Old burial grounds have seen a lot of life

00:54, Jul 31 2012
Wakapuaka Cemetery
REFLECTION: Wakapuaka Cemetery is a reminder to live life to the full, as well as offering intriguing stories of those who are buried there.

In my view, cemeteries are places for reflection, and a reminder that life should be lived to the full, with every day celebrated.

Cemeteries are often located in areas of beauty, can be visited any time and offer a gentle walk in the fresh air. I was therefore surprised when my children weren't keen to come with me on cemetery research trips. They suggested that finding the best ice-cream or chocolate bar would be much more fun.

Fortunately, my mother was keen to accompany me and, as an amateur historian, she was a mine of information.

When we started our travels, I wasn't sure of the criteria for judging the best cemetery in Nelson. Should it be the biggest, smallest, oldest, have the most notorious residents, or the most magnificent view?

Once I had visited a few I realised that the important thing is not size but the stories contained within.

Wakapuaka Cemetery, which dates from 1861, is a fascinating place. Situated on a hillside overlooking the Haven, almost 16,000 people have been buried here, including many of Nelson's notable citizens. The amphitheatre layout adds to the drama.


Wakapuaka is the home of the Maungatapu Murder Memorial. In 1866 five men on the Maungatapu Track, between Nelson and Wairau, were killed by the “Burgess gang” in a style resembling something from America's wild-west. One of the gang turned on his co-accused and provided the evidence that convicted them. For this he escaped the gallows. His colleagues were not so lucky.

Several heritage trails have been established in the Wakapuaka Cemetery and information on them is available from Nelson City Council. For example, the Notable Women trail has inspiring stories about people like Ann Bird, said to be the first woman immigrant to come ashore at Nelson. She arrived on the Fifeshire in 1842 and ran her husband's butcher's shop after he died.

I am intrigued by areas provided for each religious denomination in many cemeteries, with separate sections for Catholics, Methodists (Wesleyans), Church of England, and the "general public". I read of a case at Fairfield Park Cemetery where a young man wanted to be buried in the Catholic section, but his parents were Protestant. They compromised and he was buried on the dividing line between the Catholic and the Protestant plots.

There are four closed historic cemeteries in Nelson City: Hallowell, Trafalgar Street (Fairfield Park), the Quakers Acre Cemetery and Haven Cemetery. Hallowell Cemetery, also known as the Old Burying Ground, is a gem you can access via steps off Shelbourne St. It was used from the 1840s until 1885. There aren't many graves here but a display board provides the names of people originally buried. I was struck by how many had died by drowning while crossing rivers.

The infamous Maungatapu murderers are buried at Hallowell, but outside the walls as their crimes were considered too heinous to allow them final resting places within.

The Fairfield Park Cemetery, originally known as Trafalgar Street Cemetery, was used from 1851 to 1910. It has a reputation for being haunted, which is probably not an uncommon status for a cemetery.

I have spent a lot of time at Fairfield, as I walk through it twice daily as take children to and from school. Many of the earlier gravestones are damaged, faded or unmarked and, in some cases, have been relocated to other cemeteries. To the disappointment of my children, we haven't seen any ghosts.

The two smallest cemeteries are Haven Cemetery (Malcolm Pl), which was used from the 1840s to 1868, and the Quakers Acre Cemetery, up steep concrete steps near the Selwyn Pl traffic lights. Quakers Acre, used from 1854 to 1875, is the site of the first meeting house of the Society of Friends in New Zealand and is now an inner city "Quiet Garden”. It isn't an acre in size, isn't quiet and the garden is somewhat neglected, but it is an interesting place to reflect and ask yourself such questions as why did Nelson have so many small cemeteries close to town?

In my travels I was sobered by the number of gravestones of more than 100 years old which were for children and young women. The infant mortality rate was high and it was not uncommon for a woman to die during childbirth. My mother recalled that the trousseau a bride took to her new home often included a shroud for herself and her baby. The shroud could have been the bridal gown or veil adorned with black ribbons and trim.

I expect my mother will be able to accompany me on many more outings, but until burial grounds feature the odd ice-cream stall, we won't be accompanied by the kids.