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‘Dead we become the lumber of the world…’ Rosemary McLeod reviews a new book on the New Zealand way of death

Rosemary McLeod reviews Unearthly Landscapes, New Zealand’s early churchyards, cemeteries and urupa by Stephen Deed (Otago University Press, $50.00).

Death can bring out the worst in people. Families seethe their way through funeral services, burials and lawyers’ offices, and yes, they also mourn the person who has gone forever, though they have different ways of showing it.

An aunt turned feral on her mother’s death. She wanted the lot, starting with the rarely sat-upon Sanderson-covered lounge suite in the lounge we almost never entered. I noticed then how possessions that had combined to express the life of my grandmother now looked like forlorn mementoes in junk shops. Without my grandmother to animate the space, borer holes showed in the woodwork, and there were chips in the china – but it was all a battleground. My aunt grieved with anger.

When my mother died her aunts rushed to be of help. Think of the scene in Zorba the Greek when the rich old woman takes her last breath while fellow villagers, black human crows, scamper off with her possessions. As for my father, his home was the scene of decades of melodramas, one of which I had to negotiate with his sister when he died. She granted me a large and very ugly china bull, an antique warming pan, and his farm working clothes, folded neatly on his bed. She’d taken the time to make a bonfire of his more personal possessions before I arrived. That funeral pyre was how she claimed him for herself.

That aunt, who’d never let a man near her, happily let a young male nurse bath her on her way to the great reckoning in the sky, dying of a brain tumour just as my mother, who she hated, had done. Death has a sense of humour. It has to.

All of these once-vivid people now lie in the same cemetery, because we’ve all got to go somewhere. ‘Dead we become the lumber of the world,’ wrote wicked Lord John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, translating Seneca. Rochester had no great liking for mankind, living or dead, and popped his clogs at 32 after a life of debauchery. He and Seneca had a point. We may cease to exist but we clog up the earth in death just as we do in life, lying in neat rows in our wooden boxes, roués and spinster aunts alike, and what with man-made pollution and climate change we’re arguably a waste of space either way.

In films the deceased person is always buried in a cemetery full of character, old roses winding round headstones, and weeping marble angels. In real life you get to lie in a new cemetery lined up under identical slabs of stone. Nobody can afford monuments any more, but if you’re lucky you get plastic flowers in a plastic vase, before they get pinched.

If I could choose I’d buried in the Dissenters’ cemetery on a hill overlooking Akaroa harbour. Death would be pleasingly dull, endlessly squabbling about religious points of order in that quiet spot among the trees, but it’s bound to be bulldozed over one day. Only death lasts an eternity..

Better, maybe, to be cremated and have your ashes blow into a flowering gorse bush like my friend Jackie, who would have laughed, or back onto your mourners, as in The Big Lebowski.

Echoing Stephen Deed’s history of early cemeteries, my great-great grandmother was lowered into the earth on family land in the Wairarapa, with a laurel hedge planted around her. Why laurels? Is death some kind of victory? The poor woman was only 42. Such graveyards on farm property are still dotted round our countryside, though for how long we can’t say.

My great-grandfather dug her up when he made money and replanted her in the Masterton cemetery, where she now lies in the family plot under a concrete obelisk, vivid graffiti all over it, the concrete covering the crowded family coffins cracking like the shell on a boiled egg. You can be sure that one day juvenile gang prospects and glue sniffers will squirt your carefully chosen Biblical – or Buddhist – quotations with fluorescent pink, smash your headstone, and toddle home believing they’ve done a good day’s work.

It was ever thus, but when we allow such vandalism to happen we lose a chunk of our history, which it’s Deed’s mission to explain. His argument for preserving our old cemeteries and listing them as historic places is compelling. Unearthly Landscapes is both an account of our early churchyards, cemeteries and urupa, and a plea for their preservation before benign neglect or vandalism, official or otherwise, destroys what we can never retrieve.

He begins with the English way of death before colonisation. The churchyard cemeteries that look so romantic in Victorian illustrations prove to have been overcrowded, fetid and foul by the 19th century, with coffins bobbing about, in some cases, in soggy ground barely below the grass. He tells us, ‘The corpses decaying in the crowded churchyards and under the flagstone floors of the churches were thought to produce foul miasmas, which corrupted the air and transmitted disease.’ There were no deodorising aerosol cans then to neutralise matters.

