A Frenemy of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta

So, if the highly aesthete, florally-worded one responsible for this 1891 feature article on the cemetery were alive today, I’m pretty sure s/he would NOT become a Friend of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta!

“The high and ugly brick wall (like many other thing, none the better for being old) strikes the eye unpleasingly,” wrote s/he, “and it has a certain suggestiveness to the average passer-by which that individual does not welcome.”

After this verbose declaration of hatred for the brick wall “eyesore” that had so offended his/her discriminating optic, the writer then waxed lyrical about how lovely it would be “to leave these dead in the lap of mother Earth for her to enfold them all silently in her great all-comprehending robe and mantle of green” and rhetorically asked, “Is this so horrible, after all?…Should it not rather be closed and left sacred as a holy of holies – not less but more sacred because man’s mower, pruning knife and spade are shut out?”

You can read an extract of the article by this Frenemy of St. John’s Cemetery on the right. But I suspect you’ll want to read this romantic, ahistorical waffle in all its glory, so I have transcribed it in full for you below.

FYI: I love the brick wall. If you feel as I do, note that I’ve attached images of the unjustly maligned one for your visual pleasure.

This view of the town from around the period as the article below actually captures a small section of the rear wall of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, near the middle to the far left of the image. “Town View,” in Standish G. Goodin – [Presentation album of Parramatta views], 1898. State Library of New South Wales.

The Cemeteries of Parramatta.
St. John’s Churchyard.

The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950)

Saturday 17 January 1891.

Parramatta’s burial-grounds — six in all — lie sundered and scattered ; three in the northern part of the town, and three in the southern. Of the latter, indeed, two are just outside the boundaries, but for all practical purposes are of and in Parramatta. Of the six, St. John’s is confessedly and on all accounts — except perhaps as regards size — to be ranked first. Its appearance from the outside is unattractive, even forbidding. The high and ugly brick wall (like many other thing, none the better for being old) strikes the eye unpleasingly; and it has a certain suggestiveness to the average passer-by which that individual does not welcome. But the ground once entered, the disagreeable sensation is left behind. Not but what there is within something to shock persons of a certain temperament— but of that more anon. A glance from the entrance yields no particularly gruesome sight. On the contrary, the gate opens;on an avenue-like and gravelled walk which gently rises and falls, but runs straight as an arrow through the heart of the ground.

Commingled Australian and English trees shadow the path; and overhead their branches rustle softly “with one continuous sound— a slumberous sound; — a sound that brings the feelings of a dream”; for the noise of the town is shut out and the quiet of the graveyard is, so to speak, shut in — and that by the very wall, which from an exterior view is such an eyesore. Up such a lich-path as this, in many an English churchyard, surely many and many a quietly moving procession must have passed. This main path cannot but be in favour with every visitor — and is the chief beauty of the ground. In this old churchyard of St. John’s, contemplation of the past is more than pardonable. There, indeed, it is the past that is the present. As a rule there is far too much retrospection in Parramatta — we disturb too much the dust of by-gone generations — we have not learnt the true wisdom of letting the dead past bury its dead, the true art of pressing onward — one half of which consists in all but absolutely forgetting those things that are behind. It is not by retrospection that nations have been built up, or that the world’s mightiest have done their great works; and that frequently the great curse or a locality, a race, or an institution is its history, is the teaching of history itself. In a utilitarian sense, as in a humanitarian, we may say “Happy, in many, respects, in the land that has no history.” It is significant that the places the names of which are today on men’s tongues as synonyms for progress and advancement are, as a rule, places wholly of modern up-rearing. But retrospection’s home is surely the burial-ground—especially when the burial-ground has, as this has, associations which link it with the history of a people as well as with that of a sect. The place is the temple of the Past.

The “forefathers” not of a hamlet but of a nation sleep here, despite the flying of express trains over yon embankments and the restless rush of business tides along the town’s streets. Their place has been here for forty, fifty, sixty, eighty, ninety years — “at rest in all this moving up and down.” These, their last homes, have felt no influences of change save those of the rains and dews of heaven, and the slow silent workings of kindly Nature in the soil. The still-existing men who last year — five years ago — ten years ago — helped to make up the sum of Parramatta’s townsfolk are not with us. The town is the same and yet not the same. The dead pass away and the living remain, say we. But is it not rather that, as the poet declares, “the living pass away, the dead remain.” And as change scarcely affects this enclave, so therein Time becomes lost. These dead of past days, laid in their graves in a “sure and certain hope,” are yet ever present — they came from change and await change, but still with them it is the unchangeable Now.

