Cemetery seeks answers to issue of space

CULTURAL ASPECTS: Dalmatian Historical Society secretary George Mihaljevich in front of the mausoleums at Waikumete Cemetery.
CULTURAL ASPECTS: Dalmatian Historical Society secretary George Mihaljevich in front of the mausoleums at Waikumete Cemetery.

There's no room six feet under in New Zealand's biggest cemetery, but there is space to rest in peace in a big new hillside mausoleum.

That's the word from Auckland City over the long-term fate of its 108-hectare Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland.

Founded in 1886, Waikumete is filling up and the city has published a draft plan on what to do next.

The documents offer a fascinating insight into the dearly departed department.

The authors say the Waikumete Cemetery is a "cultural landscape of local, regional, national and international significance".

But its vast scale and intricate layout are posing problems. And people keep dying.

Unless more space can be found, Waikumete will post the "No Vacancy" sign by 2018.

To avoid this and offer 50 more years of burials, it is looking at using some of the steep slopes for mausoleums.

Waikumete has 59 private mausoleums. The first was built by the Corban wine family in 1914. They vary in size with the largest holding 40 caskets.

Auckland City has built two public mausoleums and the "uptake of pre-purchased chambers ... has been very strong".

The first, with room for 24, is full and the second, finished in 2010, takes 96 and is filling fast.

Without more mausoleums, West Aucklanders face the prospect of nowhere in the city limits for their departed.

"Without a cemetery in West Auckland, residents would be forced to travel considerable distance to bury their loved ones and attend their graves."

The draft plan says 450 to 500 lawn burials are made a year.

The council says it is "actively encouraging" two interments per plot. There is no mention of how people are encouraged.

Before 1923, when the first crematorium opened at Waikumete, it catered exclusively for burials.

By 2010, the percentage of burials at Waikumete had reduced to 43 per cent and cremations had increased to 57 per cent.

"It is perhaps the decline in the number of people holding traditional Judaeo-Christian beliefs (which favours conventional burial) and increased immigration from Asia (whose peoples often favour cremation), which most likely underpins the rise in cremation rates."

Along with mausoleums, the plan says people are beginning to favour "natural burial" which provides for an unembalmed interment into a grave which is unmarked, apart from the planting of a native tree.

The body is either buried in a coffin constructed from sustainably sourced untreated timber or is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud. With a big area of forest, Waikumete is good for natural burials.

Other information from the draft plan includes the note that Waikumete has the largest single collection of Victoria Cross holders in New Zealand.

The "Stillborn Sanctuary" is almost full, but another one is being developed.

The forest around the graves is valued as a "unique habitat" for several threatened indigenous species, including rare orchids, two grass species and a critically endangered liverwort.

The scrub is also home to populations of threatened native reptiles, including protected species of copper skink and the Auckland green gecko.