Hunting The Dead In A Beautiful Place

Tuesday, April 7, 2015
One of my favourite things to do is to hunt down the dead.

Ancestry research is great fun. If you like puzzles and you like mysteries, this is a pastime that is as much thrilling as it is enlightening.

Rob and I pulled up alongside the Waikumete cemetery in Auckland on a warm Saturday afternoon. We had called ahead during the week, so we had a fair idea of where Great Grandfather x3 Foley was buried.

We squeezed through the overgrown hedge and found ourselves in one of the oldest grave sites of early New Zealand. A beautiful, sloping green field dotted with the grey, crumbling headstones of our ancestors. Many were still in good repair, but many were rusty and broken and fallen, overgrown with grass and briar roses, where the earth had sunken around the buried coffins, and the concrete sealing some of the graves had lifted away from the foundations, cracking and twisting through the hundreds of years of sun and rain and nature's ceaseless and unfettered march.

As Rob explained to me, the cemetery employees, as a government-owned entity is responsible for the upkeep of the grounds, not for the upkeep of the graves. That is left for family to tend to, and as the years pass, and family pass too, the dead are forgotten and abandoned. It's only when we, the young and the living wish to seek our roots and familial connections that we look for them again and come to find the final resting places of our kinsmen.

On my mother's maternal side, we have a rich oral and written history, but on her mother's father's side there is not much information at all. I think my Great Grandmother's family had a strong and large unit of aunties and uncles and cousins and a close bond with their Maori heritage that it dominated the family stories and connections, but in the last month I found myself wondering about my mother's grandfather and his origins, so I began a little digging around to see what came up.

Stephen Foley, my Great grandfather died a couple of years after I was born, and as I hunted around I discovered that his grandfather and grandmother, John and Hannah Sarah Foley immigrated to New Zealand among the first early settlers of the 1800s, and they came from Ireland.

We had always suspected we had Irish blood, not the least because throughout my lifetime people would always refer to the dark ring around my green eyes as being Irish. The legend goes that if you have that, you have Irish blood.

Well, now I've proven it. My Great x3 grandfather was Irish. His wife was Welsh, and they came to New Zealand to start afresh. He was a book binder, and he died in Auckland in 1893 and was buried in the Roman Catholic Division of the Waikumete Cemetery.

But as Rob and I wandered up and down, we failed to find the Foley headstone.

The old part of the cemetery is not very well organised. We were told John Foley was buried in Row 1, plot 63, so we wandered up and down, checking. Some graves were unreadable. There would be moss grown over the etchings or the words had faded into oblivion. We couldn't be sure if we were looking at our family member's headstone or not.

So we drove back to the office. Twice.

If I had the job of working in a cemetery I would be so interested if people turned up looking for an ancestor. I would love to help in the hunt, doing what I could to assist, but the staff at the Waikumete Cemetery were either extremely bored, depressed or just didn't love what they did for a living, because we had to go back twice to find the information. The second time we struck a different staff member and she was more helpful, if slightly bored, and brought out a large ancient cardboard plan of the old cemetery. We had to use the magnifying glass to find the written number on the tiny, faded squares that represented the plot sites, and when we did find it, it was the one part of the old, worn cardboard sheet that had torn and worn away, just like the graves. No markings. No number. No record. The upkeep and record keeping is very poor, in my opinion. This needs to be rectified as soon as possible to preserve history for future generation.

What had happened to my Great great great grandparents original headstone, I do not know. The cemetery had a record of the etching with their names and dates of death, but there was nothing that remained to physically mark the graves, other than a slight indentation in the earth. John's wife Hannah is buried in plot 61 - also unmarked, and John's grave is a double grave, his daughter Elizabeth dying 6 years before him, 4 months after her mother, in 1887. When John died, he was buried on top. Why did Elizabeth, my Great great Aunt and her mother die so closely together - within a few months? This is another piece of the puzzle.

We did find them - we know where they are buried now, but there is nothing to mark it, other than this old tree that grows over the site.

We photographed the graves beside.

and recorded the site for our future reference.

I am going to look into getting a small marker for John and Elizabeth and Hannah. It doesn't seem right that the two people who gave us the privilege of being new Zealanders don't have anything tangible to remember them by, other than their genetic gift of their many descendents. I hope we can rectify that.

John Foley born 1814, County Carlow, Ireland
Book Binder. 
Died aged 80 years, April 16, 1893 in Auckland, New Zealand

His wife,
Hannah Sarah Foley, born 1820, Glamorgan, Wales
Died, aged 66, 7 February 1887
Occupation: Domestic

Their daughter Miss Elizabeth Mary Foley (buried with John)
born in London, 1857
died in Auckland, 30 May, 1887 (age 29 years)
Occupation: Domestic

Buried in the Roman Catholic division of the Waikumete Cemetery, Auckland
Row 1, Plots 61 and 63.


Catching the Magic said...

So fascinating and your idea of making a new marker to commemorate their lives is a lovely one.

Amy at love made my home said...

It is sad to see these graves in this condition, but I guess it is inevitable as families move away and later generations die too. It is good though that you could track down your family history and heritage. Your idea of a marker on the graves is a wonderful and very generous one which I am sure your relatives would appreciate. xx

anon said...

Fantastic to read your blog. My husband is a Foley and John and Hannah are his grt grt grandparents.
Hannah Foley died of burns when she fell into the kitchen fire, she was an epileptic and had a seizure. She died at Auckland Hospital. Very Sad.
Murray has done a lot of research on the Foley family and has some information you may be interested in. You can view some of it on

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