Graveyard woes over water levels

Last updated 00:00 08/08/2007
WET, WET, WET: Funeral director Mane Neho at a sodden Hastings cemetery where mourners discover the true meaning of a watery grave, with just 15 minutes for services before plots start filling with water.

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Mourners at a sodden Hastings cemetery are discovering the true meaning of a watery grave, with funeral corteges given just 15 minutes for services before the plots start filling with water.

Funeral directors say Mangaroa cemetery, next to Hawke's Bay Regional Prison, has proven a tricky place for burials during wet winters, with high groundwater levels producing a problem.

One soggy burial last year turned into a macabre scene when a device to lower the casket into a flooded grave malfunctioned.

The coffin tipped on to its side in the water and mourners had to climb in and manoeuvre it back into position.

Havelock North funeral director Mane Neho said the driest place at the cemetery was by the prison fence.

Elsewhere, water levels were unpredictable, given the ground's porous pumice soil.

Mr Neho said he had developed a finely tuned routine for burials - including a time limit on graveside services and being prepared to start filling in a grave in a hurry.

"I ring up the cemetery guys on their cellphone and I say 'Hey bro, we'll see you in 15 minutes'. At that time they pump the water out. By the time we get there it's clear."

But sometimes the pump was still in the grave when the funeral cortege arrived.

"If there's a bit of water there I explain to the family it has to be pumped out, otherwise the person will be floating back up to Rarotonga or Auckland," Mr Neho said.

"It's upsetting for families to see them like that, but families have been very good about it."

The most common hitch was when the graveside service took longer than 15 minutes.

"Sometimes you get a minister who forgets to stop, and in the meantime the water is coming through and sometime it's halfway up the casket," Mr Neho said.

"We hurriedly fill the site in. Families are happy with that. Sometimes, we fill it in and then say goodbye, or we say goodbye while the family is filling in the grave."

Another funeral director, John Peryer of Hastings, said watery graves had been a periodic problem at Mangaroa for a long time, "but it has been dealt with expertly by council staff, very discreetly.

"By the time the funeral arrives, there is no worry for the families".

In the event of water flowing back into an open grave, he would normally not lower the casket into it till family had left the cemetery and the grave had been repumped.

Hastings District Council parks manager Derek Thompson said last year had been wet and difficult but the problem had not been as bad this year.

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In an ideal world, a cemetery would not be established in a high water table, and these days, the council would have a "wealth of technical information" about whether a site was suitable.

- The Dominion Post

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