Recog­ni­tion for Tokanui’s lost souls

One man’s mis­sion for the dead


For Mau­rie Zinsli, a ceme­tery 10 min­utes south of Te Awa­mutu is like his sec­ond home.

The 78-year-old reg­u­larly vis­its the field where pa­tients of Tokanui Psy­chi­atric Hospi­tal were buried.

For the last four years Mau­rie has fought to give those rest­ing there the recog­ni­tion they de­serve.

He is on a mis­sion to place a plaque on each burial site. Mau­rie will fin­ish the project “or die in the at­tempt”.

About 500 Tokanui pa­tients were buried in the 0.8ha pad­dock be­tween 1914 and 1964, in­clud­ing Mau­rie’s great-aunt in 1946.

Tokanui Hospi­tal Ceme­tery is un­der Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment and sits in the mid­dle of AgRe­search land on Farm Rd.

It has been ne­glected since the late 1960s and was used for graz­ing stock up un­til 2014.

For 40 years, a cor­roded plaque be­side a farm gate was the only memo­rial.

The Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion took over man­age­ment of the ceme­tery in the 1990s af­ter the nearby hospi­tal closed.

In 2014 a group of vol­un­teers led by Mau­rie started a project to iden­tify and ac­knowl­edge the peo­ple buried there.

The work has been driven by Mau­rie, his cousin Ber­nice Smith and her hus­band Les, and Ber­nice’s brother Bryan Zinsli, un­til his death.

The first mile­stone was reached in 2016 when Hamil­ton funeral home man­ager Mark Reins­field, of James R. Hill, do­nated a gran­ite memo­rial wall for the ceme­tery.

The oc­ca­sion was marked with an un­veil­ing cer­e­mony in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

With the help of ge­neal­o­gist Anna Pur­gar, the group was able to di­vide the names into those buried in the Angli­can, Catholic and non-con­form­ists plots.

Names and plot num­bers are recorded on the wall, with blank spa­ces for names to be added as more peo­ple are iden­ti­fied.

There is a sep­a­rate sec­tion for war vet­er­ans, who likely suf­fered post-trau­matic stress from the hor­rors of war. The RSA is now hon­our­ing their names by hold­ing a small An­zac ser­vice there each year.

Work not fin­ished

It’s been four years since he started the restora­tion project and Mau­rie’s work isn’t fin­ished yet.

In­stalling the plaques is the fi­nal hur­dle. How­ever, he’s butting heads with DOC, which ac­cord­ing to Mau­rie has failed to de­liver on its promises.

“DOC promised to let us put plaques in the ceme­tery. They also com­mit­ted to plant­ing na­tive trees and shrubs around the outer perime­ters of the ceme­tery to re­duce the main­te­nance costs. This has not hap­pened.”

Mau­rie has a map of burial plans from hospi­tal records that show where each per­son is buried.

Ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar tech­nol­ogy has been used to find each per­son’s rest­ing place.

“I have showed them the map — they know where all the graves are,” Mau­rie says.

“DOC promised to see the project through, and now they’re backpedalling on their of­fer.”

Mau­rie’s push for plaques has the sup­port of fam­i­lies and lo­cal busi­nesses. Waipa¯ busi­nesses have agreed to make the plaques and con­crete edg­ing and fam­ily mem­bers of for­mer pa­tients have in­di­cated their back­ing.

“There’s got to be hun­dreds of Tokanui pa­tients’ de­scen­dants around New Zealand,” Mau­rie says.

“We got in touch with a hell of a lot of them and nearly all re­ally wanted a plaque. They said it would give them a place to visit.”

But DOC won’t make any promises.

DOC Waikato op­er­a­tions man­ager Ray Scrim­geour says “it’s nei­ther a yes nor a no”.

Ray says the gran­ite wall is an ap­pro­pri­ate ac­knowl­edge­ment of the peo­ple buried there.

“The 2015/2016 con­sen­sus seemed to be, ‘let’s put up the memo­rial wall and not put a lot of en­ergy into what might be quite a dif­fi­cult project to get right’. We were in­volved with in­ter­ested par­ties who said a memo­rial wall was the right ap­proach.

“In some ways I think it is al­most slightly dis­re­spect­ful to turn around and say, ‘thanks, but now we want to do some­thing else’.”

He says the lo­ca­tion of the graves is un­known.

“There are maps, but be­cause some bod­ies have been dug up over time, there’s some un­cer­tainty. The ground-pen­e­tra­tion radar doesn’t prove there is a burial at the site, but it shows where ground has been dis­turbed. It’s not con­clu­sive.”

He says plaques could be con­sid­ered — but only if DOC re­ceives a for­mal pro­posal.

“It needs the sup­port of the wider com­mu­nity, not driven by just one or two peo­ple. There will al­ways be room for im­prove­ment. It’s cer­tainly bet­ter than what it was 20 years ago.”

Mau­rie says DOC has re­ceived sev­eral for­mal pro­pos­als.

“It was known and stated from day one that we wanted to put a plaque on each and ev­ery grave. Stop mak­ing ex­cuses and hon­our your com­mit­ments.”

Great-aunt Maria

Mau­rie’s jour­ney to re­store the grave­yard started in 2014 when he be­gan re­search­ing his fam­ily his­tory.

He dis­cov­ered he had a greataunt, Maria Zinsli, a sis­ter his grand­fa­ther never spoke of.

Maria im­mi­grated to New Zealand from Switzer­land in 1887 aged 23, with her fi­ance´ Ja­cob.

