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When the earliest European settlers in Sydney died, they were most often buried within a mile of their place of arrival. As the number of deaths rose after the arrival of the second fleet, a suitable cemetery site was needed at a distance from the settlement.
"At the establishment of the Colony for a long time no piece of ground was set apart for a Burial place. Persons buried their dead in one place and some in another... Prisoners who had no friends were buried without coffins.... Rev. Samuel Marsden, letter to Archdeacon Scott, November 1827.
Around Sydney, Indigenous Australians followed traditional burial practices until the 1820s. Some people were buried, and others were cremated and then buried. Several burial places were identified by Governor Phillip soon after the arrival of the first fleet.
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.
In September 1792 a public cemetery was established at Cathedral Close, now the site of Sydney's Town Hall. Most people who died in Sydney Town were buried here - convicts as well as prominent citizens. The Old Burial Ground was officially closed in 1820, and a cemetery was established at the Brickfields, and commonly known as the Sandhills or Devonshire Street Cemetery. It is now the location of Central Railway Station. By the early 1840s it was clear Sydney had outgrown this cemetery also. Not until 1862 was land purchased at Haslem's Creek, for what became known as the Rookwood Necropolis.
The Old Burial Ground
In 1869 most of the Old Burial Ground site was cleared to prepare for the building of the Town Hall, and some remains were re-interred at Rookwood Necropolis. Only a handful of headstones from the Old Burial Ground survive. Since then, coffins and remains have been discovered on this site during various building works. In 1991, four coffins and a headstone were discovered during restoration work on the Town Hall.
The grandest of Australia's nineteenth century garden cemeteries, the Necropolis ('city of the dead') was a popular site for recreation. In 1861 the Acting Surveyor-General had suggested that 'the spot chosen should be capable of being cultured and beautiful, as is frequently the case in other cemeteries.' Originally marked out for nine denominations, the cemetery now caters for around 80 religions in an area of 283 hectares. There are 650,000 burials and 200, 000 ashes interments at Rookwood, the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere.