A local family are distraught after precious, hand-carved pou were stolen from graves at Rotorua's Kauae Cemetery.
The carved pou (wooden posts) were placed on the graves of Charmaine Hayward, who died at 5 months old in 1977, and her brother William Hayward, who was just 6 years old when he died in 1982.
The pou were placed there around the year 2000 by the children's older sister, Toni Lee Hayward, who was also buried there in 2013.
The children's aunt, Iris Thomas (nee Hayward), was told by their parents, who live in Opotiki, about the pou being taken.
"I've been asked by the family to talk about this in the hope we can get them back.
"They are horrified and are still in shock.
"There is a whole family buried there," Mrs Thomas said.
The pou were concreted into the ground above the graves in the Ngati Whakaue section of the cemetery.
Plaques attached to them were removed and left at the graveside.
Mrs Thomas said she believed they were taken between New Year's Day and January 23.
"I choked up, it did not make me feel very good at all. We just want them back."
She said the family thought they were stolen to be sold elsewhere.
"Why would someone steal something like that? It won't do them any good.
"Those pou were children's headstones, they died young, they were just little kids. I think someone has been looking at them for a while now, but for them to be taken goes beyond words.
"They are tapu and are taonga to the family," Mrs Thomas said.
Kauae Cemetery Trust trustee and Ngati Whakaue kaumatua Monty Morrison said he was aware of the theft and said the culprits should seek professional help for their issues.
"Who in their right mind would go and steal from the dead?" he asked.
"We do hope they are recovered. This is a place where our loved ones can lie in peace. We are shocked and are in disbelief that someone would want to do this, as are the family."
Mrs Thomas said the theft had been reported to police.
Rotorua police Senior Sergeant Mike Membery said he encouraged people to report any theft or vandalism of graves to them.
"It's a massive breach of trust when people desecrate graves and it is taken very seriously."
Rotorua Lakes Council sport and recreation manager Rob Pitkethley said the council maintained the cemetery for the trust and had heard of instances of vandalism in the past.
"We don't tend to have a lot of problems at our cemeteries, but we deplore this sort of action, which is heartbreaking for the family.
"We ask anyone who has come across sort of thing to let us know," he said.
- If anyone has seen the pou or has any information please contact Rotorua police on (07) 348 0099.