Cemeteries are always a really interesting lens through which to view the history of a city. In the case of Melbourne is has several old cemeteries as well as the more modern ones. I thought I’d start with the Melbourne General Cemetery as it is one of the oldest and I believe the biggest.
I first went to the Melbourne General Cemetery a year or so ago when I found that my great great great grandfather Robert Henry Woodward was buried there. He was one of the first of my ancestors to come to Australia so I was interested to see where his grave was. Unfortunately it is no longer marked. You can see where he is buried in between the two other graves in the photo below.
Robert Henry’s is not the only grave that is unmarked in the cemetery because, while the records of those buried survive not all the headstones do. Robert Henry is only one of the approximately 300 000 people buried in the Cemetery since 1853 and their graves can be seen covering a staggering 106 acres. The Cemetery is truly vast. Some burials date even earlier than 1853 though, as a portion of the burials removed from the Old Melbourne Cemetery were re-interred in the Melbourne General Cemetery. The Old Melbourne Cemetery is an interesting story in itself because it stood on the land that now houses the Queen Victoria Market.
The Old Melbourne Cemetery was closed in the 1850s and many of the red gum headstones were stolen for firewood. An estimated 10 000 people were buried there, including many indigenous burials and John Batman the ‘founder’ of Melbourne. When the Queen Victoria Market expanded in 1917, 914 bodies were re-interred in other cemeteries including the Melbourne General Cemetery. However there are still thousands of bodies beneath the Queen Victoria Market and its car park today. The market does not have a multi story car park because, due to all the bodies buried there, you can’t go underground. Unfortunately there is no record of those interred in the Old Melbourne Cemetery as the official records were destroyed during a fire in the Melbourne Town Hall. The only sign of the thousands still beneath the earth is a memorial to John Batman, in the car park, and a memorial called Passage, dedicated to those still buried beneath the market and its car park. Passage
Many of the burials in The Melbourne General Cemetery have interesting origins as well. The cemetery itself is quite varied. As you can see below it is divided into a number of sections.
The Cemetery was also designed specially like a public park with winding roads, separate religious rotundas and a large number of evergreen trees and shrubs.
There are a number of buildings on site as well, including the heritage listed gatehouse that was rebuilt in the 1930s. The oldest building is the Jewish Chapel which dates to 1854.
There are also a number of significant people buried there. Including several Prime Ministers.
A memorial to Harold Holt who disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach on Point Nepean.
This is a memorial wall to Australia’s Prime Ministers, not everyone listed in dead.
Other memorial monuments include:
A memorial dedicated to Elvis.
A memorial dedicated to Burke and Wills and their expedition force.
And a memorial dedicated to Hungarian Freedom Fighters.
There is also a wide range of funerary monuments such as:
Whole families in one place.
Simple grave stones.
Modern mortuary chapels.
And plaques in the rose garden.
The Melbourne General Cemetery is a fascinating, if overwhelming and slightly haphazard, look into Melbourne’s past. It is also a working cemetery so it will continue to be part of Melbourne’s heritage in years to come. It is well worth visiting not only as a place with a fascinating history, but also somewhere that is surprisingly beautiful and very peaceful.
Also if you make it there during Melbourne Open House, you might get to see the vintage hearse.
For more information
All the photos are mine apart from the plan of the cemetery which can be found at.