Augustus Alt’s grave, St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron (2016).

Retrospection then is most pardonable in St. John’s Churchyard. The straight walk which we have referred to is after all evidently a thing of comparatively modern days ; for a few old weather-beaten stones jutting into it here and there show that the path has been carried partly over some of the earliest graves in the cemetery. Thus, on one of these stones is the record of the death of James Hayes in 1801; on another that of John Larkin in 1808. Close by the side of the walk in the tomb of
Augustus Theodore Henry Alt, Baron of Hesse Casual, and first Surveyor-General of N.S.Wales, who died in 1815 at a patriarchal age, and whose record tells of military service in the famous Seven Years’ War. In the final sentence on the stone — to wit, that the tomb was erected by his “grateful” nephew — is a certain suggestiveness of a good big legacy or bequest. The general nature of the inscription, however, seems to show that this relative had somewhat peculiar ideas of language, especially as applied to memorial inscriptions. It may possibly be that there are surviving among us men and women who have seen “the Baron,” as the quaint inscription calls him — and as perhaps he was generally called — and, if so, we have the times of George II united with the closing years of his great great-granddaughter.

A little further on, some few feet from the main walk, lie, half buried in the overgrowing grass, three flat stones — the inscriptions facing the sky — and on one of those memorials the rains of 90 years have fallen without yet obliterating the well cut words which tell of the death of a babe of 17 months (Richard Longford) in the year 1800. We are now by the side of the first generation of the Australian-born. The colony was scarcely 12 years old when this child was laid to rest. But there is yet an older grave — also pathetically telling of the loss of a household’s treasure. Far down among the rank growth at the bottom of the slope, where nameless graves are many, and where any paths that may have existed have long since disappeared, is a small stone, sunken and dark with age, but still almost upright. The almost illegible inscription faces the west — and this, occurring on a stone situated in an open part of the ground, is in itself curious. It scarcely appears that any path over passed near, but those who could account for the anomaly have all long since followed the child into the silent land. The record is simple — ” Sarah Whiting, who died 11 April, 1799, aged nine months.” In all probability this is now the oldest of the inscriptions — as it certainly marks one of the first graves made — in the ground. Parramatta, when these words that we read to-day were cut in the stone on this little colonist’s grave — what was it ? We place our feet exactly where stood the feet of those who lowered the little body into the earth ; and we look north, south, east and west, as they looked on that far-off day. But where is what they saw ? Only the dead child Sarah remains here, and her short life of nine months is more to us than the lives of aged men and women to-day. Not far away is a grave tolling of an interment in 1802, and another, the stone of which bears date 1804. There seems indirect evidence to show that in those days St. John’s was, for all practical purposes, the general cemetery of Parramatta — the names and styles of inscription in some places hinting that members of other denominations than the Church of England repose, beneath. Many a vault is there in the ground bearing one or more names well known in Parramatta history. Thus we have that of the Marsden family, the Pye family, the Taylor family (and here at least are tokens that the dead of a past generation are not wholly forgotten by their descendants of to-day), the Barber family, the Tunks-McRoberts family, the Greenup family, etc., with others bearing names not so familiar to present Parramatta. On the earlier graves the inscriptions were evidently well cut, but the text was of the simplest, and clearly the orthographic and artistic skill of the mason was often but poor. The “uncouth rhymes” of the Stoke-Pogis churchyard (made famous by Gray) are occasionally repeated in this antipodean burial ground. Yet, in the balance, who shall say that the workmanship was not comparable with that of to-day. Will the well-spelt words and well-turned sentences on the tombstones now rising into place wear as well as the deep-cut work of three generations ago? Will the inscriptions of last year, be as clear and distinct in 1980 as inscriptions on these gravestones are to-day? In passing we may say, however, that one inscription positively shocks the visitor. It is most certainly out of place; and its existence testifies either to lack of sense or lack of power on the part of those in authority over the ground. This inscription sets out that it marks a spot “Sacred to the memory of — who died 20th April I8 — from injuries caused by his being ridden over by”‘ and then follows in large letters the name and occupation of the person contributing to the fatal occurrence. The spirit that could indite such an inscription and insist on its being indelibly written by the chisel of the stonecutter, and then placed in a ground consecrated to the Author of charity and forgiveness could scarcely be human. To pillory by name for ever as a murderer one who possibly was legally and morally guiltless is an atrocity of an ordinary kind — to do this under the guise of indicating a pious resignation to the will of the tender All-Father is an act immeasurably worse. How it came about that the trustees ever allowed the inscription to be exhibited is a question to which no satisfactory reply can be given.

