Dignity restored to Tokanui Hospital's 'lost souls'
Almost 85 years after she was buried in a South Waikato field, Elsie Annetta MacDonald and 456 other "lost souls" have been remembered.
The mother of three was committed to Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown and attempted to escape three times in an effort to see her children in Hamilton.
"Little did she know that the third time she escaped ... she wasn't coming back," grandson David Barrowclough said.
She was found dead on the side of the road not far from the hospital and buried at the Tokanui Cemetery in one of more than 500 unmarked graves.
"Just another Jane Doe or John Doe until today," Barrowclough said as he joined more than 200 people to commemorate the unveiling of the Tokanui Memorial Wall on Saturday morning.
The curved black granite wall lists the names of 457 former psychiatric patients buried on the sloping hill.
Some of those originally buried at the site have since been exhumed.
Hamilton man Maurie Zinsli began the project to erect the memorial wall back in 2014 after learning his great aunt, Maria Zinsli, was buried as Tokanui.
Back then, a corroded plaque set in a concrete block beside a farm gate was the only reminder of those buried there.
"I remember standing there and thinking, bloody hell, this isn't right," Zinsli said.
"It was so bloody heartbreaking it almost made me cry. You could see cows and tractors had been in the paddock. It was as if nobody cared."
Since then, each plot has been located and the name of the person buried there identified.
Zinsli's next goal is to put a headstone or plaque on each grave.
"For me, that would give these people dignity and their families closure," he said.
"These were loved ones who were buried in unmarked graves and weren't given coffins."
James R Hill Funeral Directors sponsored the building of the wall.
James R Hill manager Mark Reinsfield said he was inspired to help after reading about Zinsli's cause.
The story resonated with him because his grandfather was committed to a psychiatric hospital after suffering shell shock - what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder - after World War I.
His first visit to the cemetery was a sombre occasion.
"I remember walking down the hill and it just felt like the land was crying out," Reinsfield said.
"There was a sadness within me ... I just knew we had to do something to memorialise these people."
Waipa Mayor Jim Mylchreest said Zinsli had stirred the community's conscience "that something was not morally right" and had to be fixed.
Also buried at the Tokanui Cemetery are servicemen from World War I and II as well as the Anglo Boer War - and at least one from the Maori Wars of the 1800s.
Mylchreest said the cemetery was similar to overseas war graves in that it contained people who had not reached their full potential.
"These graves contain people who through no fault of their own were not able to lead full and happy lives within the community," he said.
Changes in treatment of those with mental illnesses as well as shifts in community attitudes meant many of those buried at Tokanui would today not be institutionalised.
"Shell shock, getting pregnant out of wedlock or just being a troublesome teenager were all reasons for being committed to a mental institution in the past.
"Today must be bittersweet for the families and friends of all these people. Today we pay respect to their memory and derive inspiration from the people that have suffered a psychiatric occurrence and died in Tokanui Hospital."