History of Cemeteries in Sydney

Sydney has been described as an ‘accidental city’, one with a planning history characterized by opportunistic development and disjointed or abortive attempts at holistic planning. At the first Australian Town Planning Conference and Exhibition held in Adelaide in 1917, JD Fitzgerald – politician and leading town planning advocate – lamented that Sydney was ‘a city without a plan, save whatever planning was due to the errant goat. Wherever this animal made a track through the bush’, he observed, ‘there are the streets of today’.

Paul Ashton & Robert Freestone, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008

Obviously, planning for cemeteries wouldn’t have been a priority for early planners of colonial times. In the early years, British colonists in Sydney used a number of smaller burial places including private grounds before the Old Sydney Burial Ground (OSBG) was established in 1792. Located near the present southwest corner of George and Druitt streets, the OSBG was the principal burial place for the non-Aboriginal population. It was contemporary with St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta (1790).

Some 80 years later, the new cemetery at Haslam’s Creek was consecrated and soon became known as The Necropolis – the ancient Greek name for the city of the dead – the sleeping city. Western Sydney was growing and before long the locals called for a new name for the cemetery and their railway station. By 1878, Haslam’s Creek railway station was renamed as Rookwood station and the cemetery was named Rookwood Cemetery. Rookwood Cemeteries today represents 89 different religions and cultural groups of multicultural Sydney. There are designated areas in the cemetery for Muslim, Anglican, Jewish, Chinese, Hindu, and many other denominations; including general and independent areas one would expect in any multicultural city.

But this didn’t happen overnight or easily. For Muslims it was the coordinated effort of people like Kazi Ali and Muslims organizations such as the Lebanese Muslim Association and MCB, who struggled through navigating a variety of obstacles in achieving recognition of special needs for Muslims burials and the need for designated Muslim areas.

Muslim burial at Rookwood probably began in early 1900, when around 3000 Muslims lived on this continent. Today we have a population of over 300,000 in greater Sydney alone (ref. 2016 census); not surprisingly, the space available for Muslim grave plots at Rookwood has been quickly running out.

Land around Sydney became scarce and planning authorities have been tightening regulations around new cemeteries, places of worship, parkland, and the like. MCB has continued to lobby a variety of councils and planning agencies for land to be used for Muslim burials, with limited success. In 2002, Blacktown council allocated a piece of land at Riverstone cemetery for Muslim burials and Riverstone Cemetery Board was formed to facilitate burials at that site. Unfortunately, Riverstone is a small site with only around 1000 grave plots which had all been used by the end of 2019, and therefore came to close for new burials in 2020.

Once again, MCB has been on the lookout for alternative sites for Muslim burials long prior to Riverstone reaching its capacity. In 2018 Kazi Ali signed an MOU with the Catholic Cemeteries Board, designating a portion of Kemps Creek cemetery a Muslim section that can be used in accordance with the guidelines of Muslim burials and the NSW government. This is a lawn cemetery perpetually maintained by the Catholic Cemeteries Board and made available for the Muslim community. There are 4000 burial plots exclusively available to Muslims, and each plot can be doubled to accommodate a total of 8000 deceased. The plots can be purchase on demand or in advance while they are available. It should be noted; the word PURCHASE in this context means License for Burial, the land title remains with the original owner i.e the Cemeteries or the Crown  as appropriate.

MCB is also working on future partnership opportunities with Catholic Cemeteries on new sites, such as the 300 acres of land in Varroville recently acquired by Catholic Cemeteries.