Monday, January 25, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“UNEARTHLY LANDSCAPES – New Zealand’s Early Cemeteries, Churchyards and Urupa” by Stephen Deed (Otago University Press, $NZ50)
As I have remarked before on this blog [look up the post Let’s Talk of Worms and Graves and Epitaphs], I have a longstanding interest in graveyards – or “cemeteries” if you wish to be more polite – and have always considered visiting them one of the most interesting things one can do when one is in a foreign city. Where else but in an old graveyard can one reflect so readily, not only on the passage of time, but also on the changing of fashions in the way the dead are honoured, on the inevitability of death and on other weighty and interesting matters? And what a pleasure it always is to look at what people once considered appropriate epitaphs and appropriate monumental decoration, and to see the birth and death dates of the interred corpses. If you are of an historical bent, reflections on both longevity and the instance of child mortality will soon arise. A graveyard (particularly a large one) is both a park and a history text spread before you. And usually such a peaceful place, too.
So it was with great engagement that I read Stephen Deed’s Unearthly Landscapes – New Zealand’s early cemeteries, churchyards and urupa. How reassuring to find at least another human being who shares my offbeat interest!
A bit over 200 pages long (exclusive of notes, bibliography and index) and presented in horizontal page shape to accommodate its many illustrations, Unearthly Landscapes devotes its second chapter to pre-European and early-European-era Maori funerary customs. It returns to Maori themes in Chapter 4. But Deed is mainly concerned with Pakeha graveyards and other burial places in New Zealand since the beginning of (post-1840) European settlement.
As with all books that are so lavishly illustrated, I (like, I suspect, most potential readers) first had an orgy of examining the pictures rather than the text – from the twin monumental angels at Koputaroa that face the title page to the ancient (1860s) photo of Auckland’s Symonds Street cemetery, which was removed in the 1960s when a motorway was pushed through; from the ostentatious Lanarch family tomb in North Dunedin (it looks like a ruddy cathedral) to the obelisks and family vaults of European city cemeteries; from the painted whakamaumaharatanga [monument made from the prow of a canoe] of atua to the more modest memorials outside tribal palisades; from the Chinese graves in Naseby cemetery to the 1863 image of Lambton Quay in Wellington, with the Bolton Street Cemetery looming above it; from the weird mortuary chapel outside Nelson’s Wakapuaka cemetery to the equally weird Underwood family vault (with its weeping and its triumphant angels) in Karori cemetery; and – yes – all those shots of decaying wooden headstones as opposed to sturdier stones ones, and of the unsightly picket fences that used to be built around individual graves, and of inopportunely-planted graveyard trees that grew to smash their way through concrete graves, and, alas, of the destructive work of time and vandals.
Of course skimming the book’s images in this way also led me to linger over the various “break-ins” to the text. There are the two pages on colonial diseases and hence the high rate of infant mortality – illustrated with an image of the (1860s) Wallace family tombstone, where the simultaneous deaths of five Wallace children (of scarlet fever) are recorded. Naturally there are break-ins about death by drowning – the “New Zealand death” – in rivers or on sea journeys. A two-page spread shows the urupa (monument) to the chief Honiana Te Puna in Petone as it looked 140 years ago and as it looks today. Another gives an account of the controversial Fenian “funeral” held at Hokitika Cemetery in 1868. It was really a political demonstration by Irish nationalists, and incurred the wrath of local Orangemen and British imperialists. And there is also that alluring break-in about shelter provided for mourners and other visitors at some graveyards, some of them looking more like bandstands than places of mourning.
So much for my first, superficial encounters with this book.
But it is quite misleading to see Unearthly Landscapes only in terms of its fascinating images and its break-ins. Stephen Deed follows an orderly progression in his nine chapters. First, the influence of British and European cemeteries upon colonial designs. Then an account of pre-Pakeha urupa (burial grounds) and the tapu that protected them. Then early missionary churchyards and memorials. Then the way Maori burial customs changed under Pakeha impact. Then the changing shape of Pakeha cemeteries as further immigration led to a more diverse Pakeha population. Then the various controversies over how and where people should be buried. Then the later nineteenth century cemeteries and their social role. Then (in many respects the most interesting chapter in the book) an account of the chosen locations of cemeteries and the materials of which their monuments were made. And finally, in open advocacy, a chapter on the importance of cemeteries as historical sites.
Over his eight well-researched chapters, Stephen Deed follows a number of weighty theses and ideas.
