Simon Collins is the Herald’s education reporter.

Cemetery double-booking leaves families devastated

Auckland Councillor Daniel Newman is appalled that two grieving families had to share burial area at the Papakura Cemetery South. Photo / Greg Bowker
Auckland Councillor Daniel Newman is appalled that two grieving families had to share burial area at the Papakura Cemetery South. Photo / Greg Bowker

A double-booking at an Auckland cemetery has devastated two grieving families.

The burials, of a 102-year-old woman and a 71-year-old man, were booked only 15 minutes apart and about 15m from each other at the small Papakura South cemetery on November 19.

The Auckland Council has apologised to one family and offered to refund the $1781 fees, but the family has rejected the offer as "insufficient for the hurt, trauma and humiliation the family endured".

Funeral directors say the incident was just one of numerous problems with cemeteries across the new Auckland Super City, including planned burials where no hole has been dug, or dug in the wrong place.

"We have not only had burials where there has been more than one burial in the same area, but quite a few where plots haven't been dug," said Aaron Gray of Papakura's Fountains Funerals, who chairs the Auckland Funeral Directors Association.

"If the burial is at Manukau Memorial Gardens we have to drive there before the service and make sure that we do have a hole. It's been like that within the last 10 to 12 months."

Gray said he had three ash interments in the past six months where no hole was ready.

"There is nothing you can do except grab a spade and start digging," he said.

In the double-booking incident, the 71-year-old man who died was Cook Island-born Trip Marsters. His son Bobby Marsters said his family was shocked when the other family arrived.

"I feel for the other family," he said.

"We did a big send-off for our dad. We had Cook Island drummers going on, that's what we do."

A daughter of the 102-year-old woman said the Marsters burial had already started when her family arrived.

"We waited 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour in the pouring rain, there were a lot of elderly people there, before we proceeded down to my mother's plot," she said.

"The funeral director had to ask people attending the other service to move, and they were not very happy about it. Then some of our people attending Mum's also asked people whether they would mind moving, because we couldn't get around her plot."

She said the singing from the other burial was so loud that no one could hear her mother's service.

"I was looking over at the minister and I could see that he was mouthing something, but none of us heard anything he said," she said.

"I just feel sick even thinking about it. My mother deserved a lot better than that, and so did the other gentleman."

She felt her late father was also "insulted" because the family had kept his ashes for 16 years to be interred with his wife.

Funeral Directors Association chief executive Katrina Shanks said she attended several meetings with Auckland Council last year about problems including gravesites subsiding after burials, excessive paperwork, difficulties accessing cemetery managers to book burials, and fees standardised by the new Super City at levels that were "one of the highest in New Zealand".

"We don't have the same issues that we have with Auckland to the same extent [with other councils]," she said.

A new Auckland councillor for Manurewa-Papakura, Daniel Newman, has met both families involved in the double-booking incident.

"It was a calamitous outcome for the families involved," he said.

Council cemeteries manager Catherine Moore said the incident was "unusual and very unfortunate".

"We had two booking requests received at pretty much the same time by two different staff in two different locations," she said.

"It should have been picked up. Unfortunately it wasn't."

She said it was one of "six to 10 mistakes happening a year" out of about 2000 burials a year across 30 cemeteries.

She said she had not received a complaint from the Marsters family, so had not yet offered to refund their fees.

She claimed she was not aware of holes not being dug for planned burials.

"I would say that's very rare," she said. "That would be in the six to 10 errors a year."

She said fees were standardised across the Super City two years ago when the cemeteries were placed on a pure user-pays basis.

"Prior to amalgamation some councils subsidised their cemetery fees from ratepayers and others did not," she said.

But she said staff numbers were not affected by the funding change and the fees were "reasonably consistent with other councils around New Zealand".

- NZ Herald

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