Earliest of cemeteries

This watercolour by George Sinclair shows the neglected state of the disused cemetery in Arthur...
This watercolour by George Sinclair shows the neglected state of the disused cemetery in Arthur St before its clearance. PHOTO: ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY
The old Arthur St burial ground soon after its transformation into a park, c. 1881-84, showing...
The old Arthur St burial ground soon after its transformation into a park, c. 1881-84, showing the obelisk erected to the memory of those buried there, most of whom were reinterred in the Southern Cemetery. The black pine planted over the grave of...

James Campbell is not a famous man, even in Dunedin history, but he has the distinction of being the first person buried in the city's first cemetery. Campbell was part of the team of men led by Charles Kettle to survey the new town in 1846. They located the settlement's first cemetery on a reserve between the town and the Town Belt. Now known as the Arthur St Cemetery, it was also referred to in the past as the York Pl burial ground or cemetery. James Campbell was buried here on October 29, 1846.

• Dead interesting

After the Scottish settlers arrived in 1848, this became the city's cemetery for the next 10 years. Like many early burial places, it was a plain affair with no pretensions to beauty or fashion: most of the graves were marked by picket surrounds, if at all, and the only noticeable planting was the black pine that marked the grave of James Williamson, who died in 1857.

When the Southern Cemetery was opened the following year, the old burial ground was closed for burials except for relatives of those already buried there. From 1865, it was completely closed to burials and it rapidly deteriorated; five years later, the Otago Witness described the old cemetery in Arthur St as ''a favourite pasture ground with cows, which have eaten down the grass, destroyed railings, knocked down headstones and trampled on graves.

But there are other offenders beside these, for wooden fences have disappeared''.

The inference was that the fences had been stolen for firewood.

By 1879, public complaint at the revolting state of the burial ground compelled the council to act. With the permission of relatives, the remaining headstones and debris were removed, and many of the bodies were reinterred in the new cemetery.

The old cemetery was grassed over, with paths and plantings, and made into an attractive park. An obelisk, which still stands today, was erected in the memory of those buried there in 1880: it is one of the first monuments to the early settlers.

Today, few people take time to read the names on the monument, and most pass through the park unaware that it was Dunedin's first cemetery.

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