Headstone Restoration a way to Show Respect

Dec 17, 2020

One man has been quietly cleaning and restoring old headstones at Purewa Cemetery for the past year.

Semi-retired ecological consultant Graham Don from St Heliers, joined the Friends of Purewa, and almost immediately started on a personal project to revitalise old headstones covered in lichen and often illegible.

Initially the focus was on Commonwealth War Graves – Purewa has 69 known war graves from the First and Second World Wars. Unlike Council-owned cemeteries, which have war graves laid out in sections, at Purewa they are scattered throughout the 20-hectare Anglican-owned cemetery.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates, honours and cares for the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in both World Wars, ensuring they are never forgotten. Funded by six member governments, their work began with building, and now maintaining cemeteries at 23,000 locations world-wide, including Purewa.

In New Zealand, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage is the agent for the CWGC and responsible for graves of personnel who died between August 4 1914 – August 31 1921, and September 3 1939 – December 31 1947. Graham has mostly restored non-Commonwealth War Graves. To date he has restored 30 headstones including people from Otago, Wellington, Australia, the Maori Pioneer Battalion, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and the South African War ranging across the Army, Navy and Air force.

There is also one grave for John Charles Pelham (1841-1931) from Ponsonby who served in the American Civil War as a Corporal in the Cavalry.

Graham says the cleaning process is time consuming, as often repeat applications of a spray to remove lichen are needed. He uses a wire brush to buff up the sides before applying a water-based paint to restore and repair damaged lettering. Finally a polish is rubbed onto the surface to complete the transformation.

Graham says visiting the war graves at Cassino in Italy with his wife Sue, made a big impression on him, and helped spark his interest in Purewa.

“When I discovered the Friends of Purewa, you could say it was a happy coincidence. It’s really satisfying to be able to do something worthwhile and to show respect in this way now I have more time,” he says.

Coordinator of the Friends of Purewa, Sue Cooper, says the volunteer group is delighted to have such an important contribution from Graham Don.

“Graham is one of those people who just quietly gets on with the job in hand. There are many headstones at Purewa, which over time, have become almost impossible to read. Headstone cleaning and restoring is one key area we identified as being important, and while it takes time and patience, Graham’s efforts are making a noticeable difference,” Sue says.

Other areas the Friends support include the planting of E block old, unattended graves, researching many people from different walks of life buried or interred at Purewa, and assisting at Open Days and the Auckland Heritage Festival. For more information please contact Friends of Purewa at friends@purewa.co.nz

View a service online