Symonds Street Cemetery, Auckland’s oldest graveyard, opened in 1842 and full of forgotten souls and a disturbing history… Some are long forgotten here for the more typical reasons such as lost or stolen markers, vandalism, tombstone decay or the fact that they never had/could afford a grave marker in the first place, but more so for the reason that the large Catholic section of the cemetery was dug up in the 1960s to make way for the motorway that many Aucklanders now drive over daily. Not only were the bodies exhumed from this area, many of the original marble and sandstone headstones and ornate statues were actually used as motorway filler (somehow this was okay with Auckland residents at the time, or the Council did as it so pleased and any objections were ignored)…
The houses nearby to the cemetery had issues with embalming chemicals like arsenic and cyanide contaminating their water supply from the nearby decaying bodies…
Originally it was thought that 2000 graves would be affected, once the removal work began 4100 bodies were discovered, more than double what was recorded and expected. Due to the inconsistencies caused by fires in archive offices and incomplete records from individual churches some names have been lost, most are acknowledged on the plaques near the motorway, however there are vague listings such as ‘child’ and ‘infant’, appearing without first names or dates. There are also a few recent additions alongside the original plaques… it’s humbling to see that those names added are remembered at last. A lesser number of graves were also removed to make way for the Grafton Bridge, and many headstones complete with ornate rusty railings still reside under the bridge today.
The unearthed remains were cremated and put into a mass grave where the memorial plaques stand today. There was no record kept of jewellery found when the remains were removed from their original graves. It is possible that many precious rings and other jewels could have been stolen during the process, as it was traditional for Victorian women to be buried wearing their wedding rings.
On a recent tour on the heritage of Symonds Street Cemetery I heard of the tragic ending of Emily Keeling, she had a persistent stalker who followed her on her way to church one day in 1886, she asked the creep to leave her and her family alone after he was not getting the message, and he shot her dead in the street, shortly before killing himself. Emily rests in peace nearby to Grafton Bridge with her husband George.
It’s not always pretty at Symonds Street Cemetery, in the past the park has suffered anti-semitic vandalism to the Jewish headstones, swastikas are still visible on some of the headstones nearby to the the mortuary chapel, which was previously used for embalming and the traditional watching of deceased bodies for 3 days and 3 nights. This building is seldom used now and privately owned.
Nature is ultimately destroying and reclaiming many graves in this cemetery which is recognized as a Catergory I Historical Place… But this could also be seen as a symbol of new life. The trees are not removed by the council as they are native and therefore protected.
Trees are beginning to engulf rusty metal railings, and tree roots are rising causing cracks in the tombstones…
After the Symonds Street Cemetery closed for new burials (aside from family plots) in 1886, Waikumete Cemetery became the city’s new and ultimately largest graveyard, with bodies sent out West from Central Auckland by special funeral trains (I previously posted about Waikumete here, and about Glen Eden train station being haunted here). Symonds Street Cemetery became a park in 1909 managed by Auckland Council.
Check out Symonds Street Cemetery if you’re in town and want a break from the hustle of city life, just be aware of homeless people under the bridge at night because K Road has a crazy reputation!