Beneath lush Waikato grass lie hundreds of former mental asylum patients - buried without coffins in unmarked graves.

Hamilton man Maurie Zinsli wants to bring their names back from their exile in anonymity.

The 78-year-old regularly visits the field where Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital patients were buried and has fought for four years to give those resting there the recognition he feels they deserve.

He is on a mission to place a plaque on each burial site. Zinsli said he will finish the project "or die in the attempt".

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For 40 years, a corroded plaque beside a farm gate was the only memorial. Photo / Bethany Rolston
For 40 years, a corroded plaque beside a farm gate was the only memorial. Photo / Bethany Rolston

About 500 Tokanui patients were buried in the 0.8ha paddock between 1914 and 1964, including Zinsli's great-aunt in 1946.

GREAT-AUNT MARIA

Zinsli's journey to restore the graveyard started in 2014 when he began researching his family history.

He discovered he had a great-aunt, Maria Zinsli, a sister his grandfather never spoke of.

Maria immigrated to New Zealand from Switzerland in 1887, aged 23, with her fiancé Jacob.

The couple settled in Waverley and Maria worked as a domestic servant in a family home as Jacob shepherded on a nearby farm.

Tragedy struck the couple two years later when Jacob died from acute peritonitis — a perforated stomach ulcer.

Maria, who spoke little English, spiralled into what we now call depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The love of her life was gone and she was living in an unfamiliar land," Zinsli said.

"What else would you expect? Of course she was going to be traumatised."

Maria's employers were concerned with her behaviour. She was praying in German, refusing to eat and having nightmares.

They called a doctor, who declared Maria a "lunatic" and admitted her to Mount View Lunatic Asylum in Wellington.

Doctors said Maria would not answer when spoken to, was violent, spent all day in bed and wanted to die.

"She had given up on life," Zinsli said.

"She wanted her fiancé back and she couldn't have him. What she really needed in that moment was love and a big reassuring hug."

For the next 57 years, Maria resided in psychiatric hospitals around New Zealand, including Porirua Lunatic Asylum and, finally, Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital.

The abandoned buildings at the former Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital. Photo / Hunter Calder
The abandoned buildings at the former Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital. Photo / Hunter Calder

She died at Tokanui, aged 81.

"It's bloody sad, it's a life wasted.

"In those days, patients' bodies would be wrapped in a sheet, carried by horse and cart to the nearby paddock and dumped into a hole.

"Fellow patients would walk alongside the horse and cart and help dig and then fill the grave with the dirt. The common name for the graveyard was 'the paddock below the woolshed'."

Today, Maria lies in an unmarked grave in Tokanui Hospital Cemetery with 470 other known remains. It is believed one body has been exhumed.

There is one marked grave in the paddock — Tokanui patient Bridget Nolan, whose family installed a memorial plaque.

GUARDIANS OF THE GRAVES

Tokanui Hospital Cemetery is under Department of Conservation management and sits in the middle of AgResearch land on Farm Rd.

It has been neglected since the late 1960s and was used for grazing stock up until 2014.

For 40 years, a corroded plaque beside a farm gate was the only memorial.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) took over management of the cemetery in the 1990s after the nearby hospital closed.

In 2014, a group of volunteers led by Zinsli started a project to identify and acknowledge the people buried there.

The work has been driven by Zinsli, his cousin Bernice Smith and her husband Les, and Bernice's brother Bryan Zinsli, until his death.

Maurie Zinsli lays a wreath at the cemetery's memorial wall during the unveiling ceremony in February 2016. Photo / Dean Taylor
Maurie Zinsli lays a wreath at the cemetery's memorial wall during the unveiling ceremony in February 2016. Photo / Dean Taylor

The first milestone was reached in 2016 when Hamilton funeral home manager Mark Reinsfield, of James R. Hill, donated a granite memorial wall for the cemetery.

The occasion was marked with an unveiling ceremony in February 2016.

With the help of genealogist Anna Purgar, the group was able to divide the names into those buried in the Anglican, Catholic and non-conformists plots.

Names and plot numbers are recorded on the wall, with blank spaces for names to be added as more people are identified.

Names and plot numbers are recorded on the memorial wall, with blank spaces for names to be added as more people are identified.
Names and plot numbers are recorded on the memorial wall, with blank spaces for names to be added as more people are identified.

There is a separate section for war veterans, who likely suffered post-traumatic stress from the horrors of war. The RSA now honours their names with a small Anzac service there each year.

