In 1857, the Northern Cemetery site was chosen for its picturesque setting and ease of access to the town. It was thought that by locating the cemetery on the hillside it would never become a nuisance to the town. The decision to build the cemetery within part of the town belt was met with considerable opposition. On February 5th 1870 however, a Bill was passed to allow development to begin within that location. In November of 1872, the cemetery opened for internments.

The first burial occurred on December the second 1872 when little Ada Massey was laid to rest in Plot One of Block 45. Approximately 18,000 people have since been buried in the cemetery.

The last plot was sold in 1937, although reinterments are still permitted.

Otago Harbour From the Northern Cemetery
Photo courtesy: Hocken Library, Uare Taoka o Hakena,
University of Otago, Dunedin (C/N E2486/41)

Only a fraction of the plots were maintained by the sexton – families were expected to care for their own sites. The cemetery comprises twenty acres of land of which fifteen acres contain graves. The remaining land was developed into ornamental walkways and gardens to provide a pleasant atmosphere in which people could promenade.

Much history lies within the cemetery boundaries. The Northern Cemetery is the final resting place of many of Dunedin’s famous sons and a number of dignitaries, including William Larnach, and Sir Thomas MacKenzie lie here. It also hosts a number of other individuals who were not such prominent figures but just as important to Dunedin’s history. In the late 19th century many immigrants came to Dunedin to begin a new life and in a ‘classless’ society. This idealistic population did not exist however, and society was divided in terms of income, lifestyle, status and opportunity.

Moving through the cemetery grounds there are noticeable differences between some very ornate tombstones and memorials and some areas without headstones at all. This is no coincidence and relates to which class in society the occupants belonged to. The cost of a plot in 1872 varied between twelve shillings and sixpence and ten pounds. This scale depended on both class and status of adult or child. The ground occupied by the first class plots is more easily accessible and generally flat, whereas the third class plots are difficult to get to and to maintain. First class plots are generally filled with prominent people and reflect the architecture of their worldly residences with lavish and dominant headstones. These sites tend to be on top of the north side of the hill. Second class plots are at the bottom of the hill in the gully and third class is made up of children and paupers.

The grounds of the Northern Cemetery are dependent on their upkeep by the Dunedin City Council. Various community groups help with special projects, working bees, ground maintenance and beautification. The cemetery is now closed for new burials except for those who will be interred in their family plots.

Cemetery history contributed by Jane Davidson 2003