Neglect and decay

How to look after an ageing cemetery

As early as 1876, the New Zealand Herald was reporting on the neglected state of the cemetery “threatening to become a positive scandal.”

This became a theme in news about the cemetery.

In 1909, the Auckland Star carried an article with the headlines “The Forgotten Dead. A Cemetery of Ruins. Open Vaults and Broken Coffins.” 29 July 1909

Harder, better, dearer

Some headstone materials last better than others.

The granite headstones look much newer than their dates suggest. This is because polished granite is the hardest, most impervious stone material for outdoor memorials. On the Measure of Hardness Scale (MOHS), where diamonds are rated 10, natural granite is between 6 and 7.

Marble, which was commonly used in 19th century headstones, has a MOHS rating of 3. (By comparison, hard plastic is 2.)

Marble was used because it was less expensive to cut, polish and carve with the tools of the time. Salt in the air, and hydrocarbon and sulphur dioxide pollution contribute to the decomposition of the calcite structure in marble, so it erodes much more quickly than marble.

The most eroded headstones in the cemetery are made of local sandstone. The pink headstones are of better quality Tasmanian sandstone.

The horizontal ridges on some early sandstone headstones indicated they were hand sawn.

Many early headstones, and the grave surrounds, were made of wood. These have not survived.

These lost grave markers may partly account for the fact that many more bodies were discovered than expected, when exhuming remains for the building of the motorways.

Materials for monuments

Grave robber

Pōhutukawa seeds are unusual in that they germinate best in clear, exposed spaces. So you will find tiny seedlings growing from small cracks in the concrete of memorials.

Over time, the tree will envelope its host grave, sometimes destroying the grave surrounds or headstone, with its roots.

This leads to a tricky heritage situation. Which should prevail: the old tree, or the older grave?

Trees take over

  • <p>A tiny pōhutukawa seedling takes root in a crack in a cemetery memorial.</p>
  • <p>Years later the pōhutukawa has come to dominate the grave site.</p>