27 Feb 2021

Cleaning graves reveals stories of old in Matakana

From First Up, 10:15 am on 27 February 2021

If you're driving through Matakana towards Leigh, the cemetery sits at the top of a steep gravel path on the left-hand side of the road. 

Adrienne Miller with the first headstone she cleaned.

Adrienne Miller with the first headstone she cleaned. Photo: RNZ / Ellie Jay

It's surrounded by trees and if you don't know it's there you can quite easily drive past none the wiser. 

It's a private cemetery and many of the 450 graves lie with cracked, weather-beaten headstones, shrouded in weeds and with illegible writing that provides little testimony to those who lay there. 

In the heat of late summer, with hundreds of loud cicadas buzzing in the trees, I spoke to Adrienne Miller. She is part of the community here in Matakana and every month she comes up to the cemetery to clean and tidy the graves. 

“Eliza Morgan is the very first one I did and the reason was it's right here by where the water and the little shelter is," she says. 

"You can see she passed away in 1888 and her beautiful marble headstone now is pristine white. Originally when I came here it was black and you could hardly read the letters. Now you can read every single letter and you can read the history about her.

“First of all, I clean any kind of neglected broken glass or plastic off, and then I brush them all to get any debris, weeds, leaves and then I clean them just with a light brushing, then I spray them with a New Zealand product called Bio Shield which does not harm the stone, made a huge difference to the big marble headstones here.” 

It's not just that - for each one she cleans Adrienne looks up the ancestry of the person and writes about her findings. 

“I started up a Facebook page, because I realized that these stories needed to be told, and I write a story. After I've finished, when I think I've got the essence of a person, I then write a small vignette about their life and how they passed away or how they ended up at the Matakana Cemetery. I started right from the very first burial and I research it by hopefully talking to descendants, reading local historical accounts and of course, Googling.” 

Adrienne says she can get emotional about some of the graves. 

“I discovered that there were two young children who were rested here in the 1860s who had no marker. The grave markers were probably made of wood and they would have disintegrated over the years, so recently I decided that I was going to put a marker there, so I put a temporary marker there and then two young local children made two succulent gardens.

"So now we have Clara and Brinley Richards. Clara was four and her brother Brinley was two and they lie here with a marker now and they probably haven't had a marker for 100 years.” 

Succelent gardens on the graves of Clara and Brinley Richards

Succelent gardens on the graves of Clara and Brinley Richards Photo: RNZ / Ellie Jay

The land the cemetery sits on was donated in 1868 by the Matthews family and since then it has been in the care of a trust, but without funding or interest very little has been done to improve or sustain the graves. 

Adrienne says she started researching the war veterans in the Cemetery to try to stir interest in the village after their War Memorial was vandalized for the 10th time. 

“I thought 'I can't take this any longer'.” She says, “this has to stop”. 

Talking to the village resident Adrienne realised nobody knew what the War memorial was, which galvanized her to change things. 

“My plan was to make it is so obvious that it's a War Memorial so that people would go 'oh, we're not going to vandalize this', and it's worked!” 

Each War veteran interred in the cemetery has a small, flat stone placed on their grave on which, the children of the local school have hand-painted an ANZAC poppy. They have made about 200, one for each veteran in the cemetery with their name remembered on the village memorial. 

An ANZAC poppy stone made by the children from the Matakana school.

An ANZAC poppy stone made by the children from the Matakana school. Photo: RNZ / Ellie Jay

Adrienne says there is now an ANZAC day memorial in the village and the local school children this year will create a ribbon memory wall.  

She hopes to get round all 400-plus graves and has reached out to others in New Zealand to share tips and advice. 

“Everyone in the cemetery and on that war memorial has a story worth telling,” she says, "and it gets forgotten". 

"Matakana has changed so much over the past 20 years and it's almost as if the past is trying to be eliminated, they're trying to get rid of the old and it's sad.

“With the telling of these stories, I can touch people and remind them where they are and all those stories I'm going to tell.” 

Graves at the Matakana Cemetery

Graves at the Matakana Cemetery Photo: RNZ / Ellie Jay

The Matakana cemetery

The Matakana cemetery Photo: RNZ / Ellie Jay