Sunday, 20 January 2013

All Aboard: Sydney's funeral trains

What I'm reading: Legend Beyond the Stars, by SE Gilchrist; Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin (bio of Bruce Springsteen), and Burial, by Graham Masterton. 

 Yes, another morbid topic. Other bloggers have posted on this subject, but it's so fascinating I had to investigate it myself. Why? A while ago I was wandering around Newcastle's Sandgate Cemetery, as you do, and I noticed an old railway track alongside the graves and thought, hmm, this is interesting, what was a train doing way out here? So naturally I googled it.

Also, on Regent Street, Redfern (or Chippendale - there seems to be some confusion), next to Central Station, is a beautiful, restored building (except that some plonkers have tagged all over it) - you see it whenever you come into Central above ground on the northern lines - and I've always wondered what it is. So I googled that as well, and looked up a few archives, and it turns out that and the railway line at Sandgate are connected.

Mortuary Station today, view from Regent Street side.
Photo by J. Bar.
 The building at Central is a railway platform, originally a station dedicated to the trains that carried the dead and their mourners out to Rookwood Necropolis at Haslam's Creek (now Lidcombe), about 17km from Sydney's centre. Over the years the station has been known as both Necropolis Receiving Station and Mortuary Station. Officially opened in June 1869, it was designed by colonial architect James Barnet (not Florence Taylor or James Blackett, as some internet sites and newspaper articles state), incorporating elements of Gothic style, and embellished by sculptors Thomas Ducket and Henry Apperly, who carved leaves, flowers, fruit, angels, cherubs and, my favourite, gargoyles.

Mortuary Station - platform.
Photo by Thortful at en.wikipedia.
Barnet, Ducket and Apperly were also responsible for the design and decoration of the train station built within the grounds of Rookwood Necropolis, and opened in April 1867. This station was originally known as Haslam's Creek Cemetery Station, then Haslam's Creek Receiving House, then the Mortuary Station Necropolis, followed by Mortuary Station No. 1, then Mortuary General Cemetery Station, and finally Cemetery Station No. 1. This must have been quite confusing for people getting on the train at the other end.

There was plenty of room at Rookwood for the rail network to expand, and it did. In May 1897 a second station was built, originally known as Mortuary Station, then Mortuary Teminus, and finally Cemetery Station No. 3. This was followed by a third station in December 1901, known at first as the Roman Catholic Platform, then as Cemetery Station No. 2. Finally, No. 4 Mortuary Station opened in June, 1908. Only Cemetery Station No. 1 was grandiose - the latter three stations were quite modest structures.

The funeral train ran twice a day from Mortuary Station at Central, the coffins placed on shelves in 'hearse' vans at the rear of the train. En route to Rookwood, the train stopped to pick up other coffins and mourners. At the cemetery, the train came to a halt inside Cemetery Station No. 1 and the coffins offloaded using wheeled litters. Presumably, after Cemetery Stations 2 and 3 and No. 4 Mortuary Station were built, coffins and mourners were trained straight to the station closest to where the deceased were to be buried. On the other hand, you shouldn't presume anything when it comes to history.

For those cultures who held wakes to farewell their dead, the train trip to and from Rookwood could apparently be quite eventful. According to one source, whose father attended many funerals between 1918 and 1938, some funeral parties would load cases of beer, cartons of spirits and quite substantial feasts onto the train at the Central end, and start the wake before even reaching Rookwood. At the cemetery the coffin would be transferred to wheeled litter, accompanied by the refreshments on any spare litters, and the funeral procession proceed to the grave. After the burial service, to demonstrate to the departed the high level of esteem in which he/she was held, material evidence of the wake - bottle tops, chicken bones, oyster shells, meat pie crusts, etc. - would be tossed onto the coffin. Occasionally the litters came in handy to transport tired and emotional mourners back to the cemetery stations. Less amusingly, now and then fights would break out on Cemetery Station No. 1's platform, between drunk and grieving funeral parties of different nationalities, as they waited for the train to depart.

Cemetery Station No.1 at Rookwood. Photo dated c1865,
but this is a couple of years too early.
The funeral train service was at its busiest around 1900 (be interesting to find out why then, though I haven't), but had tapered off by 1930 as travel by road improved, except for Sundays and Mothers' Days. The service was revived during WWII due to petrol rationing, but in 1948 was terminated. All four cemetery stations were closed and the majestic Cemetery Station No. 1 fell into complete disrepair. In 1957 Reverend T. Buckle of All Saints' Church of Ainslee tendered £100 to remove the stonework, shifted the lot to Canberra for £8,000 and resurrected the building as a church for £6,000.

After Central's Mortuary Station ceased to service funeral trains in 1948, it was  used as a platform for livestock (no pun intended) - dogs, horses and poultry. In 1950 it became a parcels station and the name subsequently changed to Regent Street Station. The State Rail Authority restored the station in 1981 at a cost of around $600,000, it was heritage registered by the National Trust and the Australian Heritage Commission, and reopened April 1985. Then, unbelievably, the following year it opened as a pancake restaurant called the Magic Mortuary, at which patrons bought tickets for their meals from the former ticket office. It failed and the restaurant cars were removed 1989. It has since been used to launch special train services and public displays of trains.

What's all this got to do with Newcastle's Sandgate Cemetery? General Cemetery Platform at Sandgate was opened in 1881, the same year as the cemetery, and was the terminus of the funeral train that ran north from Sydney's Mortuary Station. In 1890, General Cemetery Platform was renamed Sandgate Cemetery Platform, and operated until 1985. A funeral train also ran south from Sydney, to Woronora General Cemetery in Sutherland. So now I know what those railway lines are doing in the middle of Sandgate Cemetery.


  1. Wonderful article! Thanks for everything! You should check out bloomington mn funeral homes

  2. I am awestruck to read that a train could also be obtained to carry the copses.

    1. Hi Bellow. Yes, the idea is bizarre from today's perspective, isn't it? But not when you think how poor the roads were and the scarcity of cars in the early days. Much easier to pile everyone - the mourners and the dead - on a train and travel out to Rookwood that way. Thanks for your comment!


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