Written by Sarah Ryder -
Brian McIntyre’s wife says he’ll be spending long enough in a cemetery without spending all his days above ground in one as well! Despite this Brian and his team dubbed ‘the cemeterians’ have spent hundreds of hours in Nelson cemeteries, working quietly away to restore dignity and honour to neglected graves.
When I catch up with Brian at Wakapuaka Cemetery, it’s a cold blustery spring day with a light drizzle falling. Despite the inclement weather, several cemeterians are there in raincoats working in different areas - spraying headstones to remove lichen and moss, painting, sanding (in preparation for painting), sweeping and leaf-blowing. As most of the headstones are weathered, mossy and unreadable, it’s easy enough to spot the 300 or so graves where the team has already worked its magic.
I have never visited Wakapuaka Cemetery before. The cemetery situated on a hillside north of Nelson, opened in 1861 and is no longer open for burials. It’s a peaceful place with large trees and stunning views over Tasman Bay so I can well understand its appeal on a sunny day. (In cold drizzle like the day I visit, not so much!) While council maintains the cemetery grounds, families are responsible for looking after the graves. However many of the 16,000 or so graves are over a hundred years old and I must admit it has never crossed my mind to visit or tend the graves of my great-great-great-grandparents buried there.
Brian and I sit in my car to escape the rain and the first thing he tells me is that the story shouldn’t be about him. “The way I see it, it’s like a game. I kicked the ball off and the rest of the team keep on kicking it.” The team he is referring to is made up of Clarri Pocock, Tom Hinton, Merrin (Hoddy) Hodgson, Marie Hoare and Jake Stafford. Genealogists Diane Scott and Marg Farrelly have recently joined the crew as well and are also researching the histories of those who lie in the restored graves. Their findings are published on TOSI Friends of Nelson Wakapuaka Cemetery Facebook page and the GPS coordinates of the graves are logged on Find-A-Grave.
Brian, who hails from the West Coast, tells me he was taught how to restore headstones by Laurie Anisy, an undertaker in Greymouth.
“My grandfather's sister had an illegitimate son and he was kept in the family as a McIntyre. He fought at Gallipoli and was the first Coaster to get killed there.
“On the 100th anniversary in 2015, I decided to do up his mother's headstone. I was scrubbing away at it, just the best I could and Laurie came along and asked me what I was doing. I told him and he showed me how to do it properly,” says Brian.
Brian moved onto restoring military graves at Seaview Cemetery in Nelson where his work attracted media interest and soon, others began joining him. He also teamed up with the New Zealand Remembrance Army which works to repair and maintain the graves of New Zealand military personnel.
Brian started his work at Wakapuaka Cemetery when a woman posted a message on the Top of the South History Facebook page asking for help locating the graves of her ancestors. Brian not only found them but has since restored nine of her family’s ancestral graves and carried on from there. His work has also led to lasting memorials being created for two of Nelson’s local identities, Olive ‘Ollie’ Strange and Archie Gascgoine, who were both buried in unmarked graves.
Spending so many hours in ancient cemeteries often working alone, Brian has experienced some spooky moments, including one at the unmarked grave of the Tophouse murderer. “I’d found his grave and was standing basically on it. This guy was buried on a bank, a real ugly sort of spot and as I went to walk away, it felt like I was tackled. My feet just wouldn’t move on the ground. It felt like I was being held and I fell over.” While that experience might have sent some scarpering, Brian instead resolved to find the gravesites of the murderer’s two victims and restore them – which he did.
While the cemeterians have received accolades, sponsorship and support for their work, there has been some criticism as well. Some believe gravesites should be left alone while another commented on Facebook, “There’s no history in graves.”
“They are so bloody wrong!” says Brian. “There’s history in every one of them; they are all people.”
Some of the cemeterians (left to right): Hoddy, Clarri, Brian and Tom at Wakapuaka Cemetery