Wingham community in uproar over MidCoast Council's "desecration" of The Bight Cemetery

Disgusted: Rowene Stewart, Scott Stewart, Stewart Terras, Lea Young, Reece Pope, Carol Field, Lee Oberg and Gemma Oberg by one of the Stewart family gravestones damaged beyond repair. Photo: Julia Driscoll
Disgusted: Rowene Stewart, Scott Stewart, Stewart Terras, Lea Young, Reece Pope, Carol Field, Lee Oberg and Gemma Oberg by one of the Stewart family gravestones damaged beyond repair. Photo: Julia Driscoll

"Is nothing sacred?" commented Jennifer Kokany on a Letter to the Editor published on the Wingham Chronicle Facebook page last week regarding MidCoast Council's removal and laying down of gravestones in The Bight Cemetery.

"Those buried there are not simply our relatives and loved ones but it is the history of our town. What an utter disgrace to those who built this town we love and call home," she said.

This was just one of nearly 100 comments on the post, and judging by the content of those comments, the community is deeply upset and angered by council's actions. A visit to the cemetery on Monday, August 5 to take photos further brought home the community's shock and disbelief.

Some are calling it desecration, others are calling it vandalism, but the most common word uttered was 'disgusting'.

"This looks just like vandalism and just because it was council approved doesn't change the disrespect they have shown the deceased or their descendants," Emma Potts said on Facebook.

This looks just like vandalism and just because it was council approved doesn't change the disrespect they have shown the deceased or their descendants.

Emma Potts

"The cemetery was once a beautiful, restful cemetery where people gathered under the shelter of those beautiful trees to pay respect to their loved ones. Through council's actions it has now become a place of distress, filled with feelings of such sadness, anger, and futility. The council needs to not only address their vandalism on each and every stone that they have desecrated, but return the environment of the cemetery to a semblance of it's former glory. Mend the fence, plant some trees, and no, a hedge just doesn't cut it. They need to show some respect now, and in future," Pat Myer commented.

The removal of the gravestones was done under council's 'monument risk assessment program', implemented as a result of the death of a three-year-old girl due to an Anzac monument in the region several years ago. The Bight Cemetery, one of the region's oldest, was the first cemetery to be worked on under the program, but as a result of public outcry, the program has been suspended.

The cemetery was a hive of activity on Monday, with people coming and going. Some had come to check on relatives' graves, as they had heard the news and were worried their own family graves had been impacted. A couple of others were there to take inventory of how many and which graves were affected. Some came from out of town - one visitor lives at Newcastle and another took a detour on her way home from Kempsey to Lithgow, to check on graves.

Lee Oberg and her five-year-old daughter, Gemma, who live behind the cemetery, were there offering visitors tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits. They came equipped because Lee thought there would be a lot of people visiting and it would be a stressful time for them.

"It's just heartbreaking. There are even tyre tracks over the top of a grave," Lee said.

Council confirmed that a crane had been in the cemetery to remove some of the larger monuments.

"In manoeuvring a vehicle around the cemetery it appears that it has encroached on the edge of a grave. This isn't acceptable and we apologise," MidCoast Council's Paul De Szell said.

In manoeuvring a vehicle around the cemetery it appears that it has encroached on the edge of a grave. This isn't acceptable and we apologise.

Paul De Szell, MidCoast Council

However from inspection of other graves it appears the crane has done more damage other than just leaving tracks. One grave had been left with scratches in the marble and others were pushed and broken off their plinths with force.

Some of the gravestones were not fully supported underneath, with one, at least, having cracked right through the middle as a result. The National Trust Guidelines for Conservation of Cemeteries states that when removed and laid down gravestones should be laid on a bed of sand, and on an angle to allow water to run off. This has not been done.

Of the 59 headstones removed, council has told the Wingham Chronicle they will restore "approximately 47", adding that they would do it as quickly as possible and at their cost.

"The intent of the program is to protect the public and while we remain committed to this outcome, we have got the implementation of this program horribly wrong," Mr De Szell said.

The Bight Cemetery is heritage listed and council says it did speak to the Heritage Reference Group prior to implementing the program.

"When we presented the program to the reference group we discussed the original intent of the program - however it is in the practical implementation of the program that things have gone wrong. This is a concern both to us and to the reference group," Mr De Szell said.

Council indicated that while the heritage status of the cemetery does not place any restrictions on its management of the area, the review of the monument risk assessment program will take into account the National Trust Guidelines for Cemetery Conservation and other conservation advice.

MidCoast Council does not currently have a cemeteries policy and says "it is currently being worked on."

Community meeting

A community meeting is being held at the Wingham Bowling Club on Sunday, August 11 from 2pm. All members of the community are invited. Council's Mr De Szell and Dan Aldridge will attend to address community concerns.

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