Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Life for The City of The Dead

The Springvale Cemetery hopes its history and gardens will attract more than the bereaved.
The Garden of No Distant Place at Springvale Botanical Cemetery

THE first legal cremation in Victoria was a rudimentary affair. It was held at Springvale Botanical Cemetery in 1905 when the body of Edward Davies, a retired customs officer, was laid on a pile of wood, doused with kerosene and then set alight. The service was presided over by a Church of England priest.

A rock in the cemetery (called the Necropolis, meaning ''the city of the dead'', until 2006) marks the site of his cremation, which was made possible in 1903 after the state government of the day passed the Cremation Act.

Davies' remains were interred near the grave of seven-month-old Clarence Reardon, who died of whooping cough and whose burial was the first at Springvale on March 20, 1902, a year after the cemetery was laid out in the shape of the Union Jack in a show of patriotism for Federation and the death that year of Queen Victoria.
The rock and Clarence's grave will be highlighted on a tour of the cemetery on Friday to be led by Celestina Sagazio, historian and manager of cultural heritage at the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust.

Other significant sites include the war cemetery laid out like Australian burial sites in France and the American military cemetery, once the resting place of about 38 servicemen who died in the region during World War II (and whose remains were exhumed in 1945 and sent back to America for reburial).

One was the infamous Edward Leonski, who strangled three Melbourne women and was hanged on November 9, 1942. All that's left of this cemetery is a flagpole with an eagle on top, an American flag at half mast and two rudimentary crosses, a helmet hanging off one, in the middle of an expanse of lawn.

Like cemeteries the world over, including Pere Lachaise in Paris, which counts among its famous dead Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, Springvale has people of renown. Among them are Laddislaus Kossak, a mounted policeman at the Eureka Stockade, Liberal Party leader Sir Billy Snedden, Country Party leader Sir John ''Black Jack'' McEwen, Phar Lap's strapper, Tommy Woodcock, jockey Scobie Breasley, actor Charles ''Bud'' Tingwell, society florist Kevin O'Neill, governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen, Collingwood premiership player Darren ''Pants'' Millane, Richmond player Jack Dyer and Australian cricket captain in the Bodyline era, William Woodfull.

Springvale was the only Victorian cemetery to have a dedicated railway line and station that was used to transport coffins, passengers and staff from Melbourne to the cemetery. Mortuary and visitors' trains were a regular sight from 1904 but the line was closed in 1951. A rock with a commemorative plaque marks the site.

The name was changed from the Necropolis in 2006 to reflect the growing botanical significance of the cemetery, which features original plantings of two bunya bunya pines, oaks, palms and gums. A red river gum, believed to be about 400 years old, may have lost most of its limbs but the huge trunk remains with a healthy covering of leaf growth. It's an awe-inspiring sight.

A large variety of native and ornamental trees, shrubs and 30,000 roses, plus the Garden of No Distant Place, can be found in the 169-hectare site and many will be pointed out on the tour.

Dr Sagazio, who takes night tours on Halloween through Melbourne General Cemetery (she was terrified at first) believes cemeteries are public assets and should be used in the same way as parks and gardens.

''Few realise how significant and beautiful Springvale Cemetery is. The stories of the people who are in here are very important. The fear of death and the fear of walking through a cemetery shouldn't stop people from having the experience of enjoying the bird life, the wildlife, the thousands of roses, trees and shrubs. We want to encourage people to see cemeteries as wonderful places which are full of history and beautiful gardens.''


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