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Rudman's City: Let old graves decay in peace

The good news is that Auckland City is to spend $400,000 over the next four years restoring graves in the historic Symonds St Cemetery. The bad news is that at that rate of expenditure, the stonemasons will still be chipping away in 30 years.

That's if the repair work continues to run at the present cost of $1720 a grave.

It's great that the city council is finally turning its attention to the most neglected of our central premier parks - a fanciful title, given its present state of neglect - but maybe some thought should be given to goals before any more money is spent.

A couple of months back, I fussed about how Auckland was wasting this historic treasure, last resting place of prominent citizens including Governor William Hobson, Judge Fredrick Maning, first Auckland Mayor Archibald Clark and French eccentric Baron Charles Philip de Thierry.

The first response came from Tanya Faithfull, on behalf of Auckland funeral directors, generously offering to take responsibility for renovating the Hobson grave - an offer which the council is still considering.

I also talked to a couple of stonemasons who were less enthusiastic about any more heritage work taking place in the cemetery.

In particular, they questioned the need for the Rolls-Royce standard of restoration planned for the 1500 decaying grave sites.

They said the $48,173 spent restoring 28 graves in May and June was "nice work if you can get it," but was, not to mince words, an extravagant waste of ratepayers' money.

They came from the "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" school of conservation, arguing that even a concrete tombstone has its season, and once it collapses, so be it.

It's the philosophy, I might add, which ruled at Symonds St for more than 150 years, until the adoption in November 1996 of a conservation plan.

This plan goes to the other extreme, trying to piece old gravestones together, reinstating lettering that has weathered away, plugging holes with colour-matched fillings.

But the whole issue of what we want from the Symonds St Cemetery premier park has not, to my knowledge, ever been adequately debated.

Maybe, before the first $100,000 is spent, it should be. Do we really want to spend $2.5 million over 30 years restoring and replicating graves to create some great funerary Disneyland?

My vision is of a tree-filled, botanic garden-like inner-city park, with a selection of remaining graves offering reminders of our past.

The tombstones of the historic would remain and be maintained, along with others in good repair.

Perhaps a selection of the intriguing, the poignant and the decorative could also be restored. The rest, I would make safe as picturesque ruins, or remove.

Before any aggrieved conservationists cry "Philistine," historic precedence exists for such removals.

In the 1960s, when the motorway cut through the south end of the cemetery, more than 2000 graves were found in a part of the Anglican section supposedly holding 1200.

In the Catholic section, beneath 400 headstones were 2100 graves.

So graves have obviously been recycled, and many of the markers have collapsed and been taken away. The remaining stones are wide apart. Restoring these surviving remnants - many in advanced states of decay - is not going to bring back the past.

I say tidy the place up, restore selectively, then spend what money we have left on making Symonds St a premier park fit for the living.

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