Not far from Sydney’s Central Railway Station sits an ornately decorated sandstone building, surrounded by a manicured lawn enclosed by a sandstone and iron palisade fence. The curiously imposing structure calls to mind the somber atmosphere of a church and has probably caused many a commuter to wonder exactly what it is.
The building is, in fact, the old mortuary station, once home to a special train service that transported the city’s dead to their final resting place in Rookwood Cemetery.
Designed in Gothic Revival style by colonial architect James Barnet, the building features heavily worked facades with carvings of angels, cherubs, and gargoyles on the walls. It was from here that the dead, and their mourners, could take the 17-kilometer journey (10 miles) to Rookwood Cemetery where a similar mortuary station would meet them at the other end, with special “Necropolis Receiving Houses” built on the platforms out of pale pink Pyrmont sandstone.
Beginning in 1865, a regular morning and afternoon funeral train ran from Sydney to the Rookwood terminus. On the front of each train departing the Mortuary Station was a large sign reading “FUNERAL.” As the train approached each station, the driver would toll his bell and slow down, while men on the platform and railway employees would doff their hats in respect while the train passed.
Improvements in roads and cars gradually eroded the need for the deathly railway line, and by 1930 the service had all but ceased, except for visitors on Sundays and Mothers’ Days. Sadly, on April 3, 1948, the service was terminated, and over the following decades, both the Mortuary Station and its twin at Rookwood Cemetery fell into disrepair.
In a strange twist, the Rookwood Station building was eventually removed brick by brick and reconstructed as the “All Saints” church in Ainslie, Canberra, where it still stands today. As for Sydney’s Mortuary Station, it was recognized as an important piece of heritage and has lived several alternate lives as a tea-room, an event space, and a wedding venue. Currently, it is maintained by Sydney Trains and while it is sometimes opened on special occasions to the public, it remains an everyday reminder of death that can be glimpsed from the train window.
Know Before You Go
Located on the corner of Regent Street and Kensington Street, about 13 minutes walk from Sydney Central Train Station.