Connection across generations

Dunedin is well-served with cemeteries and the Northern and Southern cemeteries are the resting...
Dunedin is well-served with cemeteries and the Northern and Southern cemeteries are the resting place of many of Dunedin's early settlers and pioneers. PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
A cemetery is not a dull, bleak or sad place. It is part of history, writes Joss Miller. 

In this consumer and disposable age there is still something strong and immutable about a cemetery. They are, in a sense, remarkable places where the deceased have a permanent residence although, for them, time is frozen.

Row upon row of headstones are neatly divided by manicured lawns and paths producing an impressive degree of uniformity and dignity. Some headstones have a tired and worn appearance while graves of more recent origin are often covered with fresh flowers and varieties of ornament, being displays of genuine warmth and affection showing loved ones are not forgotten.

Inscriptions on headstones tell stories, albeit brief, and are a tribute to the skill and care of stonemasons.

There is always particular sadness where lives have been cut short, particularly in those times when infant mortality was high and where many died from childhood diseases. The veterans of wars are remembered for their contributions in protecting our freedoms. It is always interesting to note the ages of family members and try to sense what their lives might have been like.

In more religious times, death was thought to be the precursor to an everlasting life and some headstones have biblical references alluding to that. These sentiments are captured by John Donne in his poem written in 1609 where he debunks the idea that death is something to fear and in the final two lines states:

"One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die."

Dunedin is well-served with cemeteries and the Northern and Southern cemeteries are the resting place of many of Dunedin's early settlers and pioneers.

The Andersons Bay cemetery is the largest in Dunedin and its main burial site from the early 19th century until the 1980s. It is situated on a rocky promontory with stunning coastal vistas and surrounded by the beautiful Chisholm Park links golf course.

Its southern slopes are also the resting place for some of my forebears, including paternal grandparents, both of whom were born in Scotland, several aunts and a cousin.

The Scots, with their frugality and strong work ethic, laid the foundation for Dunedin's early success. They had an impressive understanding of the value of education and were prominent in the establishment of the University of Otago, which is celebrating its 150th year.

Whenever I tee off from the third hole at Chisholm, there is always the sense of a silent but nonetheless attentive gallery looking down but perhaps wondering about this particular golfer's technique! There is, too, the memory of a perpetually smiling great-aunt who always provided wonderful afternoon teas and the most delectable truffles. My maternal Irish grandparents, buried in the far west of Ireland, are also part of the continuum of our family story.

A cemetery is not a dull, bleak or sad place. It is part of history. It illuminates our past and helps inform the present.

Here families are connected across the generations, a quiet space to pause and reflect on our own mortality.

 - Joss Miller is a retired Dunedin lawyer.

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