Southern Cemetery

18 South Road, Dunedin

  • Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Heather Bauchop.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1
List Number 7657 Date Entered 30th June 2006


Extent of List Entry

The registration includes the Cemetery Reserve (as described in SO 17946, and part legal road (South Road), the morgue, grave monuments, and fixtures thereon.

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Secs 32 and 33 Blk I Town of Dunedin as shown in SO 17946, and part legal road (South Road), Local Purposes (Cemetery) Reserve (NZ Gazette 1986 p. 5080), Otago Land District


The Southern Cemetery, located at the southern extremity of Dunedin's Town Belt, is one of the most significant nineteenth century cemeteries in New Zealand. The cemetery was established in 1857 by the Municipal Corporation of Dunedin. The cemetery incorporates many of the fashionable contemporary ideas of cemetery design then current in Britain, where overcrowded urban churchyards were giving place to spacious landscaped cemeteries set on the edges of towns. In these new burial places all classes of society could bury their dead, regardless of religious creed, in a setting designed for the moral improvement of the living.

The registration includes Southern Cemetery and adjacent morgue, on South Road, located at the Southern end of the city and the Town Belt of Dunedin. The Southern Cemetery covers an area of 5.7613 hectares and contains approximately 23,000 burials, many of which have headstones memorialising the lives of past members of the community of Dunedin and the surrounding districts.

The Southern Cemetery is an important early example of a large public cemetery divided into denominational portions, landscaped and planted according to the ideology of mid-nineteenth century cemetery design. Today, with its attractive decayed monuments and wooded landscapes, the cemetery is an attractive and important component of the city's celebrated Victorian townscape. The cemetery is of local, regional and national heritage importance as a place with strong association with significant people and events, and possesses great significance for the city of Dunedin, the Otago region and the country as a whole.

The Southern Cemetery is currently managed by Dunedin City Council (DCC), under the care of the Parks and Recreation Department, with advice from The Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand (HCCTNZ).

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Southern Cemetery is of outstanding historical significance. It is an excellent example of the way New Zealanders adopted and modified the model of the large landscaped public cemeteries that replaced overcrowded churchyard burial grounds in Britain during the nineteenth century. The Southern Cemetery is a particularly early example of the new large cemeteries which were developed away from the centres of settlements, and demonstrates the principal characteristics of the movement with its mixed formal and picturesque layout, well chosen siting, ornamental plantings and handsome grave monuments. It also reflects changing attitudes and tastes in memorialisation over the past 150 years.

The Cemetery also reveals patterns of immigration and human settlement in the region, as well as aspects of maritime history, overseas military actions, epidemics and other health matters, natural disasters and tragedies such as mining accidents and shipwrecks. The Cemetery provides an historical record of significant events in the life of the city and its inhabitants, as well as events of greater importance to New Zealand history, including the Otago gold rush of the 1860s.

The Cemetery has strong architectural significance as a designed cultural landscape which acts as a repository of nineteenth century monumental arts. The Morgue is an architecturally significant building in itself, being a rare example of its type as well as forming the greatest single architectural component of the cemetery landscape. The Southern Cemetery is an integral component of Dunedin's Victorian townscape.

The Southern Cemetery has archaeological significance. Past attitudes to death and changes in taste are revealed through the headstones and grave monuments, as are cultural beliefs about death, and associated symbolism. While the burials themselves have archaeological values, which could reveal information about the lives of those buried (including age, ethnicity, general health and the like), deliberate archaeological investigation is not expected or encouraged.

The funerary monuments and grave surrounds of the Southern Cemetery give it a high degree of technological value. They provide information about construction techniques, unusual craft skills and types of expertise which are no longer widely practised due to changes in taste and technological advances. These particularly include iron working and elaborate stonemasonry. The monuments demonstrate a high degree of technical accomplishment, reflecting the skills of the artisans who created them.

The Southern Cemetery possesses high aesthetic value arising from the combination of handsome funerary monuments, a calm and melancholy air of decay, ornamental and wild indigenous and introduced plantings, winding paths, its picturesque situation in the Town Belt and views over the city and harbour. Such a combination is rare in New Zealand, and is largely due to the fact that the cemetery was planned according to nineteenth century ideals of picturesque cemetery design. Although many monuments are in a state of decay, this contributes to the romantic atmosphere and aesthetic value of the cemetery. The picturesque setting of the cemetery has been enhanced by tree planting in the 1970s, although this has created some management problems.

