Funeral trains: All aboard at Sydney’s Mortuary Station

No, it’s not something out of a Harry Potter novel. It’s actually something very close to home… especially if you live in Sydney. Mortuary Station is a reminder of how funerals used to be. It serves as an example of the role of Government in the provision of burial services to the expanding nineteenth-century city of Sydney.

Coffins and mourners got on the “funeral train” at Mortuary Station and were transported to cemeteries such as Rookwood further down the line.

The former Mortuary Station building is “aesthetically significant as a fine example of Gothic-inspired design attributed to James Barnet, a style adopted for its religious associations in the construction of a funeral station”. Photo: John Wall.

Opened in 1869, the ornate Gothic Mortuary Station is heritage-listed. It was renamed Regent Station at some stage and still stands at Chippendale, not far from Central Station, which was once the site of Sydney’s second cemetery. (Central Station was once the Devonshire Street Cemetery, the final resting place of 30,000 people. It closed in 1890.)

Historical significance

Mortuary Station 1872.
Pickering, Charles Percy (NSW Government Printing Office) , State Library of NSW

“The Mortuary Station demonstrates the removal of burial grounds to the outer suburbs of the city and the commitment of the government of the time to allow access to those cemeteries and a greater vision of providing a modern necropolis for the Sydney region. It is associated with attitudes to disposal of the dead during Victorian times in Australia, and in particular with the funeral trains which ran regularly between the city and Rookwood. It remains the only substantial building structure associated with the operational workings of the original Sydney rail yard. “(NSW Department of Environment)

Not often open to the public, Mortuary Station is a hidden time capsule in the heart of Sydney. Photo: John Wall

According to the NSW Department of Environment, “The building was used as the terminus for funeral trains only until 1938. When the rail funeral business gave way to road corteges and motor hearses, rail services were restricted to weekends and finally curtailed. On April 3 1948, trains were withdrawn and the cemetery line closed. Trains left from the main terminus platforms over the final ten years of the funeral rail service. There being no call for the rail hearse, the Mortuary Station ceased to function in the capacity of its original purpose. 

In 1981 the former State Rail Authority decided to restore the Mortuary Station.
Photo: John Wall

“From 14 March 1938, Mortuary Station was used for the consignment of horses and dogs, and its name was changed to Regent Street Station. From February 1950 it was used as a parcels dispatch, at which time catenary wires were placed inside the rail pavilion and (apparently at this same time) the easternmost arches at either end were removed of ornament on the inner face to allow for the passage of larger rail vehicles.”

Crowds flocked to the Mortuary Station. Transport Heritage Expo 2019 this long weekend, including a former colleague of mine, John Wall. He was nice enough to allow us to see his photos.

Ornate symbolism

There is much symbolism at Mortuary Station. This sandstone ornamental etching depicts an hourglass and metaphorical wings, a symbol that human existence is fleeting, and that the “sands of time” will run out for all of us.

The ‘winged hourglass’ is a common eighteenth-century symbol overseas. It’s not often seen here in Australia so I’m thrilled to see one preserved on the walls of Mortuary Station.
Photo: John Wall
It looks like something you’d see when taking the Hogwarts Express on platform 9 3/4, doesn’t it? Photo: John Wall
Mortuary Station is the only remaining example of a Victorian railway funerary station in Australia. She’s gorgeous! Photo: John Wall

Mortuary Station is open this long weekend in Sydney (10/6/19)as part of the Transport Heritage Expo.

The old and the new. Photo: John Wall

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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