Tokanui Hospital Cemetery restoration project nears completion

Maurie Zinsli, project restoration manager for Tokanui Hospital Cemetery brushes up a mounted headstone that will hold a ...

Maurie Zinsli, project restoration manager for Tokanui Hospital Cemetery brushes up a mounted headstone that will hold a plaque.

Maurie Zinsli drags a trolley laden with concrete slabs across an uneven paddock in the middle of nowhere and talks to the sky.

"Come on, Aunty, where are you?"

Since last August, the Hamilton man's mission has been to find his great aunt Maria Zinsli's grave is amongst the grass at Tokanui, along with 455 others in the field.

Maurie Zinsli stands in Tokanui Hospital Cemetery in August 2014, when it was just a grass field with a corroded plaque ...

Maurie Zinsli stands in Tokanui Hospital Cemetery in August 2014, when it was just a grass field with a corroded plaque mounted in the corner.

The field, surrounded by an AgResearch farm, contains the remains of patients from the former Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital, which closed in 1998.

They're a mixture of children, war veterans, husbands, wives and others considered mentally ill. They're buried 10 centimetres apart in the land, which is under Department of Conservation management.

For 40 years, a corroded plaque set in a concrete block beside a farm gate had served as the only reminder that they are there.

After having great difficulty trying to find his relative's grave, Zinsli began spearheading a project to mark all the graves with plaques and erect a memorial wall listing the names of each of the souls buried in the field. 

Following publicity, dozens of businesses from the wider region offered their time and services to the project and a memorial wall is set for an unveiling before Christmas. 

"This wouldn't have happened without them - not a hope in Hades. 

"I'm a little bit sad it hasn't progressed quicker, but good things take time. We are getting there, and that's the main thing."

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The first burial took place in 1914, Zinsli said. 

"The first one has been waiting 101 years - that's a helluva long time to wait for some recognition."

Researcher Anna Purgar has verified 456 former patients are buried at Tokanui, though the original plaque claims "500 plus" are in the cemetery.

"If you go through [the burial records] and add them up, it may be over 500, but a lot of them didn't have plot numbers," Purgar said.

Purgar had matched names on the records with people buried in Te Awamutu, Kihikihi, Huntly, Hamilton, Hawera and Pio Pio.

She's worked on the project for close to 18 months. Her personal link is her husband's great-great-grandmother Mary Ambrose, who she learned wasn't buried in Porirua and was thought to have died at Porirua Lunatic Asylum. 

Stock used to graze the land to keep the grass down, something that initially shocked Purgar.

"I was angry for a good couple of weeks. That's just not on."

She said 15 names can be matched with military records for World War I, although she could only verify four of them. A fifth has been confirmed as a Boer War veteran.

"When they came in, they were in their 40s or 50s, so they may have served [in the war] but it may not show on their file. The only thing is if they came off the boat after World War I."

The Returned Services Association could never have created a memorial of this scale had the community not come on board, said Terry Findlay, vice president of Waikato, King Country and Bay of Plenty RSA.

"You're looking at $10,000 just on the stone wall."

On Anzac Day, the first-ever wreath laying took place at the site.

Findlay said the service was quite emotional and the RSA intends to visit the site annually each Anzac Day. 

Findlay added that the RSA could have probably done some kind of memorial to the war veterans, but it was important to honour everyone buried at the site. 

"There're a lot more people in there who are just as important. There're quite a few small graces that are children, and it's important that they are recognised."

To find out more about the cemetery restoration, visit 

 - Stuff


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