Anzac headstones ‘lost’

Pte Dunne’s headstone didn’t survive the “renewal”.

A WAR graves researcher has called for an inquiry into the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board after finding out more than 100 Anzac graves have lost their headstones in a renewal process at Karrakatta cemetery.

Gavin Wilkinson was searching for the grave of his great uncle, Pte James Burrows, who’d fought in WWI with the 11th Battalion, but died in 1925 after succumbing to his battle injuries.

Mr Burrow’s father built the former Gresham Hotel in North Fremantle. 

When he couldn’t find the headstone, the MCB told Mr Wilkinson the Australian Imperial Forces granite headstone had been “renewed”.

“Cemetery renewal is the process of redeveloping existing cemetery land to accommodate new burials… the surface area is altered; however, no remains are disturbed during the process,” the MCB justified. 

Mr Wilkinson contacted the Office of Australian War Graves to find Mr Burrow’s commemoration had been moved from Karrakatta to the Garden of Remembrance at the Perth War Cemetery. 

“I visited James’ gravesite and found it a sand patch. After a three-year battle with bureaucracy, it was reinstated with an AIF granite headstone in 2020,” Mr Wilkinson said. 

To Mr Wilkinson’s shock, he discovered the headstones of decorated war heroes and ordinary diggers, much like Mr Burrows’, had also been “re-purposed” to clear the way for new burials at Karrakatta. That was despite an Australian government and MCB promise in 1922 they would be kept “in perpetuity”.

Included in the list are Anzacs John Charles Scarlett, Gordon Ronald McTaggart, William Henry Turbett and Edward James Massey who lived around the Perth city.

War graves

“In the main, the hundreds of war graves at Karrakatta are now protected but there is no guarantee. Right now, we are lobbying the state government to place regulations in the 1986 Act to permanently protect the graves,” Mr Wilkinson said.

Authorised by the West Australian Cemeteries Act 1986, this legislation legally empowers the MCB, who controls Karrakatta, to remove headstones via the renewal process. 

The MCB also sells the “air rights” of the walkways to people, allowing adjacent plots to be bought and monuments to be erected across two plots, including the walkway. 

“In some instances, the soldier is buried under the new monument to another person. There are soldiers buried under footpaths, walls, and even in garden beds. It is very disrespectful how they have been treated,” Mr Wilkinson said.

“These graves will require the MCB to re-landscape and reinstate the graves and they haven’t yet committed to this, but we are working on it.”

According to Mr Wilkinson, a review of the legislation governing cemeteries is the only way to hold the MCB accountable on put a halt on future redevelopments.

War graves aren’t protected by law WA, although the Geneva Convention requires them to be marked, respected, and maintained.

And though the bodies themselves aren’t being moved, Mr Burrows believes they’re at the whim of the development around them and he wants their headstones returned like his great uncle’s.

“If they can be reinstated … I believe they will be. However, we have soldiers’ whose war graves have now been surrounded by four new graves. This means that the only option to provide these soldiers with a respectful grave is through reinterment. However, it could be difficult because of the four new burials that surround them,” Mr Wilkinson said.

“It is not legally binding and MCB has the final say. The process is a cash grab. They have been using a loophole so that they can maximise the number of new gravesites and revenue they get from selling new ones,” Mr Wilkinson said.  “Our past is the foundation stone of our future, to build upon and not destroy.”

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