The Southern Cemetery is of particular cultural significance with the denominational divisions providing insight into the nature of past communities. The cemetery is important to many community groups, for example, the cemetery has importance for the region's Chinese population, as it contains a section of nineteenth and early twentieth century Chinese burials, which are an important memorial to the Asian migrants who were attracted to Otago in search of gold. The Jewish section provides information on the nature of the important Jewish community in nineteenth and early twentieth century Dunedin. The Cemetery is of cultural and spiritual significance to Maori, as it contains Maori burials, including those of Taranaki Maori prisoners of war. The Scottish heritage of many of the region's descendants is also reflected in the cemetery.

For many the Cemetery also provides a genealogical link between present and past communities. This link is being increasingly recognized with the growing popularity of New Zealand history in general, and the researching of family histories in particular.

Though now closed, the Southern Cemetery has traditional significance as a place for the burial of the dead. Cemeteries differ to many other historic places in that they almost always fulfil their original purpose. The Southern Cemetery has been a place where the dead rest and the living remember them, for the past 150 years. Closely related to this is the spiritual significance of the place, being so intimately related to religion and mortality, which gives the cemetery strong symbolic and commemorative value.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

The Southern Cemetery reflects both important and representative aspects of New Zealand history. It reflects nineteenth century philosophy and ideas of cemetery design and placement, as well as the memorialisation of the dead.

The inscriptions on the grave monuments and memorials provide insight into New Zealand's history. The inscriptions on the headstones tell of important events and people, as well as representing the passage of life and death common to all.

The genealogical information is invaluable in telling family, local and national histories. The religious divisions speak of the important communities of the past, and the key place faith held in the hearts of the people.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The Cemetery is historically significant at local and national levels for its strong associations with a number of individuals and families important in the settlement of Dunedin and the Otago region. Those buried in the Cemetery include many instrumental and influential in the establishment and development of the city and the region, including Captain William Cargill and Johnny Jones. The Cemetery is just as significant for representing a cross-section of society, not merely for its association with the city elite, and acts as a microcosm of colonial New Zealand society. Burials include people from the military, the judiciary, merchants, teachers, doctors, engineers, architects, the working classes, as well as paupers and prisoners of war in unmarked graves.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:

The Cemetery has great potential to provide knowledge of New Zealand history at local and regional and national levels. As a microcosm of the community which created it, the Southern Cemetery reflects the tastes, religious beliefs, and attitudes toward race, class, gender held by nineteenth century New Zealanders through their monuments, inscriptions, carved symbols, symbolic and ornamental plantings and layout. For example, the sectarian divisions of the Southern Cemetery reflect the importance of religious identity in nineteenth century New Zealand. Its evolution over time means that the Southern Cemetery reflects the development of these attitudes over time, from the 1860s to recent decades.

(d) The importance of the place to the tangata whenua:

The Cemetery is of cultural and spiritual significance to Maori, as it contains Maori burials, including those of Taranaki Maori prisoners of war. The Taranaki people have formed a close link with the Ngai Tahu community at Otakou.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:

Public esteem is reflected in public outcry over instances of vandalism, in efforts to document the inscriptions on headstones, in the voluntary maintenance carried out by individuals and community groups, and in public interest in cemetery tours organised by the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand. It is also valued as a pleasant and contemplative place for a walk, as part of the wider Town Belt.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

The Southern Cemetery has considerable potential for public education. The inscriptions on the headstones provide considerable biographical information about these people, their occupations, ethnicity, and in some cases, the manner of their deaths. This genealogical and biographical information is of great historical significance. In some cases they may be the only surviving record of the life of an individual, particularly for burials prior to the compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1875.

The HCCTNZ run tours of the cemetery, and publish a weekly column on significant individuals and stories associated with the Cemetery in the Otago Daily Times.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

The layout of the Cemetery is an excellent example of nineteenth century public cemetery design.

The monuments in the Southern Cemetery show outstanding technical accomplishment. The funerary monuments include fine examples of monumental masonry in a diverse range of styles representative of the taste of New Zealanders from the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century. These range from simple upright slabs to elaborate columns and obelisks, many of which are fenced by attractive cast iron enclosures. Materials include granite, marble, Oamaru limestone and Port Chalmers breccia. Rare examples include cast iron and terracotta monuments.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:

The symbolic and commemorative values of the Southern Cemetery are special for the descendants of those individuals buried there. Although burials no longer take place there, it is a place for remembrance for family members.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

While cemeteries themselves are not rare, the Southern Cemetery, as the second oldest main centre public cemetery, is an important survivor of that period. As it is set in its original curtilage, and has not been modified (as has happened in Bolton Street Memorial Park and the Symonds Street Cemeteries) its rarity will increase over time. The Morgue is thought to be the only purpose built morgue in the country built adjoining the cemetery reserve.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The Southern Cemetery is a historic landscape in its own right. The Cemetery's mix of grave monuments and surrounds, mature plantings and the former morgue form an important cultural landscape, expressing the nineteenth and twentieth century commemoration of the dead. It is also part of the wider townscape of Dunedin. The Cemetery sits on a prominent hillside site, at the southern edge of the Town Belt. As such it is part of a landscape feature that stretches through the city all the way to the Northern Cemetery.


Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

The elements of the cemetery are: The Morgue; the graves of notable individuals; the Maori Burials associated with the 1860s wars in Taranaki; the original plantings and layout, including denominational divisions and unmarked burials such as the paupers section; and notable grave monuments.

More than a collection of individual graves, however, the cemetery is significant as a whole landscape.

Historical Narrative

Dunedin's Southern Cemetery, originally reserved in 1857 under the Cemeteries Ordinance (1856) is located on a rise at the southern end of the Town Belt, on sloping land over looking the city. The first burial was in March 1858. The cemetery is important as an intact mid nineteenth century cemetery demonstrating the principles of cemetery design of that period, and as a vital element in the culture and histories of the communities of those interred there. The cemetery is divided into four distinct denominational areas, with divisions for the General Section, Church of England, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Jewish burials. A fifth area for Chinese burials was created later. The cemetery was closed for burials in 1980, with over 23,000 burials recorded.

The Creation of the Southern Cemetery

Dunedin's first cemetery was a reserve of approximately six hectares in Arthur Street. This received its first interment in 1846, and was in use until the opening of its replacement, the Southern Cemetery, in 1858.

Dunedin's first Town Board met on 27 August 1855, and comprised John Jones, James Kilgour, James Macandrew, John Hyde Harris, William (W. H.) Cutten, and John McGlashan. Among the items in their administrative portfolio was the management of the town's cemetery (Arthur Street), which was considered by then to be unsatisfactory on visual and sanitary grounds.

In 1856, the Otago Witness recorded that at its sitting on 18 March 1856 the Provincial Council passed the following resolution:

to discontinue interments in the present cemetery and to have a cemetery at Little Paisley.

In January 1857, the Town Board met to view the proposed site for the cemetery at Little Paisley (named for the small community of six weavers who resided there) and recommended that a reserve of 10 acres be set aside for the new cemetery. The site chosen for the Southern Cemetery was on a steep hillside overlooking Otago Harbour at the southern end the Town Belt.

Six months later, the Town Board recommended to the Superintendent to reserve and appropriate two pieces of land under the Cemeteries Ordinance, 1856, namely:

a piece of land (about 31 acres) being part of the Town Belt, situated at the entrance to the NE Valley (North Cemetery) and a piece of land (about 28 acres) at Little Paisley (South Cemetery). Communications of the said Board and sketches of the ground may be seen at the Superintendent's Office.

(signed) John Logan, 12 June 1857.

After the reservation of land the first indication that work was to begin on the Southern Cemetery came with the announcement from the Town Board on 31 October 1857 that:

five acres, being the portion of land agreed upon for a cemetery at Little Paisley, be forthwith fenced with a split fence; that the Church of England be charged with the proportion of the cost of fencing for the land set aside for that body...

To prepare the site, the Town Board called for tenders from contractors to erect 26 chains of split fencing at Little Paisley and "from parties willing to cut down and burn off about four and a half acres of flax at Little Paisley." After these necessary preparations the Southern Cemetery opened on 1 April 1858. The earliest recorded burial is that on the tombstone of "David Fourth Son of John McGibbon died 20 March 1858 aged 6 years 4 months."

Sextons were employed in the Southern Cemetery to act as live-in, on-site caretakers and to attend to duties associated with burial records, grave-digging and filling, grave and cemetery maintenance and general upkeep. John Barr was the first to hold the position in the Southern Cemetery. He was provided with accommodation on site, in a brick cottage located on the main roadway just beyond the Main South Road entrance, it is not recorded whether this was the purpose built sexton's cottage. Sexton's cottages were small yet substantial, designed primarily as residences for the sextons. They offered a waiting area and facilities for the transaction of business in relation to the purchase and location of plots, and shelter in inclement weather.

Structure of the Cemetery

The structure of the cemetery was clearly defined in the Town Board's Rules and Regulations, which noted that the Town Board of Dunedin would have entire control and management of the Cemetery. The cemetery was divided into three classes:

Class I: being ground of which perpetual and exclusive right may be acquired with the privilege of enclosing the ground and of erecting headstones and other monuments there. These lots shall be sold for £3.

