New Zealand’s biggest cemetery has just four years of burial plot sales left before it is full, and rules put in place during the Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan process restrict its expansion options. The Council is again asking for public input on the protected historic heritage park – but fears “consultation fatigue” may put people off. 

It’s a square kilometre of park in the heart of West Auckland, the biggest public open space between the city and the Waitakere Ranges. Dog walkers, runners, learner drivers, mourners, people taking guided tours, wanderers … it’s well used as a park as much as a burial place. Here you will find the largest war grave in New Zealand, with its own cenotaph; an Erebus memorial; a Jewish prayer house; an urupā; the graves of 1128 men, women and children who died in the country’s 1918 influenza epidemic; and a subdivision of mausoleums affectionately known as “Dally Alley” which reads like a list of the area’s great wine-making families. The cemetery is a record of our society and culture over the last 140 years, still divided into its 12 different denominational sections. It tells the city’s foundation stories.

You can still buy a burial plot here, but best to get in quick. There are only three to four years of future sales left, although the cemetery will continue to be active for probably 60 years to come due to pre-purchased plots, double burials in one plot, space available for more ash and natural burials and the ongoing use of the crematorium. One of the problems is the land contains steep gullies, and ecological areas – notably gumlands – protected under the Unitary Plan. 

Those ecological areas were ring-fenced when an Independent Hearings Panel on the Auckland Unitary Plan made its decisions on the cemetery in 2015. The panel was looking at the land as part of a city ecosystem, in a city where housing pressures were at a premium. Experts told the hearings the gumlands were a critically threatened type of wet heathland confined to northern New Zealand, and Waikumete housed the best example of them in Auckland. They occur on land with deposits of kauri gum, the subfossil resin of the forests they supported hundreds of thousands of years ago, and support significant indigenous vegetation. 

With that in mind the panel re-instated a wider area of protection, that an earlier management plan had earmarked for grave sites. But environment committee chair Penny Hulse says the pressures of increased diversity and population in Auckland have also put pressure on burials. “The environmental aspects are important to people but they do actually constrain where we can extend,” she says. 

Years ago it was assumed that as land ran out, more people would opt for cremation. However, burials are becoming more common again thanks to an influx of those cultures who prefer them, including a large population of Pasifika, as well as the Māori, Indian, Filipino, Chinese and Muslim communities. 

“Dally-Alley” – there is room for more mausoleums at Waikumete. Photo: Alexia Russell

A plan change is needed to save the cemetery from an early death. That means the public needs to have its say. It last had a say four years ago, but Hulse hopes the love and passion people have for this beautiful place will encourage them to speak up again. At Tuesday’s environment committee meeting councillors approved an engagement plan which will then inform a development plan, including designs and costings. Two new zones, consisting of a patchwork of spaces, have been approved for consultation on potential development. Several other possibilities have been ruled out as being too difficult – mostly too steep – or environmentally sensitive to encroach upon. Some areas are cost-prohibitive because of their geography – “We think they are too hard, and they’ll stay too hard,” says the council’s head of investigation and design, Rob Cairns. 

The public consultation document will also look at alternative burial options, and encourage the public to consider them. 

West Auckland councillor Linda Cooper pointed out the much-loved cemetery was established in 1886 – and as it grew, so did the trees. “People’s expectations around trees have grown a lot,” she said. 

Eight thousand people die in Auckland a year, but in 20 years’ time that number will be more like 12,000. The city has three major public cemeteries – Manukau Memorial Gardens and North Shore Memorial Park (Schnapper Rock Rd) are the other two – and three large private cemeteries – Purewa, Māngere Lawn Cemetery and Auckland Memorial Park in Silverdale. There are a host of smaller ones. Many of those are full or closed. Planning is underway for new sites, but Hulse says cemeteries need land that’s flat, above rising sea levels, and close to public transport – exactly the requirements for housing developments. “They are not a cheap or easy option.” Manukau has space for lawn burial sales until 2035 and North Shore until 2050, and the council is exploring options for the north-west. However any new cemetery wouldn’t be available before Waikumete’s space runs out.

