Tales from the colonial crypt, Jock Phillips

Unearthly Landscapes: New Zealand’s Early Cemeteries, Churchyards and Urupā 
Stephen Deed
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781927322185

A confession: I am a cemetery buff. On arriving at any New Zealand settlement, it is not long before I find the local burial ground and spend an hour or so walking slowly along the lines of headstones perusing and reading every one. This is not some ghoulish addiction. It is because there is no quicker or more intense way to encounter our history. You learn intriguing personal stories, you confront tragic drownings or the loss of infants in epidemics. Unusual family relationships are suggested which leave you yearning to know more; and you wonder at the moral values inscribed in stone in tributes to leading citizens. The design of headstones offers insights into architectural history and bears a fascinating relationship to domestic styles. Cemeteries are beautiful, peculiarly peaceful places.

It is therefore surprising, indeed shaming, that Pākehā, though not Māori, have put so little store on their burial places. Genealogists, of course, have long used cemeteries as primary sources, but as Stephen Deed points out in this fascinating book, as recently as the 1960s both Auckland and Wellington drove motorways through their earliest cemeteries; it was not until 2004 that Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga registered any cemeteries as historic places; and except for Margaret Alington’s pioneering work on the Bolton Street cemetery, professional historians have ignored the subject.

So, despite the somewhat unpromising name of this book (cemeteries always seem to me, not other-worldly, but pre-eminently rooted in a place), Unearthly Landscapes must be enthusiastically welcomed. It is an excellent start to scholarship on the form. The book is especially strong in explaining the evolution of practice and policy. Deed notes that, during the very years when Europeans began to colonise New Zealand, the United Kingdom was dealing with a crisis in disposing of the dead. Traditionally, the dead were buried in churchyards, but, as the population grew and urban communities suffered deaths in numbers from plagues, city churchyards simply ran out of room. Bits of teeth and bones, fragments of wooden coffins would be uncovered as space was dug for yet another body. The stench was intolerable. Critics feared that disease would be the inevitable consequence. Private enterprise saw an opportunity and joint stock companies opened large cemeteries in which families could purchase plots where their dead would not be disturbed. Highgate cemetery in London, ironically the site of Karl Marx’s tomb, was perhaps the most famous of these capitalist initiatives. Wakefield colonists, eager to show that they were up with modern ideas, provided space for cemeteries from the beginning. Wellington set aside the Bolton Street and Mount Street (for Catholics) cemeteries. Later, the cycle repeated itself and, as the original cemeteries became crowded, there was a new trend for larger, more park-like places, some distance from the city centre – the Northern and Southern cemeteries in Dunedin, Te Henui in New Plymouth, Linwood in Christchurch, Waikumete in Auckland were among these second generation cemeteries. Of course, churchyards were also used at times here, such as around early missionary churches.

Alongside the history of Pākehā practice, Deed tells of the development of Māori burial practices. This, too, is an engrossing story. Traditionally, Māori would initially bury their dead; and then later, perhaps in a year or so, exhume the remains, clean the flesh from the bones and rebury them in a secret location safe from enemies. From the 1830s, as iwi conflict declined and European Christian practices had an influence, Māori began to bury their dead in urupā, sometimes attached to churches such as at Ōtaki’s Rangiatea, sometimes close to marae. A year or so later, instead of secondary burial there was the hura kōhatu, the unveiling of a headstone, or occasionally an upright waka or a papa tūpāpaku, an elevated box. Deed explores how these memorials often showed an intriguing mix of Māori and European iconography.

This is a rich history, told well. Pleasingly, Deed shows how the evolution of these practices in the colonial society reveals an interesting mix of old world influences and new world contexts. Stone headstones and metal fences are replaced by wood, yew trees by cabbage trees. He is also alert to the social distinctions that can be read into cemetery layout. The development of distinctive religious sections points up the ethnic divisions of colonial New Zealand. He notes that size of plots reflected class inequalities, although rather more could have been made of this.

The book is also put together elegantly. There are nicely-designed insets which allow the author to offer telling case studies. Historical photographs are mined closely for evidence of past practice, while modern images, many of them the author’s own, add a visual richness.

In a pioneering effort which began as a university thesis, there are inevitably less satisfactory aspects. There is some repetition, and this is particularly the case in a chapter on typologies which really summarises most of what has gone before. It would have been nice if the analysis of different types had been strengthened by some exact statistical evidence – we get examples of the different types of burial place, but no figures on their relative importance. There is a chapter entitled “Sticks and Stones” which begins to look at graves and burial grounds in their physical details. But it hardly scratches the surface – far more needs to be told about the meaning of the iconography of tombstones, and four pages on inscriptions does not tell you very much about the range of sentiments or how those sentiments changed over the course of the 19th century. Strangely, the book is not really a study of attitudes to death. That subject is barely touched. The way the dead were commemorated needs to be brought together with how they were remembered in funerals or obituaries, and how death was, or was not, confronted in colonial New Zealand. The book rather peters out in the late 19th century just as the flu epidemic, the Great War and urban wealth added much interest to graves. Unearthly Landscapes is therefore an elegant and enjoyable beginning which is essential background to those who enjoy a cemetery ramble. We look forward to further works that unpick what is distinctive and what is not about the New Zealand way of death.

Jock Phillips is a New Zealand historian whose latest book is To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials.

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