Family member saddened by sorry state of Queenstown Cemetery

by Lauren Pattemore - Oct 30, 2023

Debbie Anderson is a regular visitor to the Queenstown Cemetery - or at least she was up until the rain storm on September 22 left the graves of loved ones covered by silt, gravel and logs, forcing the temporary closure of up to a third of the site.

The Queenstown resident likes to pay her resects and tend to the resting spots of four family members and a former neighbour at the cemetery, but for now she's unable to do that as they sit within a no-go zone impacted by the flooding.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council says land above the cemetery is still too unstable to allow any clean-up of the impacted area, so it remains largely untouched since debris flowed down from the gondola hill overnight in heavy rain five weeks ago.

However, the council is hopeful a safety all-clear will be given this week to allow work to start.

Ms Anderson's job as a delivery truck driver takes her past the cemetery four times a week, and she says she is fed up at seeing the graves in their current state.

Although the council has told Crux it has made contact with 80 families affected by the temporary closure of the cemetery and the impacted gravesites, Ms Anderson says she had not spoken with anyone at the council until last Friday.

Until then, she says she had been unaware of any plan by the council to restore the area, and she knows of two other affected families feeling similarly out of the loop.

The council does have a restoration plan, which it has published on a dedicated webpage.

A council spokesperson has told Crux it is in weekly contact with people it knows of with family members buried at the cemetery and affected by the flooding.

Before September's heavy rainfall and the inundation of the cemetery, Ms Anderson would visit at least twice a week, acting as a caretaker for the graves of her own friends and relatives as well as for others whose loved ones had since moved away from Queenstown. 

“I’ll just go up on my afternoons and do an hour here or there and clean them up I just think it’s not a big issue to go and tidy up the headstones, keep it nice so people can see the name.

“The guys that do the mowing do a fantastic job, but nobody actually looks after the headstones…and there’s so many people there [in the cemetery] that I grew up with, that I knew.”

This last weekend, Ms Anderson hosted her brother and sister-in-law from Australia, as well as her nephew and his wife visiting from America, and had been hoping it would have been cleaned up by now so they could see it.

She thinks allowing consent for the large-scale tree removal on the section of Ben Lomond reserve above the cemetery was “really a recipe for disaster”.

It’s an opinion shared by Jon Mitchell, whose parents are buried at the cemetery, although in an area not impacted by the flooding.

He knows that concerns were raised before the weather event.

“Many people have brought it up with councillors and with the council itself...about that being both an eyesore but also the potential risk.

“Hopefully, some significant lessons are taken from this and there is a change in behaviour.”

Ms Anderson says she contacted the council last Friday to ask when the cemetery would be cleaned up and was told action would start this week, and “it will be all done by Christmas”.

Multiple graves and gravestones remain buried by debris and logs more than a month after a severe rain event caused flooding at the Queenstown Cemetery (Image taken Thursday, October 26). 

It is a deadline the council has also shared with Crux, although it comes with the caveat of all things going to plan.

Ms Anderson says she will be checking the cemetery this week, looking for signs of work beginning.

She has now also asked to be out on the list of family members to receive regular email updates from the council.

Crux published a story on the sorry state of the cemetery on Friday. Yesterday, the council updated its online information to include links to three updates communicated to families and stakeholders in recent weeks, so the wider public now has access to the information too.

In an update from October 12, QLDC parks officer for cemeteries and heritage Tarsy Koentges provides timeframes for some clean-up works.

She estimates that from Labour Day until early November larger debris would be removed, followed by smaller debris and silt, and then from late November until Christmas there would be detailed cleaning and potential monument restoration.

“We want to be fully upfront that it is going to be a while before the cemetery reopens,” the update says.

“I want to continue to make myself available for any questions or concerns you have, I am always at the other end of the phone, or these emails, so do please reach out as I want you all to feel informed and supported throughout this process.”

The council told Crux last week 207 plots were impacted by the heavy debris flow and slash that came down the hill.

Of these, 44 plots did not have interments, 33 were unmarked graves and 47 were historical with no plot holder listed.

Main image: The Queenstown Cemetery waits for a safety all-clear to allow clean-up work to begin, Thursday, October 26.

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