New Zealand isn't supposed to have unmarked graves, is it? Unmarked graves are supposed to belong to faraway countries with funny names and histories of dictatorship and war, right? That's what I thought, until my mother discovered the bodies of three soldiers in a vacant lot next to the Selwyn Church in the village where our family has lived since the end of the Land Wars.
The soldiers were Irishmen serving with the force that invaded the Waikato in 1863, and how they died is unclear. There had always been a legend that bodies lay unmarked somewhere close to the church, and that was one of the reasons why the lot was never built on.
It'd be fun to tell you that my mother is a tomb-robber or zombie-master, and that she unearthed the bodies of the poor Irishmen late one winter's night by the light of a full moon, but the reality is rather more mundane: she was reading some historical documents related to her genealogical researches when she stumbled upon a reference to the final resting place of the men.
But there are unmarked graves all over New Zealand. Today a friend sent me an article about the uncertain future of five hundred unmarked graves in the Waikato:
There are no flowers or carefully trimmed lawns, just cattle grazing in a paddock where 500 Tokanui Hospital patients are buried.
A stone plaque reads: ''Tokanui Hospital Cemetery 1914-1964''. It marks the spot as the final resting place of mentally ill patients buried there because nobody would pay for their funerals. Only two graves have headstones. On the eve of the hospital's closure [the local Health Authority] is urgently trying to resolve what will happen to its old burial ground.
Anna de Jonge, a patient rights advocate who lives in the Waikato, has been investigating the story behind the gravesite. She links the failure to mark so many graves with the generally poor treatment of mentally ill people at Tokanui Hospital. De Jonge is especially saddened by the widespread use of electro-convulsive therapy at the hospital.
De Jonge is not the only one interested in the history of Tokanui Hospital: Mark Hamilton has done a series of photos of its now-decaying buildings, and a range of organisations including the Te Awamutu Museum and the University of Waikato have been running an oral history project on the history of the place.
If only the dead could talk.