I would like to sincerely thank Cook Islands RSA president Henry Wichman and his helpers for recovering the headstone of World War 1 veteran Mr Kopukoao which my husband and I found on the shoreline in front of the ‘Brych Yard’ cemetery in late December last year. Mr Wichman’s voluntary efforts are truly appreciated.
My first letter to the editor of the Cook Islands Newspaper with regard to the neglect of the Brych Yard cemetery at Nikao was on June 26, 2001.
That's approximately 14 years ago and nothing has been done since then to preserve and protect the cemetery from erosion. Those buried in the cemetery are mostly foreigners (former Milan Brych cancer patients and tourists).
At least 10 graves have now washed away, with more to follow shortly. I have visited the Cook Islands on four occasions since 1985. Each time I have visited, I have witnessed the worsening erosion on the shoreline.
In the 21st century, I find it hard to believe that I have to beg a civilised and progressive Commonwealth country such as the Cook Islands to preserve and protect foreigners’ graves, including my mother's, from being washed out to sea.
Over the last 17 years, with the help of the late Gordon Sawtell, I have had limited success contacting family members of those buried in the cemetery due to the passage of time. I have some questions to ask the Government and I would appreciate some constructive feedback so that a long term solution to this worsening problem may be found:
1. What agreement did the Government have with the traditional "family owners" of this land, either by way of leasing the land or claiming it for government use? What legal agreement was reached regarding the use of this land as a foreigners cemetery?
2. Does the Cook Islands Government have a detailed list of who is buried in the cemetery (including their nationalities) and the precise location of the graves, including those that have now been lost to the sea?
3. Is the Cook Islands Government aware that families paid a "perpetual grave maintenance" fee as part of the burial fee?
4. In a June 29, 2001 Cook Islands newspaper article titled ‘Brych Yard monument to neglect’, Sawtell said he remembered the details of the perpetual grave maintenance fee because the patient’s family showed him their burial invoice. He said there was a fee of ‘$100 for perpetual grave maintenance’ on the bill. The article says, “About $4,000 was paid in all to a contractor who worked at the Rarotongan Hotel at the time, Honu Ben.
“Sawtell alleges the contractor abandoned the cemetery after a few years, later turning up as an assistant to former Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister, Temu Okotai.
“Sawtell does not know where the contractor is today. But one woman who used to live next door to Ben says he moved to New Zealand."
4) In the same newspaper article Mr Sawtell said, “Families of the former patients got together again and formed the ‘Friends of Rarotonga Trust’, investing $5,000 to provide the upkeep they had already paid for before.”
Where are the proceeds of the ‘Friends of Rarotonga Trust’ administered by the late Gordon Sawtell who passed away in 2010?
5. What can be done about relocating the graves that are at immediate risk of being washed away further from the shoreline?