Walking down a long line of headstones, the women's voices are quiet but clear as they seemingly address people who are nowhere to be seen.

"Excuse me,'' one says, as she walks over a grave.

"Sorry,'' the other says, as she does the same.

It is a sign of respect, they explain - something that is very much a part of the practical work they do as grave cleaners at the Waikumete Cemetery in Glen Eden, West Auckland.


On any given day you can find friends Pania Hall and Kelly Reichardt at the site.

Opened in the late 1800s, it is the final resting place for up to 70,000 people and is one of the biggest cemeteries in the Southern Hemisphere.

"We do it because it's an honour to do it. These people deserve to be cared for as well,'' Reichardt says.

The pair are part of the Friends of Waikumete charity - a small group of locals who work throughout the year to raise funds for various projects at the cemetery.

Friends of Waikumete grave cleaners Pania Hall, left, and Kelly Reichardt at one of the graves they look after. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Friends of Waikumete grave cleaners Pania Hall, left, and Kelly Reichardt at one of the graves they look after. Photo / Jason Oxenham

One day, while in an old section of the cemetery, the two friends noticed a number of graves were covered in overgrown grass.

Reichardt said: "We sort of thought: 'What if we cleaned this grave? That would come up really nice if we cleaned that'.''

In less than a year, they have cleaned and restored several graves in some of the oldest parts of the cemetery.

They are allowed to regularly clean graves that are more than 60 years old. For others, they seek permission from that person's family - many of whom are glad to give it.


Their work has involved researching the kinds of cleaning products that are okay to use so as not to damage headstones.

Their kits include gloves, large scrubbers, buckets and a special Moss & Mould cleaner they described as a lifesaver.

Old toothbrushes also helped them hugely, Hall said, holding up a beaten up, grubby toothbrush.

"Good old Colgate, man,'' she laughed.

One of the graves they take care of is that of Florence Doris Sargeant, who died in 1921, aged 5.

Hall said while cleaning graves, they often talked about what life would have been like for that particular person and their family.

"Back in the day, you only knew someone had passed away because you'd got a telegram. We talk about world events - what was happening in the world.

"Also, funnily enough, fashion. We sometimes think about what they would've been wearing, opportunities for the children.

"We sit and we're cleaning and we're having a great time talking to each other and talking to Florence - talking to the people. It makes us sounds like weirdos.''

Reichardt cuts in: "But we're not - we have a lot of empathy and love for the people.''

Referring to Florence, Hall suddenly gets emotional when it is realised that the day the Herald visits is the exact day the little girl died almost 100 years ago, on February 5, 1921.

"Her parents would've stood there. They would've tended to her and they would've been just heartbroken.

"You think about where did they came in - was there a procession? Was it horse-drawn?

"For Florence's parents, I'd like them to think that 98 years later, someone came to take care of their little girl.''

To donate to Friends of Waikumete or to inquire about a grave to be cleaned, for a donation, contact: Friends of Waikumete Grave Cleaning