THE controversial removal and burial of 88 headstones from the old Makaraka Cemetery continues to haunt the district council, as genealogists and descendants continue their efforts to bring them back into the light of day.
The headstones span a large part of the district’s early history, covering the period from 1880 until the 1920s.
New Zealand Society of Genealogists Gisborne members have been trying for several years to help restore them to the graves they commemorate or, if they are damaged, display them on a memorial wall or in an appropriate building in the cemetery.
The council earlier took the stance that it would provide no operational support for the project until the geneaologists had secured enough funding.
Spokeswoman Dot McCulloch told them the group now had a grant to enable them to bring the stones out of the ground, but not enough to build a structure in which to display them, should this be required.
The council decided to review its moral obligations to help, after impassioned pleas over the way the former Cook County Council by-passed all its statutory obligations in removing the headstones without consultation.
Council chief executive Judy Campbell said any legal action to remedy the situation was unlikely to succeed because of the length of time since the county council had first begun removing the old headstones about the late 1970s.
But the district council did have some moral obligations — she did not want people in the future saying another council had not followed its statutory obligations in relation to this.
It was decided to clarify this before deciding whether the council should give operational support to the project.
Commercial property manager Matt Feisst said the headstones belonged to the descendants of those whose graves they had marked but the council’s statutory obligation over what was done with them was to ensure the correct person was consulted.
Genealogists society Gisborne spokeswoman Dot McCulloch said after an earlier article in The Gisborne Herald, she had been inundated with emails and phone calls from more than 300 people, the vast majority wanting the headstones disinterred. The group now had written permission from 79.
One man knocked on her door, weeping, and gave her $100 towards the project.
Chris Ward, who researched the history of the issue after discovering his ancestor’s gravestone was one of those buried, said the stones had been buried on the riverbank in 1982, at the height of a drought, at a depth of about a metre.
It was believed the bottom of the trench was now waterlogged.
Dot McCulloch said Gisborne monumental mason Brian Shepherd would voluntarily oversee the operation to disinter them.
They had plenty of willing hands and strong muscles to do the shovelling.
They had also secured a temporary storage space for the stones nearby, should it not be possible to re-erect them.
Matt Feisst told councillors it would take a fulltime staff member six months to identify the correct relatives to consult for permission.
This would cost $15,000 to $20,000.
There were some dissenting views. In one case, one cousin might support their removal and another be opposed.
Pat Seymour said that at Uawa, the community had been able to uplift and rebury an entire cemetery without all this “kerfuffle”.
The genealogical society had put a lot of work into this.
If anyone could make things difficult, the council could, she said.
“We should be grateful to them — I can’t believe we would need a fulltime staff member for six months to get this done.”
The Genealogical Society was a reputable organisation and was not about to blot its copy book. The council should just let them get on with it.
It was decided to let the matter lie on the table until the council’s moral obligations were fully reviewed and make a decision at the following meeting.