Class II: being ground for which perpetual and exclusive rights may be acquired but the purchaser shall not have the right to enclose the same or to erect a monument thereon, other than a flat stone laid horizontally with an inscription or marked out by corner stones with initials and figures. The price of each lot shall be £1/ 5 shillings.

Class III: being a considerable portion of ground which has been set aside for the interment of such persons as are not purchasers or have acquired a right to private ground. On ground of this class no monuments or memorials what ever shall be allowed.

Fees for digging the grave, burial, and dressing the ground were graded according to age of the deceased and class of the plot.

The layout and ornamentation of the Southern Cemetery was heavily influenced by developments in cemetery design which occurred in early nineteenth century Britain. The repulsive and overcrowded state of parish churchyards prompted the construction of public cemeteries in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. These new cemeteries were planned along the principles of picturesque cemetery design established by the creation of Pere Lachaise cemetery outside Paris in 1804. The first of the modern cemeteries, it was based upon picturesque landscape design, with many varied botanical plantings, winding paths and pretty views forming the setting for the family or individual monument, creating a place for melancholy remembrance and morally beneficial recreation. In Britain such ideas were disseminated through works such as John Claudius Loudon's Laying Out Planting and Managing Cemeteries (1843). Tempering the picturesque with a more formal tone, Loudon advocated heavily planted and attractive landscapes for cemeteries, as he believed that the cemetery should be more than just a place of interment. It could be a place of instruction and education in many and varied disciplines including architecture, sculpture, botany "a scene calculated to improve the morals and taste, and by its botanical riches to cultivate the intellect". Places to visit, cemeteries were now located outside towns, losing their association with the church.

In laying out the Southern Cemetery nineteenth century Dunedinites certainly had many of the modern ideas of cemetery design in mind. This is reflected by their promotion of the picturesque properties of the cemetery, its views to the city and harbour, its siting away from town, and its value as a place of recreation and reflection.

The experience of Scotland is particularly relevant to the creation of the cemeteries of Victorian Dunedin. Glasgow's Southern Necropolis opened for burial in 1841. It was heavily ornamented with a typical mixture of plants including traditional cemetery evergreens such as holly, yew, cypress and cedar, as well as deciduous trees such as walnut, chestnut, cherry, and elm. The picturesque nature of the Necropolis landscape was enhanced by the construction of a lodge in 1848, designed in a neo-Roman style. Edinburgh's Southern Cemetery opened May 1847. The advantages of the cemetery as listed by the Directors included its picturesque situation and views, proximity to the city, convenience of access, peaceful seclusion, the highest attainable security and all within the reach of all classes of the community. The Directors offered a sliding scale of fees and a general section for public use, which meant all classes could avail themselves of plots. There were also similar developments in England, including the creation of Highgate and Kensal Green cemeteries in London. They contained a wide range of eclectic memorials based on ancient architectural forms and Victorian sentimentalism including Egyptian buildings, obelisks, statuary, angels and urns set among wooded landscapes, and were designed to encourage contemplative reflection and moral improvement. Dunedin's Southern Cemetery is an outstanding colonial interpretation of these large landscaped cemeteries of the old country.

Following contemporary practice in Britain, where the new public cemeteries were no longer exclusively Anglican and catered for all religious denominations, the Southern Cemetery featured four distinct religious denominational areas: Church of England, Presbyterian (General), Catholic, and Jewish, as well as an area for general burials. A fifth area for the burial of Chinese was created later with the influx of Chinese following the discovery of gold. S. H. Mirams prepared the earliest existing plan for the Cemetery. Each section had its own road access with entrances to the Jewish and Roman Catholic sections from Main South Road, with a second entrance to the Roman Catholic section and entrances to the Church of England and Presbyterian sections from Eglinton Road.

A designated area for paupers' graves was located in "free ground" within a large rectangular plot in the General Section. It is likely that this area contains the bodies of the prisoners who were part of Titokowaru's fighting force) who fought in the wars in South Taranaki in the 1860s. Convicted of high treason, the warriors were sentenced to hard labour in Dunedin Gaol. D. Harold suggests that of the eighteen prisoners recorded as dying during their incarceration, seventeen were buried in the Southern Cemetery. Based on information derived from a study of the 1872 and 1919 plans of the site, Harold suggests that a total of twelve Maori burials may be located in the "free ground", (including under paths) within the General Section and that five lie within the Catholic section.

