Rookwood Cemetery: Mapping the dead

Posted by Ancestry Team on September 17, 2019 in Australia, Deaths

For anyone with ancestors from Sydney, Rookwood General Cemetery may hold clues vital to your family research. Why? Because it’s the largest cemetery from the Victorian era still in operation in the world, with more than one million burials spread across its 200 hectares. Its vast landscaped gardens have become the last resting place for a wide range of cultural and religious groups since it started in 1867.

And now Rookwood Cemetery is bringing the past well and truly into the present by allowing family historians to map their ancestor’s grave using GPS technology.

George Simpson, CEO of Rookwood General Cemetery, led the team behind the mapping project.

“The speed and dedication at which the team has worked to make this project happen has been monumental. In just two years, 96 per cent of the cemetery has been mapped. This includes the oldest graves that in some case were overtaken by trees,” George explains.

Rookwood Cemetery: The historical Chinese area.
Historical Chinese area. Courtesy Rookwood General Cemetery.

Similar to Find A Grave, which features thousands of photos of gravestones, the Rookwood project started with the cemetery commissioning drone images of the cemetery which were then overlaid with section layouts and grids.

“This technology allows users to map and get directions to within 4cm of their ancestor’s grave,” George says.

Not surprisingly, the feedback has been positive. And there’s also been a bonus crowd-sourcing element to the project. “People have also been getting quite involved by letting us know if they come across data that requires updates,” George says. “This means the accuracy of the online data is getting better all the time.”

It’s a powerful tool for Ancestry users, especially when combined with record sets such as the Cemetery Headstone Transcriptions, 1837-2003, which contains over 368,000 headstone transcriptions for burials in and around Sydney, including Rookwood.

Heather Garnsey, Executive Officer at the Society of Australian Genealogists, says the project has huge benefits to family historians. “Rookwood is vast and the ability to use the site while visiting the cemetery increases the likelihood of finding the grave or plot you are looking for,” Heather explains.

“The clarity of the overlay of the plot detail on the aerial photography is hugely useful. You can zoom in sufficiently to see what is around a gravesite of interest, whether it is in a row of graves, surrounded by grass plots or by a pathway. That helps you establish its whereabouts if you visit. And if you don’t have the opportunity to visit personally, just being able to view the headstone from an aerial shot and/or an online photograph might give you an idea of the family’s circumstances – that is, whether it’s a simple stone or is it an elaborate vault.”

Rookwood Cemetery: the original grave diggers hut.
The original grave diggers hut. Courtesy Rookwood General Cemetery.

Many cemeteries have celebrities buried within their grounds – and Rookwood is no different. Though one famous connection did surprise George. “I happened to meet a gentleman visiting the grounds one day. I asked him if he needed help. And he told me he was looking for the grave of Lucy Farrow – who just happened to be actor Mia Farrow’s grandmother. That was extraordinary to me – I didn’t know that Mia Farrow had an Australian ancestor, let alone that her grandmother was buried at Rookwood.

To access the mapping technology, simply visit the Rookwood General Cemetery website and click on ‘deceased search’. Enter the name of your person of interest and from there you’ll be prompted to register. Add in your details, click ‘register’ and then you’ll be able to access the map and directions to the grave.

From there the entire world of Rookwood is ready for you to explore.

And if you’re wanting to find an ancestor’s grave and are not sure where to start, check out Ancestry’s Australian Death Index, 1787-1985 and Australian and New Zealand, Obituary Index, 2004-Current.


Cassie Mercer

Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.

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