As with any city Wellington is home to a number of cemeteries. They’re usually located on the fringe of a city, but as the city grows they become central and fill to capacity, and new ones are opened on the new fringe of the city. Wellington is now onto its third generation of cemeteries.
Bolton Street Cemetery operated from 1840 to 1892, and is home to many notable early Wellingtonians including Alexander Turnbull, the Wakefield brothers, and John Plimmer.
Unexpectedly the only New Zealand Prime Minster buried there is Richard Seddon, who died in 1906 after the cemetery was officially closed to new burials. His impressive (if earthquake prone) memorial is at the top end of the cemetery, close to the Botanical Gardens.
In 1960 the need for a Wellington motorway was identified, which would have either gone along the waterfront or through the cemetery. The later route was chosen, which was understandably controversial. Work started in 1967 and was finished in 1978, resulting in the cemetery being bisected by a motorway, and shrunk from 7 to less than 2 hectares. The same thing happened in Auckland at the same time with Symond Street Cemetery.
The only surviving of three original buildings is Sexton’s Cottage, now home to an exhibition about the history of the cemetery.
Mount Street Cemetery operated from 1841 to 1891 as the main burial ground for Catholics, including many priests and nuns. It’s now in the middle of the campus for Victoria University of Wellington, immediately outside the student union building.
The largest island in Wellington Harbour, Matiu / Somes Island was used as a quarantine station from 1872 to ensure that immigrants were free of infectious diseases before landing on the mainland. Unfortunately not all were, sadly mostly young children, and they were buried on the island. Various headstones were replaced in 1971 within a single large monument.
There are probably more people commemorated on Matiu / Somes Island that at the tiny Tawa Flat Cemetery despite it being in use for nearly 120 years (until 1978). Only 52 people people are buried here, represented by a dozen or so headstones.
Karori Cemetery is the second largest in New Zealand (after Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland), and opened in 1891 to succeed Bolton Street Cemetery. It’s 40 hectares are home to the graves of 83,000 people, including five New Zealand Prime Ministers – Sir Harry Atkinson, Sir William Hall-Jones, Sir Francis Bell, Peter Fraser, and Sir Walter Nash. Two more – Sir Robert Stout and Sir Sidney Holland – were cremated at Karori Cemetery, making it by the most common resting place for PMs.
A couple of notable graves that caught my eye are of Harry McNish, the oldest member of Shackleton’s 1914-17 Antarctica Exhibition, marked with a memorial to Mrs Chippy, the ship’s cat, and the grave of Joseph Wareham who fought in the American Civil War on the USS Colorado 1861-1865.
It is home to New Zealand’s first crematorium, opened in 1909, close to the large Jewish section of the cemetery.
One of the more prominent memorials is to the 151 people killed in the 1953 Tangiwai railway disaster, when the Wellington-Auckland night express fell into the flooded Whangaehu River near Waiouru.
Over 400 members of the armed forces are also buried here in an impressively laid out part of the cemetery.
By the 1950s Karori Cemetery was getting full though, and Makara Cemetery was opened in 1965. This is on an 84 hectare section but is already half full, and predicted to run out of space by 2038. Wellington City Council are investigating the concept of leasing graves so they can be potentially reused.