Focus on the Land
Missing cemetery stones a ‘travesty’
Friday, August 03, 2012
DETAILS are emerging of alleged destruction of gravestones at Makaraka Cemetery in the 1970s, with a researcher calling it an unlawful “travesty”. Plans by the New Zealand Society of Genealogists Gisborne to recover 88 buried headstones have sparked interest in the cemetery but have also unearthed much deeper concerns.
Geologist and researcher Chris Ward says the 88 stones represent only one-fifth of the gravestones that were demolished “under the radar” and disappeared “without a trace” in the early 1970s.
Mr Ward found that 50 years ago, the then Cook County Council proposed a plan to clear two-thirds of the graves in a bid to “tidy up” the cemetery.
Over the next 10 years, about 450 headstones were “unlawfully” demolished.
The stones were stacked in piles adjacent to the Taruheru River and the wrought iron auctioned off.
A number of the more significant headstones were buried for protection in a trench at the far end of the cemetery in 1982, where they lie today.
Those that did not make the cut were broken down and disposed of at an unknown location.
Gisborne District Council, which absorbed Cook County Council in the late 1980s, says the exact number of headstones that were removed is “unclear” and believes all processes followed were legal.
Mr Ward says what happened was a “complete travesty”.
“Graves have an intrinsic value to the community and the history of a place — and they just demolished graves as they saw fit.
“They pretended that this was an instruction to clear graves that were dilapidated and ‘unsafe’.
“They made not the slightest attempt to contact family members and most people who lived through this time knew nothing about it.”
Mr Ward says the genealogical society’s report on Makaraka Cemetery gives a “very sketchy and extremely cryptic story” of the cemetery’s history, claiming many of the headstones had simply “sunk” into the ground over time.
Mr Ward is adamant there must be formal recognition of the damage.
“I want to see a much greater degree of understanding and recognition for that loss.
“I want to see that recognition in the form of a monument.”
One Gisborne woman says her mother, who was a regular visitor at her grandparents’ grave, returned from holiday in 1973 to find the headstone was missing.
“The base might have been in disrepair but the actual headstone was a marble cross and it was intact . . . and it was completely gone,” she said.
Upset that the family received no notification of the demolition, the woman’s mother wrote a series of letters to Cook County Council.
She was told that the headstone “was probably placed with other filling in the old creek bed at the northern end of the cemetery”.
Dorothy McCulloch, of the genealogical society, says news of what had happened at the cemetery had surprised her.
“People had no idea this was happening whatsoever — none. Some of them never even knew that their relatives were buried there.
“The more I’ve found out, the more sick I feel.”
However, Mrs McCulloch says while they are interested in what happened to the other headstones, they need to “put the horse before the cart”.
“There’s no point doing anything until the 88 headstones are out of the ground.”
She says investigating the issue will not make much difference.
“Some people say the council should be held responsible. There’s no point blaming this person and that person.
“I would like to see the council put a headstone up with all the names and that be the end of it.”
Gisborne District Council commercial property manager Matt Feisst is aware of the concerns but says the cemetery was “tidied up following a lengthy period of consultation with the community”.
He believes all the processes followed were legal.
“We do believe Cook County Council did what it thought was right.”
The council acknowledges that 88 headstones were recorded and buried in a trench but the exact number all headstones removed is “unclear”.
“There is a significant number that are not in their original positions. It is not clear what happened to those headstones.”
Mr Ward says evidence he has uncovered clearly shows the processes were unlawful.
When Cook County Council realised that the clearance would require a detailed project proposal to be signed off by the Governor General, they instead “pretended” to go through the process using 1967 regulations that were not applicable.
“They realised they needed special legislation to give them authority. But they didn’t have that authority.
“The 1967 regulations under which they pretended to carry out the clearance, required the council to make diligent inquiry and contact each family member individually for each grave they had to clear. They didn’t do any of that. They didn’t even think of that.
“They did things they saw fit. They thought that they were doing things that were common sense and appropriate and they got away with it, but they can’t get away with it today.”
Chris Ward with one of the old headstones that remains in the cemetery
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