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“Let’s go for a walk,” said Lynsey.

“Okay, but let’s go somewhere different,” was my response.

This is how we ended up walking through the Karori Cemetery this afternoon.

My family moved to the Wellington suburb of Karori 30 years ago and I am still living here! In those days it was typical for Karori to be referred to as the “dead centre” of town. This changed as the years passed. I suspect this was because more and more people were starting to be buried in the new cemetery at Makara; a more isolated cemetery, about three kilometres west of Karori.

When people asked where I lived and I said Karori, a typical reaction would be: “Why would you want to live there?”

Living in an area that was the final resting place of thousands of Wellingtonians seemed somehow macabre to many.

Karori Cemetery is New Zealand’s second largest burial ground, covering nearly 40 hectares. It was the final resting place of about 80,000 people.

The cemetery was established in 1891 … The Cemetery filled quickly and by the 1950s had nearly reached maximum capacity. Makara Cemetery became Wellington’s principal cemetery in 1965. The only plots available now at Karori Cemetery are pre-purchased ash or family plots, and children’s plots.

Karori Cemetery’s crematorium is the oldest in Australasia. It opened in 1909, and was New Zealand’s first crematorium.

Source: Wellington City Council’s Introduction to Karori Cemetery

I walked around in wonderment. I was filled with an overwhelming sense that this place was full of untold stories: Love stories, tragedies, family sagas, prominent lives, war, illness, old age, both fulfilled and unfulfilled potential, wealth, poverty, different religions, immigrants, children, and secrets. I felt like I was walking amongst history and as my camera lens was pointed here, there, and everywhere a visual feast opened itself up to me. I could barely contain my excitement. The graves were all so different but all of them were a reminder of the person who once lived amongst us.

The first burial (Fred Fish) occurred in 1891, though no regular use of the new cemetery occurred until 1892. Fred Fish lay alone for these six months, in a grave which was unmarked for 100 years until centenary activities deemed him worthy of notice.

The cemetery office holds the records for 151,409 people who have been interred or cremated. There are more than 3,113,995 separate records relating to these people kept in the Karori Cemetery office for public viewing.

Karori Cemetery, 1896
Karori Cemetery, 1896. Photo shows the mortuary chapel surrounded by early graves in the Anglican, public, Jewish and Catholic sections.

Source for text and photo:
History and description of Karori Cemetery from the Wellington City Council’s Cemetery Management Plan

The colours, the flowers, the trees, the graves, the inscriptions on the graves, the cracked and weathered concrete, the decorations and embellishments, the rusting fences, the wooden fences, the stone walls, the park benches, the lichens, the rush of water from the stream, the houses that backed on to parts of the cemetery, the hills, the mist in the hills, the clouds, the birds and insects, and the people tending their loved one’s grave. My senses were overloaded, yet I kept thinking about the stories. Who was this person buried here? What was their story? Had anybody heard it and was it being passed on to others? There are so many people buried here, from all walks of life, from young to old, and here they all are, side by side, sharing this space on earth. Their physical remains are buried here but their spirit is elsewhere. However, this place had a spirit all of its own.

As I walked I was mesmerised by the beauty before me. I was also taken aback by the stillness and the peacefulness.

I came across a grave bearing the surname of a family friend. I wondered what relation they were to her. I made a mental note to phone my mother when I got home and see if she knew the connection.

I looked for the grave of my best friend’s parents and brother; I couldn’t find it. This place is huge. We spent about two hours here and we only managed to look at a small section of this cemetery.

The exciting thing is that people have started to recognise the historical significance of cemeteries and the importance of putting an effort into conserving them. The surge of interest in genealogy has been a significant contributor to this growing interest.

For too long, cemeteries were a dead-end venture. More mobile communities meant that relatives no longer regularly visited their dead or tended their graves. Older cemeteries, reaching full capacity, did little to generate an income stream to support their maintenance.

Only vandals seemed to take much pride in their work at some of our cities’ burial sites. The ravages of weather, plus the untrammelled path neglected trees were taking, had them fast turning into jungles.

“These are outdoors museums and they ought to be conserved,” says Stewart Harvey … “Every grave has a story to tell; every cemetery has a story to tell” … Just go and stand in front of a Victorian headstone – with its great tall obelisk and ornate angels – to see what he means: “you can just about feel the history.”

Source: Geraldine Johns, Buried Treasure, Heritage New Zealand, Summer 2004

There is even an art to grave cleaning as I have discovered.

How to clean graves
Source: Karori Historical Society web site, How to clean graves

You might well be wondering why I chose the image of the heart made of carefully placed stones on one of the graves to depict my day.

It’s simple – it represented what I felt. To me this cemetery was full of love for those who had lived amongst us and had died.

These stones were purposely placed in the shape of a heart – this didn’t happen randomly. I can only guess at it’s signifcance. Perhaps they were placed there by someone who loved the person buried in the grave beneath, or perhaps someone visitng the cemetery was in love and wanted to leave a message expressing this fact. Who knows the true story.

As I looked at these stones I felt a connection with whoever had placed them there. I felt warm inside. I was reminded that even when people die they live on within us. I was also reminded of how important it is to give time to those you love – to be there for them and to share experiences because our time together is precious and we never know when it might end.

The reason I chose this image is simple – I shared this experience with someone I love very deeply, my husband.

This is how I spent my afternoon. What did you do?

I can highly recommend visiting your local cemetery, especially if it is a historic one. Walk around. Allow the environment to soak into your being. Connect with those you’ve loved and lost. Feel grateful for the time you did spend together and enjoy the fact that you are still here. You are alive so make the most of this time you do have. This time is precious and none of us can afford to sqander it.

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2 Responses to “Day 14: Meandering through a graveyard”

  1. […] From here we headed out to Karori and visited numerous sites including the Karori library, the newest library in Wellington, and the cemetery. […]

  2. on 14 Aug 2014 at 10:28 am Barbara

    What a wonderful post – such good description of the delights in this gem heritage site. And they are all relevant even though your post was done 7 years ago. I live next door to the Cemetery, and have set up a small venture to take people on guided walks. Take a look at my website – http://www.karoricemeterywalk.net.nz – I’ve just added a blog page but it is rather bland, and compared to your blog post makes for dull reading!!!!! And your post reminds me I should liven it up with a few photos. Thanks.
    B
    Barbara

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