Auburn rallies in wake of cemetery desecration

Community spirit has shone through in the wake of last week’s Auburn Cemetery desecration.

Amid heartache and disbelief, locals have rallied in recent days to tidy the destruction caused by unknown vandals some time between 12pm on Thursday, November 2, and 11am on Saturday, November 4.

The senseless act resulted in damage to 46 headstones and memorials which were smashed or pushed over, and SA Police estimate damage at up to $300,000 – though there has been speculation this figure could yet prove much higher.

Yesterday, Clare and Gilbert Valleys Council Mayor Allan Aughey said he was impressed by what had been achieved at the site following local clean-up efforts.

“I’m very impressed by the efforts of the local community in tidying up,” he said.

“It’s been a significant transformation in terms of what they’ve done.

“People have done what they can with their own hands to clean up, shattered glass vases and the like have been cleaned up and I noticed fresh flower memorials yesterday (Monday).”

Mr Aughey met with administration staff and acting chief executive John Coombe on Monday morning to establish a practical working plan going forward.

He said they had worked out “a lot of the technicalities” and decided their best role was to coordinate and administrate restoration efforts and make contact with next of kin for affected sites.

The first step was to identify all 46 sites and establish any known next of kin.

“We are going to work with local monumental masons to quantify the full extent and cost of damages,” he said, following the meeting.

The next step would be to coordinate the “many calls” council had received from relatives checking to see if their relevant sites had been affected. Mr Aughey said the cost of repair works would vary from small damages to extensive rebuilds.

“The scale of cost will be very wide,” he said.

“This process needs the expertise of our local masons to quantify that – that will give us a more accurate estimate.

“It’s going to take time to reach a final cost. We want to resolve this as quickly as possible, but it needs to be done lawfully and empathetically.”

Speaking with the Argus on Tuesday morning, Mr Aughey said council staff has done a “tremendous job” thus far with the task of identification and retrieving historical records.

“We are keen to get information out to people who may not be aware of what has happened,” he said.

“There is a continuing concern for those with no known next of kin.”

Mr Aughey was scheduled to meet with police inspectors on Friday for an update on investigations.

He expressed his appreciation for SAPOL’s “care and concern” with this issue.

“I also congratulate the local Clare Police on their commitment,” he said.

At the time of going to print, there were no further updates from SA Police.

“My only message is if you are a perpetrator, put your hand up now, because that is the only way in part you will be able to ameliorate what has happened here,” Mr Aughey said. 

“We’ll never be able to relieve the pain and anguish and the sheer vandalism that has occurred here, and there is a historic cost with the loss of so many historical monuments as well.”

Government support

On Saturday night, Premier Jay Weatherill tweeted financial support from the state government to assist with repairs, labelling the perpetrators “cowards”.

Frome MP and Regional Development Minister Geoff Brock visited the cemetery with Mr Aughey on Sunday.

Mr Brock broke down when asked to describe what he had witnessed at the site, saying he shared the pain of affected families.

“We’ve all lost people … my little grandson drowned eight years ago, he was only 18 months old,” he said.

“My daughter still goes and visits there, as do we.

“We have people there that actually move stuff out, they might take a toy that they’ve put there or flowers, and I know how she (his daughter) gets, all the rest of the family do too. I think I can feel how these people are doing it.”

Historical impact

Some graves were so old that their 99-year leases had been completed and identifying next of kin could prove difficult, which would pose further challenges as council worked to retain the heritage and significance of these historical graves.

“As a community we need to recognise the importance (of these sites) as aesthetic historical pieces,” Mr Aughey said.

“This is where we need to work with our local masons to assess if we can restore them, would it be possible to reproduce them, and what are the comparative costs.

“Cemeteries are more than just a resting place. They have a historical significance to our communities and to visitors who come here searching for their relatives.

“Our aim is to get it done as efficiently and respectfully as we can.”

Relative relief

Auburn’s Josephine McDermid headed to the cemetery on Sunday to assess and clean-up damage to the graves of her husband, mother, aunty and grandparents.

“It’s not good; people have been very kind,” she said.

“We only had three headstones down which someone had sat up for me.

“Why would anyone do this?”

Descendants of Auburn settlers the Whitehead family were also on site.

“We were coming up to say happy birthday to my Nana who would have been 100 today,” one lady, who did not want to be identified, said.

“We are grateful to come up and see our families have been untouched.”