28 July 2014

Final Resting Places: ..... and a city destroyed

In February 2011 the city of Christchurch, New Zealand was devastated by a strong, shallow magnitude 6.3 earthquake that destroyed large areas of the city and left over 180 people dead. As well as having to contend with the shaking, many suburbs were affected by liquefaction, a term that before the earthquake many had never heard of. Much of the city had been build on land that had a shallow soil structure with a sandy base, and as a result, with all the shaking the sand and water rose to the surface and spewed up from the ground. 

The cemeteries in the eastern parts of Christchurch took a real hammering. Hundreds and hundreds of old historic headstones were no match for the shaking and were rocked off their foundations and smashed. Other areas were affected by liquefaction that resulted in the lowering of the ground levels in many places. Although I did not see the damage to these cemeteries in person for nearly two years,  even after all this time and a bit of tidying up, it was still heartbreaking to see.

My husband's family has very strong roots in Christchurch and many of his family members, including his parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great, great grandparents are all buried there. We venture north to Christchurch only about once a year and ever since we were first married it had always been my intention of visiting the various cemeteries and finding their final resting places. But like many other things in this life on my "to-do list", I had not quite got around to it yet. I did have photos of some of the graves, but always felt that a visit was needed to pay my respects to them, especially to my mother-in-law and father-in-law that I never had a chance to meet.

Seeing the damage for myself

In March 2013 my husband and I got to visit Christchurch for the first time since the earthquake and see for ourselves the damage first-hand. To see it on television is one thing, but to see it in person is something else. Although two years had passed, in places it still looked as though the earthquake had happened just yesterday. A drive through the now-deserted suburb of Bexely was heart-breaking. Street after street after street of near-new houses, all broken and empty, windows boarded up, gardens overgrown. A very, very sad thing to witness.

And not far from there we visited the first of three cemeteries that we would visit that day. Ruru Lawn Cemetery was our first port of call to hopefully find Ross's parents and grandparents. I had been online and had downloaded maps of the cemeteries and had found the plot numbers that I needed. I was sure that this would be a quick, easy job locating the graves we wanted. But as soon as we drove in the gate I knew I had severely under-estimated the task. What greeted me wasn't the rows and rows of upright headstones that I am so used to down home. Instead I discovered that this was a cemetery where the plot markers and plaques lie flat on the ground. Which is all good and well in a normal situation. But when you add into the equation an earthquake and massive amounts of liquefaction, what we then have is a logistical nightmare.

I could tell where many of the rows were, or should have been. And I could see plenty of plot markers were still visible. But many of them were no longer visible, having sunk below the surface when the earth was shaking. This wasn't going to be an easy task at all.

The area where Ross' parents graves are located, but hardly a plot marker to be seen.

After nearly half an hour spent searching for Ross's parents graves in the small area where I knew they should have been, we had to admit defeat. Sadly, they were no where to be found. So we moved on to the next search in a different area, searching for Ross's paternal grandparents, John and Mia (nee PRESTIDGE) HURRELL.

Clearing away the dirt to reveal the plaque
four inches below the surface.
After another half hour of fruitless searching we were once again about to give up, but then we struck the jackpot. We were just walking back towards the car and walked across an area of grass with some plaques visible, but with many others buried. And in just one quick glimpse down I suddenly thought I saw some letters that looked familiar. In a small hole in the ground the letters "ELL" caught my eye. I scraped my foot over it to try to push some of the grass aside and the whole word "HURRELL" appeared. Finally we had found one of the plaques we were looking for. After a bit of digging by hand and a clean with a wet rag, Ross's grandparents plaque was once again visible to the world.

That same day we also visited the nearby Bromley Cemetery and the Linwood Cemetery, two of the older cemeteries in Christchurch. Although the "Friends of Linwood Cemetery" organisation have spent a lot of time and energy at the cemetery since the earthquake, there is still so much damage apparent. Many of the oldest historic headstones are broken and smashed, or have fallen face down so they are unable to be read. As is the case in most cemeteries, the Christchurch City Council is only responsible for the actual cemetery, not the headstones. Any repairs to actual headstones must be made by the families. The big problem with this is two-fold. The first problem is that many of the headstones are very old and the chances of finding any family members still connected to these families is probably quite slim. And the second big problem, even if they do find family members related to the people buried in the plots, they probably would not be willing nor able to afford the cost of repairing these headstones.

My husband's paternal grandparents,
Ruru Lawn Cemetery
Of all the plots we were looking for the day we visited the Christchurch cemeteries, we had about a 50% success rate in finding what we were looking for. Although we had the maps and the plot numbers, it definitely wasn't an easy task. I hope to return to Christchurch early next year to continue my search for all those plots that eluded me the last time we visited.

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