The picturesque had to be abandoned as reality set in, and cemeteries were organised to be on the edge of town, or even further out, an idea copied from antiquity. At first they were funded by entrepreneurial businessmen, selling plots for profit in accordance with the laissez-faire politics of that time and ours, but in due course local councils accepted responsibility as part of the public service they provide.

The old Masterton cemetery where my family lies squabbling would have been one of these new burial places, next to the impressive public park whose period design has slowly been ravaged by garden “designers” with the council’s blessing. It’s now a dog’s breakfast.

When I was small I used to be taken to visit the graveyard, passing military rows of lobelia, bedding begonias, petunias, or bold marigolds as autumn approached, and past a perfect bandstand where I never heard any band play. The smell of hyssop instantly takes me back there, dropping flowers on graves while my mother dabbed her eyes with a white handkerchief.

That old part of that cemetery is now closed, and the new one is not inviting: it’s the semi wilderness of old cemeteries that make them appealing, and stories like the fates of so many 19th century babies and small children who went to a better place thanks to diptheria, scarlet fever, or measles. How pious those people were. One of my relatives chose Shelley’s Adonais: ‘He has awoken from the dream of life.’ Just think. We used to believe.

The lost Maori burial sites in Deed’s book are the ones I’d most want to see. Images survive of urupa and wahi tapu at the point of contact between colonial and Maori culture, and are reproduced here. A wahi tapu in the Hokianga drawn by Joel Samuel Polack in about 1836 is one of them. You envy him for having seen it. A surveyor recorded Jacky Love’s grave at Te Awaiti in detail in 1843, and I guess a later monument to him, unveiled in 1987 at the Waikawa Cemetery, was an attempt to replace the irreplaceable. What a loss.

If we wrecked Maori cemeteries we have always wrecked our own. Wellington’s Bolton Street cemetery had a motorway carved through it. Auckland’s Symonds Street cemetery is also on land too valuable to leave alone. But even in the 19th century graveyards were not especially well maintained, Deed tells us. They were good for burial ceremonies, especially for minority cultures like the Jewish and Chinese, but having done their duty by these observances maybe people lost interest, or just moved on.

That was the case with graveyards commemorating Pakeha soldiers who died during the Land Wars. These were neglected quite soon, and slowly forgotten. Deed quotes a visitor to the burial ground at Rangiriri asking, ‘Do you see that dismantled church, with the roof torn off, and but two sides of the wall remaining; the clay trodden into a dung-heap, and the chancel itself defiled; and do you see the dilapidated fence and that trodden-down grave …Even the very boards erected to chronicle the name and age of the sleeping few have been ruthlessly torn up and burned for firewood.’ But who cared?

Most such cemeteries – other than Maori – were abandoned, but those in towns and cities didn’t fare much better. In 1863 Dunedin’s Southern Cemetery was used as a depot for stable manure that spilled over onto Catholic graves, and the wooden palings surrounding graves were widely pilfered for firewood.

We’re still at it. In 2004 Jewish graves at Wellington’s Makara and Bolton Street cemeteries were smashed, and a Jewish chapel burnt down. In 2007 vandals attacked Jewish graves in Karori, daubing swastikas and graffiti on headstones. ‘Why should the family of a dead Jew in Wellington suffer for what is in the mind of an anti-Semite?’ David Zwartz, head of the region’s Jewish council asked. There was no answer, though efforts were made to beef up security.

As a variation on the theme, in 2011 it was revealed that headstones from the Kioreroa Cemetery in Whangarei had been used as infill to shore up the Onerahi sea front. There was nobody to argue the rights of the dead, who believed they had bought a spot to rest for eternity. By contrast Maori, despite the upheaval of their culture, looked after their own burial places even when Pakeha were digging up Maori dead to supply European museums with anthropological specimens.

The apparently narrow subject of graveyards throws up many tangents, all of which showcase hypocrisy and confusion in our attitude to the dead, currently so enthusiastically eulogised in official World War I events. The irony is that soldiers who survived that terrible war returned to face only the usual uncertainties and indignities of our dead in their turn. My grandfather, who fought on the Somme, lies under a hail of graffiti with the best of them.

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