The Garston Cemetery: A Very Special Shelter

The normally-tranquil Garston Cemetery was a-buzz early in November.

Residents past and present were gathering along with SDC mayor Gary Tong and councillors John Douglas and Rob Scott, for the opening of the cemetery memorial board and shelter. 

The ceremony marked the end of two years planning, fundraising and organising for the Garston Cemetery Trust. Designed by Gordan McMillan and built by Aaron Abernethy and Jordan MacGregor, this lovely little building is one-of-a-kind. 

Cutting the ribbon on the Garston Cemetery Memorial Board Shelter.
Noel McMillan and Gary Tong open the Garston Memorial Boards’ special shelter.

Opening Ceremony At The Garston Cemetery

Cemeteries are an important part of the history of any town. Just wander around and you’ll see family histories etched on the gravestones. Some show us how hard life used to be. They tell us of servicemen and women who fought in wars throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. We can find those who lived to a ripe old age and be sad for those taken far too soon.
Old-style elaborate monuments give way to simple, modern headstones and I love the growing practice of including photos and treasured memories. 

13 years ago the Southland District Council began a massive project. Their cemetery records were neither accurate nor easy to access. It was time to update. This work is on-going but to date 26 cemeteries have been thoroughly researched.

This information is now available online at the Cemetery Search. But not everyone is internet savvy. Many people said “please put this on-site as well. “

So information boards are popping up in Southland cemeteries. And most of these are protected from the elements by simple shelters.  

When Garston’s turn came the Cemetery Trust decided to make the whole shelter part of the memorial. So they turned to the people who love living here to help create a truly special sanctuary.

Design Celebrates Garston’s History

Designer Gordon McMillan may live in Invercargill now but his roots lie in the Garston farm he grew up on.  

“I thought about my lifetime and my life living up in Garston here,” he says. “The people that originally would have been buried in this cemetery and the materials and things that they would have had to deal with.” 

Gordon knew exactly what those materials were: stone, iron and wood. So that’s what he used.

Stone for the first shepherds and miners’ huts which are still visible on Garston farms today.

Iron and wood for the unrelenting work that made the valley what it is today. The ploughs that worked the land. The railway tracks that opened it up. The pipes and sluices that washed out the gold in the Nokomai.

Montage showing the iron, stone and wood sections of the shelter building.
Walking around the building those are exactly what you’ll see. The stone, iron, and wood give a sense of history, strength and peace.

Some careful thought went into the direction and open design too. 

Gordon explains it like this. 

“I just wanted it to be open to the north, easy to access and everyone to be able to see it from the road and I think I’ve achieved that. I believe it will stand the test of time and be here when I’m over there (in the cemetery) somewhere.” 

What Is The Garston Cemetery Trust?

The Southland District Council manages some cemeteries. Local Cemetery Trusts run the rest. They keep the records, allocate plots, ensure the cemeteries are tidy and arrange to dig the graves whenever a new one is needed. 

In a village such as Garston, it’s not an onerous job. As longtime trustee Noel McMillan, told the crowd, the Garston Trust records go back 110 years. 

“The other day we had a bit of expense,” he said. “We had to renew our receipt book and we noted that it was first used in 1903.”

The SDC Cemetery Records Project 

In 2006 council graphic artist Donna Hawkins began the task of researching and cataloguing all the graves in the Southland District. The idea first came from the Balfour Cemetery Trust whose members found themselves constantly fielding requests from people who were working on family trees. 

Creating the database — and the physical boards —  has proved to be a fascinating, sometimes frustrating and often emotional task. Donna has had to hone her sleuthing skills to track down records of deaths in Southland over the past 130+ years. 

“The older records were always handwritten,” says Donna, “and that led to copying errors” — particularly when it came to the letters e and i which can be hard to decipher.

We’ll never find some records. At least one set was in the keeping of the local bank manager, Donna told me. “He took it home for safekeeping, but a fire destroyed his house and all the cemetery records with it.”

Of course, Donna has had a massive amount of help with this task. Genealogists and historians from all over the province have worked to piece together puzzles and get a truly accurate record those buried here. 

Tragedy, Peace and History Fills Southland’s Cemeteries

While working on this massive project, Donna has visited just about every cemetery in Southland. 

“I always like to go around and see the graves, and learn the history there.”

Donna Hawkins

And it’s been a sad process too. 

“There’ve been lots of tears while doing this,” says Donna. “Seeing what some families have gone through. In Wairio (Ohai-Nightcaps) the Rogers family lost ten children in the ‘flu epidemic of 1918. Ten in the space of just a few days.”

There’s an unbelievable amount of Southland’s history in our cemeteries too. In Fortrose is buried the victim of the first man in Southland to be hanged for murder. They carved it on her tombstone: “Murdered by her husband.” Evidently, the vicar of the day disapproved and persuaded the family to have the words etched out — but not very well because you can still make them out on the stone.

James Hargest — a famous Southland name —  lies peacefully in the Woodlands Cemetery, while in Lynwood Cemetery (Te Anau) there is a board marking Fiordland’s lonely graves. These are people who died and are buried in quiet, sometimes unmarked, places within the National Park. Lynwood also has the “Lost but not forgotten” panel which commemorates those tragically never found after boating or flying accidents. 

Part of the "Lost but not forgotten" board at Lynwood Cemetery, Te Anau.

Boards Reflect Their Communities

These records are a joint effort between the Southland District Council and the communities, and Donna has been sensitive to the wishes of each community when it comes to the design of the boards. While the overall look of the boards is the same, the information and decorations on each are special to their area.

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to designing a memorial board. The colours, for instance.

Donna chose purple and gold “because those are the colours of mourning and death across a number of religions.” 

It was tricky deciding what information to include but in the end, it boiled down to space. There’s only so much room on each board after all. 

Which brings me back to Garston. Our panels sit quietly in their beautiful enclosure. In just a few sentences they explain the history of the Garston cemetery. They remember our servicemen, and acknowledge our “lonely graves”. ‘

The name of each person buried in the cemetery to date is etched on the panel, with plenty of space to record those to come. 

I went back to the Garston Cemetery after talking to Donna. I’ve always loved wandering around this place and thinking about those I know who rest here. But hearing Donna’s enthusiasm and sensitivity, and knowing the passion that went into designing and building our shelter, makes it even more special. 

This project has solved puzzles, reunited families with their loved ones, and acknowledged graves that were ignored for years. 

It’s a wonderful thing. 

The gold and purple memorial boards at Garston.
The Garston Cemetery Memorial Boards, protected by their special shelter, are part of a Southland District-wide project to acknowledge all the dead who lie within the district and to give those seeking their loved-ones’ graves an easy way to find them.

More Garston Stories On Time Or My Life

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Remembering Roberts Town: A Garston School Adventure

The Garston Hunny Shop: Bene and the Bees

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