One has to do with the role of religion in the nineteenth century New Zealand cemetery. As Deed notes:
            The New Zealand cemetery was shaped not just by environment, but by the religious beliefs and ethnic composition of the society that developed here. Nearly all nineteenth century cemeteries were divided into sectarian divisions that mirrored the diverse origins and religious affiliations of the colonists: the frequent controversies over the issue of consecration and the provision of burial grounds highlighted the religious fractures present in colonial society. More than just places to bury the dead, cemeteries acted as forums for the expression of the political, racial and religious identities of the living too.” (Introduction, pp.10-11)
There are in the text frequent references to the segregated nature of cemeteries, sometimes with Anglicans assuming their denomination to be the colonial “norm” and with Catholics, Presbyterians, “dissenters’ (i.e. non-Anglican English Protestants) and Jews allocated some small portions of the general burial ground. Often enough there were controversies about this. Even in that most Anglican of settlements, Christchurch, members of the provincial council sometimes registered protest at what they saw as a breach of egalitarianism among the dead (see Chapter 3, p.72). Only in 1872 was the first truly non-denominational urban cemetery opened, this being the Northern Cemetery of Dunedin, which had originally been planned as a multi-denominational ground. (Chapter 8, p.158)
Another frequent theme relates to the difficulty of maintaining cemeteries when much of the nineteenth century settler population was rural and living in remote places:
            For settlers busy clearing land and building housing and roads, cemeteries were not always their first concern. The question of providing or preparing a suitable piece of land was often not considered until the need to bury someone arose…. Lack of a cemetery was one of the reasons for the creation of family cemeteries, or individual graves, in the early days of settlement. Another reason was isolation; even if there was a cemetery in the district or province, it might be too far away to make burial there practicable….” (Chapter 3, p.62)
The first Pakeha cemeteries had been imitations of English churchyards, with mission stations building graveyards around their chapels or churches. But where there were no chapels or churches, or where a rural locality was made up of many [Christian] faiths, rural cemeteries (as outlined at Chapter 7 pp.141 ff.) tended to become what Stephen Deed calls “utilitarian” with their general lack of neat layout or elaborate monuments. There was also the phenomenon of special purpose burial places – war cemeteries after the 1860s New Zealand Wars; cemeteries specifically to cater for those who died during Dunedin and Coromandel gold rushes; and the “quarantine” graveyard in cases of diseased migrants, such as that on Somes Island (Chapter 7, p.145).
It is when he gets to the physical locations of graveyards, and the materials of which they were made, that Deed is at his most informative. He notes the growing popularity of hillsides as sites for nineteenth century cemeteries (Chapter 8, p.153), not only because they allowed for drainage, but because they also gave the dead prominence over the community. [I think of this same concept whenever I drive past the hillside graveyard on the holy mountain outside Ngaruawahia]. Naturally he dwells on the materials of which gravestones and monuments were made. But he also discusses how, for Victorians, the trees and bushes planted in cemeteries were more than foliage and shade:
Many plantings had recognised symbolic significance…. Annually flowering species symbolised life after death and, on a more practical note, they required little maintenance. Ivy, which invoked immortality and friendship, was another favourite. In the nineteenth century, the weeping willow was popularly associated with death and mourning, although it was ridiculed by some as a modern and sentimental invention. Holly trees and yews, which had a far longer pedigree, would have been familiar to the settlers and were planted in many colonial churchyards and cemeteries…. Popular evergreens such as the cedar and cypress have been associated with death and immortality since antiquity.” (Chapter 8, p.166)
As for the epitaphs, they often emphasised:
the role of the cemetery as a place of public self-improvement, inscriptions set forth examples of patience under suffering and loss, of religious resignation and celebrated worldly success….. Epitaphs and inscriptions also encouraged reflection on the transitory nature of life on Earth, and the need to prepare for the life to come.” (Chapter 8, p.180)
Deed launches into his last chapter by noting :
The landscapes of our historic cemeteries are made up of a complex collection of components: monuments and headstones, fences, railings, gates, chapels, cottages, plantings, paths and roads. A wide range of materials was employed in the construction of these features: marble, sandstone, wood and iron. This variety makes each cemetery individual, and is one of their chief charms. However, this complexity is also a point of vulnerability, making cemeteries difficult places to maintain and protect. Although old cemeteries are intended as eternal resting places where the dead are memorialised in perpetuity, these environments are incredibly fragile, and have not always been able to resist change and ultimate destruction.” (end of Chapter 8, p.188)
The last sentence leads into Chapter 9 where Deed outlines how few, if any, other heritage sites capture generational changes in the community as well as cemeteries do. But there are now many threats to our old historic cemeteries. There is urban development, when motorways are pushed through graves and when city real estate becomes more valuable. There is the problem of natural decay. There are problems over the ownership of cemeteries and the responsibility for maintaining them, and controversies over how fully cemeteries should be funded out of rates. Deed is an advocate for the idea of more old cemeteries being given the protection of being deemed historic places (under the New Zealand Historic Places Trust). In an age where cremation has become the majority form of disposing of the dead, cemeteries are often undervalued – and sometimes suffer the wilful damage of vandalism. But Deed points out that cemeteries remain archives, in stone, for genealogists and historians:
The information contained in the cemetery can be applied to various scales of historical research: from the study of an individual or family, to a town or district, a city or region, or the nation as a whole. Cemeteries, as Thomas Hannon argues, are particularly valuable in regional and local studies, as they ‘provide intact significant portions of the cultural-historical record needed by the researcher who is attempting to get at the roots of the characteristics of a region.’ Hannon’s studies are based on American cemeteries, which can vary greatly from region to region – hence his favouring regional studies. Though New Zealand’s historical cemeteries are more homogenous, they still reflect the demographic, social and economic transitions that regions have passed through…” (Chapter 9, p.212)
The advocacy is understandable and timely.
I do not think it is only twilight idlers such as I who have a taste for cemeteries. They are wonderful places on many levels, and worth cherishing.

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