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Art and history carved on stones of life

If you walk through an old cemetery during your travels this summer, it’s more than likely you’ll find that many of the headstones and grave sites are derelict and neglected.

While there is a certain charm to places that feel forgotten, we have to ask ourselves what this says about how we value our ancestors and the heritage of our districts.

Councils manage public cemeteries and this usually includes the grounds and burials. Responsibility for headstones and grave sites sits with the families [the descendants of the people who are buried there]. However, with successive generations in many families living further and further away, often this maintenance doesn’t happen.

There is also a cultural element to this – while Māori value and maintain the burial places of ancestors, whānau and friends, in Pākeha culture this is much less common. Is this because we think of cemeteries as frightening places that we want to avoid because they remind us of our mortality? Or is it just not part of our mindset? While we might visit occasionally and leave a bunch of flowers, we are much less likely to visit regularly to clean family headstones and sweep away leaves.

Some cemeteries have community groups that do this work on behalf of absent families [and with the permission of the local councils]. The work they do includes cleaning and repairing headstones, restoring lead and painted lettering on headstones, painting cast iron railings, planting flowers, and carrying out research to discover the stories of the people who are buried in the cemetery.

Where councils allow such ‘friends’ groups to operate, dark and rundown cemeteries can be transformed into lovely places that are essentially ‘open air history museums’. Cemeteries like this are wonderful places to wander – whether you’re looking for your own family names, researching social and historical events in the district, or just admiring the elaborate stonemasonry and iron work.

Spectacular examples in our region include Bolton St and Karori cemeteries in Wellington, and Pāuatahanui [which is planted with heritage roses]. Near Woodville, the Old Gorge Cemetery is loaded with history and has a friends’ group that runs regular tours.

It’s important that headstone maintenance work follows some good practices. Off-the-shelf products for removing mould and lichen can damage marble, which is a relatively brittle stone, and in the long term can worsen problems with black mould. Similarly, these products will remove the painted lettering from granite headstones. Kemsol Mosskill and Bioshield are two recommended products, available online, which are PH balanced and don’t contain bleach or chlorine. And it’s common sense to not waterblast headstones or use wire brushes or abrasive products like oven cleaner.

A historic cemetery is an important and valuable place in a community. Why not take a stroll in your local cemetery this summer? If it feels neglected, perhaps you could talk to others in your community about getting a small group together to do some work there.

If you are travelling, you could check council cemetery databases online before you go, to find out where your ancestors lie. Pay them a visit, take some flowers [or a painted stone], have a tidy up and go back again soon.

Anne Nelson runs the friends’ group at Mangatainoka-Pahiatua Cemetery, where many of her ancestors are buried. Email [email protected] or visit facebook.com/ourcemetery

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