It's not every day you get to dig a grave, peer into a crematory while sipping a coffee and chat people dressed in Victorian clothes as people coffin-shopping wander past.

But at the Waikumete Cemetery on Great North Rd yesterday, all that behaviour was encouraged at its inaugural open day.

Children pointed out their favourite coffins to their parents and stalls set up like a trades show had their finest funeral offerings on show. At the main entrance, genealogists had a table near the man with a truck full of caskets and a barista served flat whites.

Almost 2000 visitors young and old - and only two goths - turned up to the day held to remove the mystery of how a cemetery works and show people behind the scenes.


Included were grave-digging demonstrations, talks about natural burials and how to clean a grave, tours of the crematorium and bus tours of 130-year-old Waikumete, NZ's largest cemetery and the Southern Hemisphere's second biggest.

Ella Shepherd, 15, had a turn at digging a grave, though she admitted it wasn't her first attempt, after burying a few sheep and a donkey over the years.

She was surprised at how much clay there was and didn't envy sexton Wayne Tamanui's job. "I respect your career choice but I won't be following it," she told him as she handed back the shovel.

But besides narrowing down choices for her future, Ella left the family day out at the cemetery with another realisation - she wants to be buried in a mausoleum.

"If you're buried in a grave people can forget you but if you're in a mausoleum people have to look at you," she said.

"And if zombies exist, I want to be the leader and in a good spot to get out and I think I'd be set in a mausoleum."

And while Ella didn't rate the physical demands of being a sexton, Mr Tamanui loves it. He has been digging graves for 19 years and reckons he's dug more than 19,000.

Though about 90 per cent of the time they use diggers, sometimes plots are in a spot the machines can't get to and manual labour is needed.

But being a sexton isn't just about holes in the ground, it's also about supporting the bereaved during a difficult time.

Mr Tamanui said it could be a really rewarding job, if a little left of field.

"When I'm out at parties and people ask me what I do and I tell them I'm a sexton and they ask, 'What's that?' and I tell them and then I can't get away."