05 October 2013

Auckland walks: Symonds Street Cemetery

Our rather dapper-looking guide, dressed in period costume
Two hours meandering around a cemetery may not be everyone’s idea of a fun Sunday afternoon but it is mine! With a knowledgeable guide to explain the history of the site, to point out heritage flora, to tell the tales of interesting pioneers and to clarify the meanings of gravestone decorations, this resting place of the dead was magically brought to life … and there wasn’t a ghost or zombie to be seen!

The guided walk was part of the Auckland Heritage Festival, an annual event which this year runs from 28 September to 13 October. There’s a programme of events throughout Auckland  – so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to choose which to attend as they all sound great. I’ve chosen to learn more about inner-city Auckland where I live so this will be the first of a few blogs about these heritage meanderings.

With burials dating from the early 1840s, Symonds Street Cemetery was Auckland’s first, though it was closed after just 40 years and, except for additional members of families already buried at the cemetery, deceased central Aucklanders were later interred at the newly opened Waikumete Cemetery instead. This was partly because the city was growing at such a pace that the cemetery grounds were soon surrounded by houses and businesses and partly because the Victorians had become aware of the dangers of disease caused by decaying remains contaminating their ground water.

The cemetery is not as unified as its name implies: there are, in fact, five separate cemeteries, one each for the Jews, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Wesleyans, and they are each quite different in character, a reflection of the individual religions’ beliefs about idolatry and the use of decoration. The gravestones of the Wesleyan section, for example, are relatively plain, in keeping with the conservative nature of the religion itself. The Wesleyans were, however, very inclusive – they allowed the burial in their consecrated grounds of those who had committed suicide, which in earlier times was not permitted by Catholics and Anglicans.

The material used for grave-markers ranges from local stone to fine Italian marble, with many graves also surrounded by fences of finely worked wrought iron. Most are not local creations but were brought from Europe – apparently, after the introduction of the refrigerated ships that carried New Zealand produce to Britain, the practice was to fill the hulls of these ships with heavy items like gravestones and iron for the return journey to New Zealand, so much of the ornate marble decoration was actually carved in Italy and only the names of the deceased were added by Auckland masons.


Some years ago I completed a university paper called ‘The Art of Death’, about the iconography of death in Ancient Greece, so I found our guide’s explanations of the gravestone decorations particularly fascinating. For example, did you know that a broken column signifies a life cut short and, if that column has a wreath of flowers or leaves carved around it, then the grave is almost certainly for a young woman? Were you aware that a draped urn was a symbol for the uncertainty of life, or that images of hands being shaken indicate the hands of the deceased and the living clasped in farewell? Did you know that the unusual shape of the passionfruit flower was interpreted as symbolic of the crucifixion, or that the depiction of the tree of life, symbolising a family of several generations, is quite common on Victorian gravestones?

As well as flora carved in stone, the Symonds Street Cemetery also contains some heritage plants, escapees from funeral wreaths and survivors of plants planted by loved ones. Roses ramble over rusty railings (sorry, couldn’t resist the alliteration), camellias have grown into huge trees, and you can even find the occasional burst of bright pink oxalis flower – not the invasive weed all gardeners’ dread, but an ornamental variety commonly grown in Victorian flowerbeds.

The passionfruit flower, symbolic of the crucifixion

I have no personal connection to any of the people buried in the Symonds Street Cemetery – at least, not any more. A 19-year-old great-great uncle was buried in the Anglican section in 1869 but his body was one of the thousands disinterred during motorway construction in the 1960s. But the cemetery is the final resting place of some famous early New Zealanders and of many of Auckland’s founding families. Governor William Hobson lies here, as do many early mayors and businessmen and their families. The remains of Baron de Thierry and several members of his family were amongst those disinterred in the 60s.

As a family historian, I have spent many hours walking around cemeteries looking for ancestors’ graves but these two hours exploring the Symonds Street Cemetery were by far the most interesting yet.