The dispatch of the dearly departed became an add-on service for a few enterprising colonial Central Otago builders, joiners and picture framers. Although funeral services seem an unlikely diversification for such businesses nowadays, it was a logical solution back in the 1870s when the influx of settlers and goldminers to the region brought with it a rapid increase in births and deaths. That led to growing demand for funeral related services, starting with the making of caskets which those with carpentry skills took on.
Before government regulation, people were often buried where they died. Several such sites have been identified along the Clutha riverbank where drownings occurred, often children. Goldmining was also a dangerous business, with ‘a fall of earth’ a common cause of death when sluicing for gold was common practice. Often the bodies of the victims were left entombed under the mud and rubble.
New Zealand’s first burials statute was the Burial-Ground Closing Act 1874, followed by the Cemeteries Management Act 1877 which established the roles and powers of cemetery trustees, and included provision for separate denominational areas in public cemeteries.
The Cemeteries Act 1882 consolidated prior legislation and clarified where responsibility lay for the provision of cemeteries. These legislative responses heralded the emergence of the burial business.
The first undertaker to advertise in Central Otago was John Morrison from Hogburn, Mount Ida between 1869-1873. Following in his footsteps were others including William Kinaston (Roxburgh) and J.H. Pearson (Lawrence). As well as casket making these businesses were a one stop funeral shop providing hearse and funeral services.
The deceased were transported on a horse drawn dray, or a purpose-built hearse, depending on the family’s financial circumstances. In the Maniototo, during the early 1890s, the dead travelled in style thanks to undertaker James Mitchell’s ornate horse-drawn hearse, which led a solemn procession to the Naseby and nearby cemeteries. Rumour has it that in later years this same hearse was used for courting by a member of the Mitchell family. This hearse is now on display at the Maniototo Early Settlers Museum at Naseby, as shown in the following image.
Former undertaker premises, Les Vercoe and Son, is still standing in Clyde behind the Masonic Lodge. This business operated between the First and Second World Wars, and like the multi-taskers of earlier times also took on carpentry and building projects.
Today there are 22 cemeteries throughout Central Otago District. Visiting these historic sites offers great insights into our rich heritage. Use this QR code to find the location of these cemeteries.
David George, Cromwell