On the cliffs south of Bronte Beach the monumental Waverley Cemetery sits on 40 acres of stillness met with the rhythmic percussion of waves, people exercising and those paying their respects.
Since its establishment in 1877, more than 80,000 interments have been made (including burials, cremations and the erection of memorials and mausolea) and among them rest many prominent Australians.
Each Saturday morning, volunteers at Friends of Waverley run walking tours of the cemetery. They unpack its rich history with tales and anecdotes about both its famous and unknown inhabitants.
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Stops on the tour include the graves of notable poets Henry Lawson, Henry Kendall and Dorothea Mackellar, as well as those of politicians, sports stars and a state executioner who resides metres from a murderer he put there.
There’s Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton; Peter Harold Burge, Australia’s first dual code Rugby and Rugby League International player; Jules Archibald, the founder of The Bulletin and benefactor of the Archibald Prize; and members of the Packer, Fairfax and Norton newspaper dynasties.
“When talking about life ever after, this property is ‘location location location’,” says volunteer Greg Ross.
“It is just the most interesting place. You can learn about family history, social history, architecture, sports – there are a whole lot of reasons to visit.”
Ross, who can recount what seems like hundreds of stories off the top of his head, says,“Sometimes I feel like I know them better than my own family.”
One of Ross’s favoured graves is permanently adorned with a Christmas tree. “The delightful allotment is refurbished every year. Obviously this person’s favourite time of the year was Christmas and the family has continued the tradition.”
Another has an epitaph that reads “Wee Davey” – one of the cemetery’s first burials. “Nobody knows his name, he was a runaway who was killed in an accident between a horse and a cart. The driver was so concerned that no one came forward to claim the body that he purchased the allotment, gave the little boy a name and paid for a funeral.”
Three tours are available to the public and Ross says another is being developed for International Women’s Day to celebrate the role of women in society through those interred at the cemetery.
A significant amount of each tour is spent explaining the symbolism behind the design of each monument and the changing architecture throughout history.
“Some might think that over time the columns decorating the graves have fallen, but really they were purposely broken to signify a life cut short,” he says.
Tours run every Saturday from 9am to 10.30am for $24 per person.
Mid-week bookings can be made for groups. Bookings here.
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