St. John’s grave-yard, after doing duty for nearly 100 years, has all but ended its mission. The burial-ground is practically closed, only acquired rights therein being now recognised. The ground is full, but not to an unseemly extent, though in places — especially in the lower portion— the graves lie close together. There is more than a suspicion that the caste distinctions which characterise the mother-land and all that is hers have had a place here — that even in death the poor have been taught to keep “a respectful distance” from the well to-do. The ground is divided by the main path already noticed, and by two minor paths running at right angles from it at about its middle point. Another path runs at a few yards’ distance from the eastern wall. An attempt has been made to gravel the pathways, and in the upper part of the ground and the main walk the gravel, though light, is in fair order. In the lower part, however, the rain water has denuded the paths of their covering, leaving only the clayey soil. The ground is, as a whole, ” unkempt.” Some time ago its condition was represented as a scandal and a reproach both to tho parish of St. John’s and the representatives of those — especially of the wealthier classes — whose last resting place it is. Since then we believe some little has been done by way of improvement. But, despite the comparative neglect of the place, it cannot be said that there is much that is really repulsive in it. The walks, at least, are evidently kept in order. The graves have sunk in a few places, especially in the lower part of the cemetery, but the action of the weather and the progress of nature have been in the direction of hiding this. The ever-spreading grass — twisted, tangled and almost rank of growth in many places — rising into leathery shoots in others — here creeping about flat stones and eating away inscriptions, and there hiding the interspaces between one nameless grave and the next—this is to some repulsive and shocking. Yet is it not better so? We have no sympathy with a neglect that would allow memorials to be violently broken, or the last houses of the dead to be trampled down. But to leave those dead in the lap of mother Earth for her to enfold them all silently in her great all-comprehending robe and mantle of green — is this so horrible, after all? In the overwhelming majority of cases the grief over the loss of those buried here has been over for more than half a century. The mourners themselves have long ere been mourned for. From the gaze of memory these dead have receded and receded till they have become a mere point of light in the sky of the past. And the interest in the the ground is no longer that of individuals having to do with individual graves. It is the interest of a people in the last resting place of those who first brought English speech and English life to this continent. And, in leaving these graves of a nation’s founders to the common operations of our common mother Nature — not out of carelessness or neglect, but of set purpose — we surely do but act reasonably and well. It is not by garnishing the sepulchres, any more than by mummifying the remains, that we keep green the memory of the departed. We wisely make, no attempt to preserve the deserted bodies — we are content to bury our dead “out of our sight.” And where they repose is not our pleasure-ground — not our domain at all — it is ‘the field and acre of our God.” Then should it rest in sacred stillness and repose, as a place not for the foot of man — as a place undisturbed even by hands that would in mistaken kindness, trim and clear and “keep in order.” For this last there is some excuse while the ground is still resorted to, while its mission is as yet unfulfilled. But when the time comes that processions of living mourners no more tread its paths, the ground enters on its rest and Sabbath. It is no longer required for the sad service of man. Should it, then, be preserved only for curious antiquaries, or sightseers, more idly curious — or should it not rather be closed and left sacred as a holy of holies — not less but more, sacred because man’s mower, pruning knife and spade are shut out?

See Original: “The Cemeteries of Parramatta: St. John’s Churchyard,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Saturday 17 January 1891, p. 2.