The site was purchased by the Victorian government in 1878, and it was permanently reserved for a cemetery on 10 May 1887.
Political and municipal rivalries prevented the cemetery from being established earlier. The cemetery, originally known as The Necropolis Springvale, was established in 1901, and the first burial, that of a child Clarence Reardon, was on 20 March 1902. The unique formal original plan was based on the Union Jack. The cemetery had the only dedicated railway line, which operated between 1904 and 1951, within a cemetery in Victoria.
While all the original buildings and railway line have been demolished, the cemetery’s historic core is preserved, with all burials from the early 1900s and some original plantings such as bunya-bunya pine trees, palms and gums surviving.
The cemetery is important in the history of cremation in Australia. The construction of the Boyd crematorium and chapel in the 1930s-1940s helped put the cemetery on the map. By 1970 the improved crematorium was very large by world standards and possessed the most productive and efficient cremation infrastructure in Australia. Springvale is a world-class cemetery with an advanced crematorium and series of chapels and is renowned for its botanical significance, including the largest memorial rose gardens in Australia and approximately 80,000 trees. The site now covers 169 hectares or 422 acres. It is estimated that there have been 390,000 cremations and 139,000 burials.
Notable interments include:
- Sir Zelman Cowen – Governor-General
- Sir John McEwen – Prime Minister
- Frank Crean – Deputy Prime Minister
- Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell – Actor
- Jack Dyer – Legendary AFL Richmond Football Club player and media personality
- Darren Millane - Collingwood Football Club player
- Scobie Breasley – Prominent Jockey
- Tommy Woodcock – Phar Lap’s strapper
- Ethel Attiwell – WWI national nurse administrator
- Eight Victoria Cross recipients (more than any other Victorian cemetery), including Robert Grieves Cuthbert