Grave neglect

HANNAH SPYKSMA
Last updated 08:46 16/09/2011
Grave Neglect
BEN CAMPBELL
HERITAGE DESTROYED: Historian Edward Bennett stands in the Presbyterian section of the Symonds Street Cemetery, where a grave has been completely destroyed and uplifted by the roots of a Pohutukawa tree.

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Many graves in the Symonds Street Cemetery are lying shattered and ruined.

Ongoing vandalism and limited maintenance contribute to the mess.

The Auckland Heritage Festival kicks off this weekend but it will have a disappointing undertone for Karangahape Rd historian Edward Bennett.

He is frustrated that nothing has been done to ensure the hundreds of heritage-listed graves in the cemetery are maintained.

"If you had a single building of iron and stone work of that quality with a tree growing through it, you'd cut the tree down," Mr Bennett says.

"But because that building is metaphorically taken apart and spread across the landscape the council doesn't seem to care."

Several trees in the park are growing through the middle of more than century-old burial sites.

But any native tree more than six metres high automatically has protection from being chopped.

Several tombstones are regularly knocked over.

A number were repaired by Auckland Regional Council following the Auckland City Harbour News' story about destruction of graves in the Jewish Quarter of the cemetery last year.

Almost $40,000 is spent each year to restore them but the issue of conserving one of Auckland's oldest heritage sites is still not being managed. A proposed fence around the cemetery to protect it from vandalism at night has not been actioned, even though the issue was raised one year ago.

Many graves and tombstones are overgrown with weeds and no lighting has been installed in the park.

Some parts of the cemetery are swamped by marshes, with roots of trees smashing through the historic monuments, uplifting and distorting them.

Council local and sports parks manager Mark Bowater says there is no official management plan in place but "a walk about" takes place at the start of most summers to assess what needs repairing.

The cemetery holds the grave of Captain William Hobson and many other well-known New Zealanders and was formerly controlled by Auckland Regional Council.

Responsibility for its management is under now under review, with a needs assessment being factored into the council's long term plan.

Mr Bowater says a security guard patrols the precinct and a report is being compiled on what tombstones need further repair work.

He believes responsibility ultimately lies with the Waitemata Local Board.

But this is news to the board members who have never been officially informed that management of the cemetery is in their hands.

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"I'm hoping it will be because it's yet just another heritage site that's not loved enough," Waitemata chairman Shale Chambers says.

Mr Chambers has ancestors buried in the cemetery and is keen to ensure the "general neglect" of the area stops with his local board.

He has support from member Christopher Dempsey who holds the heritage portfolio.

Mr Dempsey would like to see a substantial investment made towards reparation of the park and wants to hear from members of the community who would be interested in forming a work group to start maintaining it.

The local board is meeting with Auckland councillor Sandra Coney in the next few weeks to discuss how to proceed.

Mr Bennett takes tours of the cemetery and says the Auckland Heritage Festival will continue as usual over the next two weeks – celebrating the social and historical importance of Auckland's heritage.

But he hopes this year's festival will be different in that his calls for better management of the site will be heard.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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