The cou­ple set­tled in Waver­ley, Maria work­ing as a do­mes­tic ser­vant in a fam­ily home and Ja­cob as a shep­herd on a nearby farm.

Tragedy struck the cou­ple two years later when Ja­cob died from acute peri­toni­tis — a per­fo­rated stom­ach ul­cer.

Maria, who spoke lit­tle English, spi­ralled into what we now call de­pres­sion or post-trau­matic stress disor­der.

“The love of her life was gone and she was liv­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar land,” Mau­rie says.

“What else would you ex­pect? Of course she was go­ing to be trau­ma­tised.”

Maria’s em­ploy­ers were con­cerned about her be­hav­iour. She was pray­ing in Ger­man, re­fus­ing to eat and hav­ing night­mares.

They called a doc­tor, who de­clared Maria a ‘lu­natic’ and ad­mit­ted her to Mount View Lu­natic Asy­lum in Welling­ton.

Doc­tors said Maria would not an­swer when spo­ken to, was vi­o­lent, spent all day in bed and wanted to die.

“She had given up on life,” Mau­rie says.

“She wanted her fi­ance´ back and she couldn’t have him. What she re­ally needed in that mo­ment was love and a big re­as­sur­ing hug.”

For the next 57 years Maria would live in psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals around New Zealand, in­clud­ing Porirua Lu­natic Asy­lum and Tokanui Psy­chi­atric Hospi­tal. She died at Tokanui age 81.

“It’s bloody sad, it’s a life wasted,” Mau­rie says.

“In those days, pa­tients’ bod­ies would be wrapped in a sheet, car­ried by horse and cart to the nearby pad­dock and dumped into a hole. Fel­low pa­tients would walk along­side the horse and cart and help dig and then fill the grave with the dirt. The com­mon name for the grave­yard was ‘the pad­dock be­low the wool­shed’.”

To­day, Maria lies in an un­marked grave in Tokanui Hospi­tal Ceme­tery with 470 other known re­mains. It is be­lieved one body has been ex­humed.

There is one marked grave in the pad­dock — Tokanui pa­tient Brid­get Nolan, whose fam­ily in­stalled a memo­rial plaque.

Tokanui Psy­chi­atric Hospi­tal closed in 1998 and has been steadily de­cay­ing — now the as­bestos-lined build­ings host rats and four se­cu­rity guards.

It is in the hands of the Crown land­bank, run by Land In­for­ma­tion NZ, and mon­i­tored 24/7 by Waikato Se­cu­rity Ser­vices.

The land is cur­rently un­der treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions and the Crown ex­pects to ini­tial a deed of set­tle­ment early next year.

The an­nual main­te­nance cost of $550,000 pays for se­cu­rity, lawn mow­ing, rates and the op­er­a­tion of two waste wa­ter treat­ment plants.

The aban­doned site is a far cry from its hey­day which, at its peak, housed 1000 pa­tients and had its own farm, veg­etable gar­den, bak­ery, laun­dry and sewing room.

Mau­rie wishes he could have vis­ited his great-aunt in Tokanui, but he was only a child when she died.

In­stead, he now vis­its her un­marked grave.

“When I first started the project I used to spend a lot of time up there,” he says.

“One of the farm­ers joked about build­ing a shack up there for me to sleep in. It’s like my sec­ond home.”

Although Mau­rie can’t go back in time and save Maria, he wants to ac­knowl­edge her and the other pa­tients.

“Those poor souls, through no fault of their own, got buried or dumped there,” he says.

“The hospi­tal and ceme­tery is part of the lo­cal his­tory. We need to hon­our those poor lost souls in that pad­dock by giv­ing them the recog­ni­tion and clo­sure they de­serve by nam­ing ev­ery grave.”

Mau­rie also wants bet­ter sig­nage and ac­cess to the ceme­tery.

He says the ceme­tery — down a pri­vate gravel road and through farm­land — isn’t easy to find.

Mau­rie says peo­ple need to keep re-telling their fam­ily sto­ries or risk los­ing them.

“I’m so mad at my grandad for not talk­ing about Maria or his other sib­lings.”

He says in ear­lier days a men­tally dis­abled per­son could be seen as a shame on a fam­ily.

“Times have changed — and now is the time to start talk­ing about it.”

“Peo­ple need to ask their grand­par­ents about their sto­ries. Lis­ten and learn about their past — af­ter all it is part of our his­tory.”

Mau­rie wants to hear from peo­ple who want to be part of on­go­ing ef­forts to re­store the ceme­tery.

“We are look­ing for lo­cal peo­ple with an in­ter­est in and knowl­edge about Tokanui. Meet­ings will be held in Te Awa­mutu.”

Photo / Dean Tay­lor

Mau­rie Zinsli lays a wreath at the ceme­tery’s memo­rial wall dur­ing the un­veil­ing cer­e­mony in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

Photo / Bethany Rol­ston

For 40 years, a cor­roded plaque be­side a farm gate was the only memo­rial.

Photo / Bethany Rol­ston

Hamil­ton man Mau­rie Zinsli has fought for four years to give those rest­ing at Tokanui Hospi­tal Ceme­tery the recog­ni­tion he feels they de­serve.

Photo / Hunter Calder

Tokanui Psy­chi­atric Hospi­tal closed in 1998 and has been steadily de­cay­ing. Now the as­bestos-lined build­ings host rats and four se­cu­rity guards.

Photo / Hunter Calder

Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion Waikato op­er­a­tions man­ager Ray Scrim­geour.

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