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Jim’s Australiana Spot – 2UE - July 10, 2016

The Mortuary to Rookwood Cemetery Line

By 1860 Sydney’s population had expanded to the point where a general cemetery was needed. Two hundred acres were gazetted for the purpose in an area that was then beyond the existing suburbs, near Haslem’s Creek station on the railway line to Parramatta. This became Rookwood Cemetery.

A branch line into the centre of the cemetery was completed at the end of 1864 and funeral trains ran regularly from 1867. Leaving from the old Sydney station twice a day at 9.15am and 3.00pm, the funeral trains stopped just short of Haslem’s Creek station and backed along the branch line to the two cemetery platforms.

Having funerals operate from normal railway platforms at Sydney Central soon proved unsuitable. Funeral groups were forced to mix with commuters and a place was also needed to store coffins which arrived by train from the outer areas so, in 1869, the Colonial Architect, James Barnet designed two church-like sandstone buildings, one at the Sydney end, which became known as The Mortuary Station and the other at the cemetery.

The Mortuary Station still stands today between Central and Redfern Stations, which is quite close to the site of old Sydney Station near Regent and Devonshire Street. The building at the cemetery end was 38 metres by 16 metres and the arch was 17 metres high. The trains backed right in and coffins were unloaded inside the building, which was decorated with angels holding scrolls and trumpets to represent Judgement and Resurrection.

In the early Twentieth Century funeral trains were made up of six of the most basic carriages in operation at the time. Between Mortuary Station and Rookwood they could be flagged down at any station to pick up coffins and funeral groups. At Homebush there was a long stop for ticket collection from the living passengers. Coming back the trains again stopped at Homebush for tickets to be checked and to make a list of where people needed the train to stop on its journey back to Sydney.

In April, 1948 the last funeral train ran and the branch line was closed. Motor vehicles had made the service unnecessary and a new road was planned which cut the branch line and made it impractical to operate. In 1957 the building at the Rookwood end was purchased by the Anglican Church for the grand sum of  £100 and moved stone by stone to Canberra. It still stands as All Saints’ Church of England, in the suburb of Ainslie.

There used to be a couple of trains a day during the week, so you can see it was a pretty popular trip. The coffin carriage could hold up to thirty coffins and the passengers, first and second class, rode in the front of the train accompanied by the undertakers.

The trains also picked up at some of the stations on the way. When they reached Rookwood people would take their dear departed to where the freshly dug graves were waiting. The length of the grave side eulogy depended on how far the grave was from the station as the train ran to a strict timetable and it took time to get the coffins to the more distant parts of the cemetery. So, the further away the grave was, the shorter the service had to be. Otherwise, you’d miss the train back and be stuck out there among the ghosts until the next day.

When the motor hearses took over from the trains they had no use for the old sandstone chapel at Rookwood. In fact the branch line was disconnected when it was cut by a new road. As it was shaped like a church, the Anglicans bought it for the princely sum of a hundred pound, took it apart block by sandstone block, and rebuilt it at Ainsley where it’s now used as a church, All Saints Anglican Church.

In Newcastle the line that took people to Sandgate Cemetery didn’t close until about 1985 and in Newcastle there was a funeral tram that met the train as well.
Because the body was often laid out in the house, the undertaker also had to book the hearse tram, and here’s where the skill came into it. He had to make sure the coffin was carried down to the tram stop at just the right time. It wouldn’t do to be waiting too long on the roadside with a coffin, a bunch of mourners and a funeral director in a top hat. It was pretty poor form to be early and a disaster to be late. It was pretty uncomfortable in wet weather, too. The hearse tram had plumes on each of its corners and space for two or three coffins at the back, and the mourners rode in the front of the tram.

There are some great stories about the funeral trains. One time, this old lady’s coffin had been placed in the train when the undertaker was approached by her daughter. She explained that her mum had always wanted her to have her rings as a keepsake, but when they laid her out they had forgotten to remove them.

The undertaker told the daughter not to worry and, when he had seen that all the mourners were aboard, he hopped into the coffin car with a screwdriver. By the time the train reached the cemetery, he had retrieved the rings and nobody was any the wiser.

The daughter was very grateful. Even though everyone was sworn to secrecy, the word soon got around and that undertaker became a minor celebrity in his profession, he became a celebrity because he was the only person ever to ride in the coffin carriage of a funeral train with a return ticket!


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