Way back in 2018 my aunt Joan and I finally found our ancestor Martin Burke’s gravesite in Sydenham Cemetery.  It’s that green patch that looks like a walkway.

Burial site of Martin Burke, Sydenham Cemetery, Christchurch, NZ. [Block 22B, plot 63]

Burial site of Martin Burke, Sydenham Cemetery, Christchurch, NZ. [Block 22B, plot 63]

We’re not sure why Martin doesn’t have a stone to mark his grave – perhaps there was no money, or some ill-feeling amongst the family.

His wife Ann had died on 13th March 1895 at the age of 53 and was buried in St Joseph’s Cathlolic cemetery in Darfield, Canterbury, alongside his brother John who had died two months earlier.  Their headstones, along with those of their daughter Mary and her husband Patrick Riordan, are quite prominent.

Gravestones of Ann Philp and John Burke, St Joseph's Catholic cemetery, Darfield

Gravestones of Ann Philp and John Burke, St Joseph’s Catholic cemetery, Darfield

A group of us cousins decided to pitch in and get a headstone erected for Martin.

We got slightly distracted by a global pandemic, and it stayed on the ‘To Do’ list for quite some time, until I realised that 2024 would be the 160th anniversary of Martin, Ann and Mary’s arrival to New Zealand. They had travelled on the Mermaid which sailed into Lyttelton Harbour on 16 Feburary 1864.

I asked a local genealogist for the name of a monumental mason she could recommend, and contacted Decra Art in Christchurch to ask about the cost and timing to get a headstone erected for someone buried in 1918 in Sydenham Cemetery.

There are certain requirements when getting a headstone erected on an historical grave, and Suzanne was extremely helpful. For a pre-1950s plot at Sydenham the council only allows one type of memorial. I had visions of a large green marble Celtic cross, but this was not to be! The type allowed was a 300 x 200 x 25 black granite panel, set into a concrete and plaster desk and base. The cost would be $1125 plus $75 for the council permit.

Normal turnaround time is 8-10 weeks from the council permit being issued until installation (longer for rural/remote cemeteries). We were aiming for the anniversary date of 16th February, and Suzanne suggested getting it all arranged before Christmas due to the holiday break and staff unavailable over January.

The council permit has to be filled out, and sent back to Decra Art who then handle the application for you. The fee last year was $75 for a new monument/plaque. (For additional lettering on an existing stone the fee was $32.20, and for renovation work the fee was $42.60.) You need authorisation to install a monument – if the owner of the plot is deceased then the immediate next of kin must give permission for a memorial to be erected. In our case, my father signed as a great grandson.

You email the wording you’d like and are then provided with an obligation-free layout to show you how it would look. A week later we had a layout back from Suzanne. We made a few changes to the wording and finalised it at the end of September last year.

At some point during this process, a couple of us had a mad idea to organise a family reunion to commemorate the arrival of Martin and Ann. And so we did.

As part of the family gathering weekend, we asked Father Simon Eccleton from Christchurch Cathedral parish if he could bless Martin’s gravesite for us.

Fr Simon Eccleton from Cathedral parish, giving a blessing at Martin Burke's gravesite, Sydenham Cemetery ~ 17 February 2024

Fr Simon Eccleton from Cathedral parish, about to give a blessing at Martin Burke’s gravesite, Sydenham Cemetery ~ 17 February 2024

On Saturday 17th February 2024, 160 years after Martin set foot on New Zealand soil, around thirty of his descendants gathered to visit his gravesite and give thanks for his arrival.  I didn’t expect the blessing to be so moving – it was a very special moment and wonderful to share it with cousins.  My cousin David Bell recorded the occasion for posterity.

Gravestone of Martin Burke, Sydenham Cemetery [photo: David Bell]

Gravestone of Martin Burke, Sydenham Cemetery [photo: David Bell]

Hopefully the stone will remain intact and legible for many years and many more of Martin’s descendants to visit.