The neglected appearance of the Cemetery soon gave cause for complaint. In 1864 the Otago Daily Times asked:

Who is responsible for the proper keeping of the ground set apart as a Roman Catholic cemetery? If so is there any person or body so responsible, the state of the ground is a disgrace to him or it. There is not a pretence of fencing: horses, cows, dogs, goats, can roam over the ground and the unfenced graves at will. Some of the grave mounds have almost been trampled out and on every hand there is gross defilement. The remains of burnt flax, left by the late accidental fire are rotting into noisomeness [sic]. And apparently there is no one with the will or the power to supply a remedy.

Newspaper articles such as this highlighted the major and long-standing dilemma for the Council regarding the Cemetery. Ultimate responsibility for the maintenance of plots at the Southern Cemetery (as in the Northern Cemetery) was with the families who had purchased them, yet the blame for the unkempt state was often laid on the Council. For a fee the Corporation entered into an agreement with the other party to "henceforth carry out for all time the proper upkeep of the grave". In 1902, a charge of £25 was levied, rising to £50 in 1948. However, few families took up the offer of perpetual maintenance which was offered by the Council, leading to future neglect as family members moved away or passed on.

The cemetery originally had two Sexton's Cottages. The sexton was the principal caretaker of the cemetery. The cottages were located close to the main entrance of the cemetery. The Anglican Sexton's cottage, built prior to 1902, was demolished sometime after the 1940s. The second Sexton's cotttage, erected by 1902, was demolished c.1987.

The Morgue

Early in the twentieth century the need arose for a new morgue for the city, following reports on the appalling conditions of Dunedin's morgue. Pressure was fuelled outbreaks of infectious diseases in Dunedin. Council asked the General Committee to prepare plans and specification for a morgue and on 11 June 1902, Council was informed that the Committee had appointed Messrs Lawson and Salmond to prepare plans for the erection of a public morgue. Constructed of brick in a gothic style on land immediately adjacent to the cemetery, major building work was completed on 10 February 1903.

The mortuary by-law passed by Dunedin City Council in 1902 defined a morgue, and determined the conditions of use. The morgue was in use for the next 46 years, with the last entry in the mortuary book dated February 1949. The building remained vacant until 1952. In 1985, in response to suggestions that it would be cheaper to demolish the morgue than pay for its maintenance (as had been done to the sexton's cottage), the New Zealand Historic Places Trust noted the building to be the only such monumental morgue of its kind in the country. Subsequent research suggests that it is the only known example in New Zealand of a morgue located in such close proximity to cemetery land. The morgue has changed little in appearance since it was completed in 1903.

In the 1970s, in an effort to make the cemetery more park-like and less visible from the city, the Council initiated a major beautification scheme, planting small deciduous seedlings on approximately 150 gravesites during the 1970s. Now mature, these trees enhance the picturesque quality of the landscape, but have become the cause of structural damage to monuments caused by tree trunks and spreading roots. Also during this time the Council removed and either sold off or dumped a considerable amount of ironwork from grave surrounds.

The cemetery was closed in 1980 and is estimated to hold over 23,000 burials. Today, the Southern Cemetery is closed for disposal of human remains, other than for the placement of ashes in established family plots.

Completion Date

15th March 2006

Report Written By

Stephen Deed and Heather Bauchop

Dunedin City Council

Dunedin City Council, Building Records

Plan of the Southern Cemetery, 1872, S. H. Mirams, DCC 1996/20.

Harold, 2000

D. Harold, Maori Prisoners of War in Dunedin 1869-72: Deaths, Burials and Survivors, Hexagon, Dunedin, 2000.

Otago Provincial Government Gazette

Otago Provincial Government Gazette

March 30 1858 : Rules and regulations made in pursuance of Section V, Cemeteries Ordinance 1856 for Management of the Dunedin South Cemetery.

Conservation Plan

Conservation Plan

Chris and Margaret Betteridge, 'Final Draft Conservation Management Plan for the Northern & Southern Cemeteries, Dunedin, New Zealand.' MUSEcape Pty Ltd for The Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand, 25 December 2005; Conservation Plan Addington Cemetery: For Christchurch City Council, Draft - Version 2, Opus International Consultants, 2005.

Conservation Plan Linwood Cemetery For Christchurch City Council - Draft for Comment, Opus International Consultants, October 2005; Four Decades Conservation, Karori Cemetery Conservation Plan, Prepared for the Wellington City Council, 2003.

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office.


The boundary is that of the Cemetery Reserve SO 17946, which is bounded by Eglinton Road on the west, the Town Belt on the north. The registration includes an unformed part of South Road (on which the former morgue stands), following the concrete wall on South Road at the south and east. The boundary then follows the cemetery reserve adjacent to residences between South Road and Eglinton Road.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.