Waikumete has an average of three burials a day, and about the same number of cremations. 

High density residential for the dead

The council’s parks general-manager Mace Ward says while cremation is still the most common choice, our increasingly diverse community has meant more space for body burial is required. “We’ve had assumptions in the past but burial is becoming more common again,” he says. “We know those key drivers of Auckland’s super-diversity and growth are certain.” There are new options that will help, but they won’t solve the problem. 

Eco-burials are starting to take off at Waikumete now the area earmarked for them has developed. There are strict requirements for them, and although you can pre-purchase a space to be buried in, that space is filled from the back of the site so there’s no guarantee exactly where you will end up. Families are given GPS co-ordinates so they won’t lose track of their loved ones. Paths are marked out in koru shapes. Any grave marking must be completely biodegradable, as must the casket, and no embalming is permitted. There are nine graves here and another nine sites have been sold. 

Another option is to buy a space in a public mausoleum – high density residential for the dead. “If you can’t go out, you can go up,” says head sexton Sheree Stout. Here, slots are stacked several high. It’s $7000 for a chamber, and the casket must be lead or copper lined. It’s a popular choice for Pasifika families and not too dissimilar to the way family graves are displayed at home in the Islands. 

You can also buy a family plot for ashes – an octagonal marking takes 16 – or a place in a memorial wall. These sites are on newer spots on the far edge of the cemetery, making use of steeper land. At the bottom sits space for larger caskets – something that’s becoming increasingly necessary. 

Some parts of the cemetery look like they have room, but Stout points out they are full of bodies. Just because there’s no headstone it doesn’t mean there’s space below. In some places the site has been purchased but not used yet – a new-looking section is from people who bought their plots while they were in their 40s, 40 years ago.

Another section on the south-west side of the cemetery looks undeveloped but in fact it’s the paupers’ grave site – where bodies are stacked three high. Every name is recorded so those people aren’t lost. As well, a large section here is a wildflower section which blooms beautifully in November. Stout says she likes the idea of mowing it just once a year – there’s less damage to graves and it encourages people to stay off them – but admits “only 50 percent of people agree with me on that”. 

The Chapel of Faith in the Oaks, pictured in November when the wildflowers are out. Photo: Auckland Council 

The oldest recorded grave is in 1901 although there will be plots dating back to the late 1800s. Bodies used to be sent from Auckland City by train – the site was so far away then – and would rest if they weren’t buried straight away at the Chapel of Faith in the Oaks, which was originally a mortuary. The Chapel is a beautiful pocket church and has been used for weddings and film sets – although any filming requests are carefully vetted for appropriateness. 

West Auckland’s annual Dawn Parade is also held in a corner of the cemetery, where the cenotaph is near the resting place of Lt W. E Johnston – a soldier who fought in three wars (the Boer War and two world wars) and whose grave is in plot one, row one of the cemetery. The Anzac Day commemoration is always well attended, attracting between 2000 and 3000 people. 

But Hulse says with all its attractions for passive recreation, Waikumete isn’t a straight-out piece of parkland. “There are a lot more subtleties. It’s not just like a piece of land you’re doing a housing development on, it’s a historical cemetery and that is its paramount use. Possibly in the rush to get things done that may have been overlooked.

“People out west want to be buried out west and there are deep community roots that stretch out … people want to be buried near their grandparents. I hear at funerals a lot that they’re pleased their loved ones can see the Waitakeres from here. You can’t really put that into a planning document.” 

Hulse says the Unitary Plan that restricted new burial plot availability was “a huge piece of work done in a very short timeline – and we always knew we were going to go back and have another look. Were the lines right, is there a more pragmatic solution? We need to go back and re-visit those decisions.”

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