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.”
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.”
Maurie Zinsli lays a wreath at the cemetery’s memorial wall during the unveiling ceremony in February 2016.
For 40 years, a corroded plaque beside a farm gate was the only memorial.
Hamilton man Maurie Zinsli has fought for four years to give those resting at Tokanui Hospital Cemetery the recognition he feels they deserve.
Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital closed in 1998 and has been steadily decaying. Now the asbestos-lined buildings host rats and four security guards.
Department of Conservation Waikato operations manager Ray Scrimgeour.