The role of a Sexton is no longer as visible as it was in the past as councils combine the supervision of cemeteries as cost-effectively as possible.
The Sexton performs all duties in the cemetery associated with grave digging; selling plots, topping up, public liaison, record keeping. There is usually an Assistant Sexton that works with the Sexton for the grave digging. This was very hard physical work, especially when there were many graves to be dug over a short time frame e.g. at times of epidemic or during winter months, or if there was more than one person to be buried in a plot; the first being interred 12 feet down. One thousand people were buried to an acre. Linwood Cemetery is therefore around 20 acres in size.
Nowadays, councils also have Cemetery Administrators – usually one overseeing a large number of cemeteries under the council’s jurisdiction and working from the council’s offices.
Graves are now dug mechanically by the City Council whereas in the past it would take two men one day to dig a grave by hand. The Council employ a contractor to undertake the work in the cemetery on their behalf and the Sextons (all qualified to perform the role) are employed by the contractor.
No one person can be identified as being the Sexton for Linwood as the Sextons work in groups of cemeteries throughout Christchurch City and Banks Peninsula cemeteries (21 operating cemeteries and 3 closed). However, there will always be a requirement for a Sexton in the City’s cemeteries.
More information on Sextons can be found at Wikipedia.
So what did the Sexton at Linwood Cemetery do?
The Sexton of Linwood Cemetery and his family lived full-time in a house near the main Butterfield Avenue entrance of the cemetery. It was built shortly before October 1884, of timber with lead light windows. It had a separate wash house and was surrounded by a wooden fence. Those who can still remember the house recall it was
“a large building of white weatherboard. The burial registers were kept in an outhouse that was also the wash house. They weren’t in a cupboard or anything that protected them. I remembered being concerned about the damp in there and them getting damaged and that’s before I knew anything about conservation. I remember phoning the Sexton at his home to see if I could consult the books. We made a time to come. When I arrived he showed us to the wash house and I was just left in there to look at the big leather bound books on my own. I guess the wash house probably doubled in function as the Sexton’s office.” (Recollections of Alison O’Neill, local resident and genealogist, May 2011.)
The Sexton was in residence before the cemetery opened. Known as the ‘Sexton’s House’ but also referred to as the ‘Sexton’s Cottage’, this property was demolished after 1984 as Ray Palermo, the last sexton to live on-site, finished working there in 1984 (from an interview by Trustees in 2005).
There is still a gap in the boundary fence near where the house was located and a tap on the site which probably formed the water source for the house. Outside the perimeter fence is a white capped off pipe which is probably the waste water outlet.
The area of the house has some of the oldest trees in the cemetery – a macrocarpa and a cypress – and is protected as an heritage area; any changes needing special permission. It is believed by the CCC Cemeteries Administrator that still-born children (except those of two Catholic families recorded as being buried in Block 38 Plot 6) were also buried in bushes on the boundary of the Sexton’s house. These are noted on the CCC Cemetery Database as being in Block 0 Plot 0.
The Sexton was a public servant employed by the City Council and his job was to dig the graves and uphold the by-laws relating to the cemetery. He ensured that the cemetery was properly maintained. In the past, the Sexton would walk at the front of the funeral line in a uniform with a grey jacket.
Having an on-site sexton would have dramatically reduced the levels of vandalism and he would have managed and repaired any natural damage or over-growth in the cemetery.
The Town Clerk kept records of who owned the plots. Copies of some of those original records are available in the City Library. The Friends use photocopies of those maps to help locate unmarked or badly damaged graves.
The first Sexton was Mr Freeman. We know that, sadly, his wife Sarah Anne (B2P1) died before the cemetery was officially opened and was the first burial in Linwood Cemetery.
In 1895 (11 years after the cemetery opened), the Standing Committee of the Anglican Synod were asked to
“provide burial registers for the cemeteries at Linwood and Addington and whatever else necessary, for the due registration of the burial of members of the church, further that the proper authorities be requested, in each case, to permit the said registers to be kept with the sexton’s books and under the sexton’s charge, for the use of officiating Ministers of the Church.” (The Star Issue 5345, 24th August 1895, p7)
After a brief discussion the request was rejected.
In September 1898, the City Council received seventy applications for the position of Assistant Sexton at Linwood Cemetery (The Star, Issue 6305 27 Sept 1898, p4)
We have built a list of Sextons by looking at Wises Directory in the Family History section of the City Library. Wise’s Directory was a fore-runner of the phone book. It listed each street in Christchurch, who lived there and what their trade was.
1. William Freeman (1884-1902)
2. John Perkins – Assistant Sexton from September 1898 (ref: The Star, Issue 6305 27 Sept 1898, p4) then Sexton (1902-1905)
3. Llewellyn David Hughes – Assistant Sexton (circa 1902) then Sexton (1906-circa 1931)
4. James Dykes (circa 1933-circa 1946)
5. William Godfrey (1946-1950)
6. Emile P Malaquin, Caretaker from 1950 (through to when records end in 1955)
7. Ray Palermo (1961-1984) – the last Sexton to live on site.
8. Edward Bichler (circa 1999)
Can you add any more information, pictures or memories about the Sexton or the Sexton’s House at Linwood Cemetery?
© The Friends of Linwood Cemetery Charitable Trust