NO PROMISES

It is four years since he started the restoration project and Zinsli isn't finished yet.
Installing the plaques is the final hurdle.

However, he's butting heads with DOC, which according to Zinsli failed to deliver on its promises.

"DOC promised to let us put plaques in the cemetery," Zinsli said.

"They also committed to planting native trees and shrubs around the outer perimeters of the cemetery to reduce the maintenance costs. This has not happened."

Zinsli has a map of burial plans from hospital records which show where each person is buried.

Ground-penetrating radar technology was used to find each person's resting place.

"I have showed them the map — they know where all the graves are."

"DOC promised to see the project through, and now they're backpedalling on their offer."

Zinsli's push for plaques has the support of families and local businesses.

Waikato businesses agreed to make the plaques and concrete edging and family members of former patients indicated their backing.

"There's got to be hundreds of Tokanui patients' descendants around New Zealand," Zinsli said.

"We got in touch with a hell of a lot of them and nearly all really wanted a plaque. They said it would give them a place to visit."

But DOC wouldn't make any promises.

DOC Waikato operations manager Ray Scrimgeour said "it's neither a yes nor a no".

Scrimgeour said the granite wall was an appropriate acknowledgement of the people buried there.

"The 2015/2016 consensus seemed to be, 'let's put up the memorial wall and not put a lot of energy into what might be quite a difficult project to get right'. We were involved with interested parties who said a memorial wall was the right approach.

"In some ways, I think it is almost slightly disrespectful to turn around and say, 'thanks, but now we want to do something else'."

He said the location of the graves was unknown.

"There are maps but, because some bodies have been dug up over time, there's some uncertainty.

"The ground-penetration radar doesn't prove there is a burial at the site, but it shows where ground has been disturbed. It's not conclusive."

Scrimgeour said plaques could be considered — but only if DoC received a formal proposal.

"It needs the support of the wider community, not driven by just one or two people."

"There will always be room for improvement. It's certainly better than what it was 20 years ago."

Zinsli said DoC had received several formal proposals.

"It was known and stated from day one that we wanted to put a plaque on each and every grave. Stop making excuses and honour your commitments."

DECLINE AND RUIN

Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital closed in 1998 and has been steadily decaying - now the asbestos-lined buildings host rats and four security guards.

It is vested in the Crown landbank, run by Land Information NZ, and monitored 24/7 by Waikato Security Services.

The land is also under Treaty of Waitangi negotiations and the Crown expected to initial a deed of settlement early next year.

The annual maintenance cost of $550,000 pays for security, lawn mowing, rates and the operation of two waste water treatment plants.

The abandoned site is a far cry from its heyday which, at its peak, housed 1000 patients and had its own farm, vegetable garden, bakery, laundry and sewing room.

For the last four years Zinsli has fought to give those resting at Tokanui Hospital Cemetery the recognition they deserve. Photo / Bethany Rolston
For the last four years Zinsli has fought to give those resting at Tokanui Hospital Cemetery the recognition they deserve. Photo / Bethany Rolston

Zinsli wishes he could have visited his great-aunt in Tokanui, but he was only a child when she died.

Instead, he visits her unmarked grave.

"When I first started the project, I used to spend a lot of time up there.

"One of the farmers joked about building a shack up there for me to sleep in. It's like my second home."

Zinsli said he wants to acknowledge his great-aunt and the other patients.

"Those poor souls, through no fault of their own, got buried or dumped there.

"The hospital and cemetery is part of the local history. We need to honour those poor lost souls in that paddock by giving them the recognition and closure they deserve by naming every grave."

Zinsli also wants better signage and access to the cemetery.

He said the cemetery — down a private gravel road and through farmland — isn't easy to find.

Zinsli said people needed to keep re-telling their family stories or risk losing them.

"I'm so mad at my grandad for not talking about Maria or his other siblings."

He said a mentally disabled person could be considered in times past as a shame on a family.

"Times have changed — and now is the time to start talking about it.

"People need to ask their grandparents about their stories. Listen and learn about their past — afterall, it is part of our history."

Zinsli wants to hear from people who want to be part of ongoing efforts to restore the cemetery.

"We are looking for local people with an interest in and knowledge about Tokanui. Meetings will be held in Te Awamutu."

Visit tokanuihospitalcemetery.weebly.com or email mezizzle1@hotmail.com

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