24 May 2016

Families shocked remains removed without consent

3:47 pm on 24 May 2016

The relative of a man cremated at the country's biggest cemetery is in disbelief his ashes were moved twice without her knowledge, and she wants them back.

More than 1800 urns were relocated by at Auckland's Waikumete Cemetery in the 60s and 70s, and the council now says it can't reopen the vaults.

Leone Johnston has been digging into her family history.

Her uncle, David Gordon Fraser, was killed in a motorbike accident in 1947, not long after he had come back from the war.

He was just 23 at the time, and was cremated at Waikumete Cemetery.

"I can remember going there as a child with my mother and seeing ashes in a remembrance hall,"

"All the records showed he was at Waikumete Cemetery, there wasn't any records to indicate they were moved or anything."

But then she stumbled upon a Facebook page called 'Honour the 1800', and found out ashes had been moved twice at the cemetery, once in 1969 after the crematorium was demolished and again between 1976 and 1977.

A local governing body preceding Auckland Council put out a public notice in The New Zealand Herald at the time saying the unclaimed ashes would be moved, but none of the families was contacted directly.

The ashes now rest in four sealed vaults marked by a plaque, but a list of names is all that is left to indicate which ashes were moved.

Ms Johnston's uncle was on that list.

"My grandparents didn't subscribe to the Herald, they used to get the Auckand Star, whether they put an ad in there, I don't know.

"They hadn't changed their phone number at all and lived close by in Onehanga, it wouldn't have been difficult to get in contact."

Ms Johnston now lives in Sydney, but her aunt lives in Christchurch, and doesn't know what happened to her brother's ashes.

"I'm too scared to tell her, I think she'd be far too distressed."

"She's an old lady of 90 and not very well, at this stage I think I'm better keeping that to myself."

She said she would like access to her uncle's ashes so she could take them to be scattered in Christchurch where other family members were laid.

And she's not alone. The founder of the 'Honour the 1800' Facebook page, Terry Fergusson, is taking legal action against the council to get his great-grandfather's ashes back.

He set up the page to help other families check if their loved ones were in the cemetery, and get them on-board his campaign.

An Auckland resident, Garth Houltham, was on the page this morning when he noticed two familiar names.

"I haven't been through it completely, but within a short period of time I found two relatives whose ashes were in this situation.

"I wasn't very happy, the fact that they dug a hole in the ground and put a concrete tomb thing in there and basically covered it over."

Mr Houltham said he was going to get in touch with the relative's direct family to let them know.

He did not think they would want to take back the ashes, but he thinks others, like Terry Fergusson and Leone Johnston, deserve to do so.

But Auckland Council manager of cemeteries Catherine Moore said that was unlikely to happen.

"As soon as we open up those vaults, we're going to have to disturb and move other people's ashes.

"They were labelled at the time, but they've been buried for nearly 40 years, we don't know if they're still going to be legible."

Ms Moore admitted the ashes had already been disturbed before, but said some families had now been in touch with the council asking for it not to happen again.

She said it was unrealistic to be able to get all of the ashes to their families.

"In order to be able to identify for nearly 2000 sets of ashes, who would be the correct person to give individual permission.

"We don't think it's going to be feasible this many years later in the process."

Ms Moore said the council is now trying to reach out to the families to discuss a fitting tribute for their relatives.

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