The paddock that became a grave for the New Zealand people branded ‘flawed’ – and chose to forget | New Zealand

IIt was, Caroline Arrell recalls, just another paddock. Grazed by sheep under the vast Waikato sky, he left no trace of his past – except perhaps his Labrador, Lucy, had a strange dislike for him. The dog turned away from it, skirting the fence.

But while riding her horse, Alice, on a quiet Sunday in early 1991, Arrell was about to discover a grave on the 200-hectare farm she called home. Under the feet of the sheep, under the grass and the earth, nearly 500 people lay buried.

“I jumped Alice over the fence in this paddock and she tripped and fell, her front back leg disappeared into a hole,” she said. ” I fell. We were both fine, except I fell against a hard piece of rock – or so I thought. It was a metal plate.

An aerial view of Tokanui Hospital in 1963. Photo: National Library of New Zealand

Arrell removed the patch of overgrown grass. He identified the resting place of a single woman – the only marker in the paddock. In reality, hundreds more lay under the grass, their unmarked graves.

“They were human beings, for God’s sake”

The graves were dug to receive patients who died at Tokanui Hospital, a public institution that housed New Zealanders with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

While the last burials at the cemetery were recorded in the mid-1960s, the institution remained open until the late 1990s, with much of its surrounding grounds – including the grave – converted to farmland. Like its cemetery, the institution largely slipped from public memory after it closed in 1998. Now New Zealand is in the midst of a royal commission of inquiry in allegations of abuse and neglect of people in state care.

Arrell, who worked in Tokanui and lived on the farm, was one of those who shared their memories. ADD HERE

Today, the dead of Tokanui lie at the center of a dairy farm run by Agresearch, a Crown research institute. To find the cemetery, you plod through the chewed up mud of a track, watched by a group of bobby calves. The graves were fenced off to prevent livestock from wandering there. A wreath of purple flowers has blown into the nearby paddock and is half hidden by the grass. In the center of the field is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little askew in the wind.

Maurice Zinsli came across the cemetery while researching his family tree. Her great-aunt, Maria, had been interned in Tokanui at age 23, as she mourned the sudden death of her fiancé. She remained there until her death almost 40 years later. Zinsli had searched for the place where she was buried and discovered that it was nearby – in a cemetery he had never heard of before. “I said oh – it’s just below me, I’ll go down and take a look.”

He was appalled by what he found. “It was a farm paddock – that’s all it was, that’s all you could say. Cattle were in there, sheep were in there… It was an absolute disgrace,” he says. He launched a decade-long campaign for recognition and a proper memorial for those buried there. On the hill now stands a memorial wall, engraved with the 467 names among those that Zinsli and genealogist Anna Purgar spent nearly a decade tracking down.

Cows on a muddy track past the grassy hills of the paddock grave
“To find the cemetery, you trudge through the chewed up mud of a track. Photo: Tess McClure/The Guardian

Purgar also buried a member of her extended family there and says she is saddened that no one took responsibility after the institution closed.

“It’s quite sad really, if you see it, it’s quite emotional. You kind of stand there, you turn around and see all the names of these people. And you turn back and think well, they’re in this paddock.

Zinsli said, “I couldn’t see why all those people who were buried there were never recognized. I mean, they were human beings for god’s sake.

The forgotten cemetery appears to him as the symbol of a broader societal oblivion. “If you entered a mental home, no matter what you went there for, a stigma attached itself – and then no one wants to know about it.”

“Tokanui ruined my life”

New Zealand is digging into the experiences and memories of those who have lived in its institutions, with the aim of understanding how the country allowed abuse or neglect to occur, and to ensure that they do not reproduce.

The royal commission, which will deliver its final report in June next year, was set up in 2018 and has been collecting evidence since 2019. Over the past month it has conducted hearings into abuse in psychiatric and care facilities to people with disabilities in the state, adding to thousands of hours of testimonials from former staff, patients and family members.

A former Tokanui resident, Peter Keoghan, was sent to hospital at the age of five and remained there for 20 years. Keoghan told the court he suffered physical abuse from staff members and sexual abuse from other patients.

“Tokanui ruined my life and it affected me every day. It was not a nice place. The memories made me angry,” he said. “When I came out, I said ‘I’m free, I’m free! I’m free!’ No one would kick me in the stomach or grab me by the neck.

A court witness – identified as Mr EY – gave evidence of the loss of his 12-year-old brother, Jimmy, who was sent to Tokanui after being diagnosed with “imbecility” and difficulty walking. The family visited Jimmy only once after his admission. In just over a year, EY claimed he had transformed – he was severely overweight, heavily medicated, non-verbal and confined to a wheelchair. While trying to lift him, EY discovered that he was bleeding from severe bedsores.

“He couldn’t recognize us. He couldn’t even say anything. He was sitting there in a state of obvious anguish, in physical and mental pain,” EY testified. Jimmy died shortly thereafter and was buried in an unmarked grave.

“I believe Jimmy died unnecessarily. His mana [pride and dignity] needs to be restored, but I think that can’t happen until his resting place is marked,” EY said. “My brother died in care. Jimmy had no voice to express his pain and suffering. So I must carry his voice from beyond the grave to ensure justice.

“What happened for this to happen?”

Tokanui was built in 1912, when eugenics ideas were common in New Zealand. A year earlier, the country had signed its “mentally defective law”, allowing the detention and segregation of people considered “mentally defective”. The New Zealand Nurse’s Diary celebrated the passage of the bill, saying it would help “stem the tide of racial deterioration.”

The idea developed “that it would be better to round up people with so-called ‘mental defects’ and keep them away from wider society,” says Professor Catharine Coleborne of Newcastle University, who studied the history of Tokanui and other similar institutions. “A sense of protecting people from society at large, but also protecting society at large from them.”

In the center of the field is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little askew in the wind.
“In the center of the field is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little askew in the wind.” Photo: Tess McClure/The Guardian

“These kinds of institutions can become worlds of their own,” says Coleborne – and their legacy is not black or white. “Institutions are complex places. They could be places where people found respite and asylum in the truest sense and purpose. But they needed to have the support of the outside world.

She says beyond the institutions themselves, there is a wider question for New Zealand, around how it has chosen to care for people with disabilities, mental health and other people. who needed help.

“I would hate for institutions to take all the blame, because I think what was going on more broadly was a culture of silence around people that didn’t fit into a productive economy,” she says. “There’s a bigger question we have here… what was going on in the wider society for this to happen?”

Back To Top