878
Arthur Griffiths – died 8 November 1900
Sarah & Alice Mary – died 21 February 1901
Elizabeth – died 2 July 1914
They are no longer there.
It was commissioned by John Frazer prior to his death. Born in Ireland in 1824, Frazer immigrated with his brother and two sisters to Australia in 1842. In partnership with them, he built John Frazer & Co into one of Sydney’s biggest businesses.
Though John Frazer died relatively young, aged only 57, in 1884, he died very wealthy – the third richest man in the country, leaving an estate worth over 400,000 pounds.
Before his death he commissioned the building of an elaborate and theft-proof mausoleum to contain himself and his family for eternity – forever. It was never meant to be disturbed. In reality, it was to hold them all less than a century.
In 1974, Mr Mervin Manning, who was then the Manager of the Independent Cemetery here at Rookwood, received a bizarre telephone call at his office.
A funeral director requested permission to remove the coffins of the Frazer‟s from the vault. Apparently a distant relative of John Frazer wanted to have their remains cremated at the crematorium.
The undertaker was merely following the directions of the relative. Unable to believe that anyone would want to do such a thing, Merve decided to meet the person. The lady seemed nice enough – she was the great granddaughter of John Frazer – but determined to have her ancestors removed, no matter the cost.
A whole crew of people assembled on the day that the bodies were to be exhumed. It took a week for the experienced mason to dismantle each onyx sarcophagus. Each had been designed to never be opened after being sealed. Despite this, great care was taken to ensure that nothing was damaged. Mr Manning made the mason number each section in the hope one day maybe somebody would put them back together again.
When the first crypt lid came off a strange smell filled the room. It was not decay for the occupants had been dead for years. It was some kind of gas, perhaps methane. One by one, as each tomb was opened, the sweet smelling vapour, sealed for decades inside the stone vessels, drifted out.
The lady was adamant that every person was to be removed. Armed with records of who was buried there, each coffin had to be identified, opened and matched to the old registers.
When the lids were removed, the coffins inside were found to be in very good condition, but they discovered something unsettling.