The present cemetery was established around 1866, at the time Lawrence was proclaimed a municipality. The old cemetery on the hill on Ardrossan Street behind the Commercial Hotel was closed in 1867 and the consent of relatives of persons interred there was obtained to allow the remains to be moved here.
It is the resting place of many early settlers and gold mining pioneers, including George and Helen Munro.
From early on Lawrence Cemetery was sectioned into religious denominations, with a separate section for the Chinese.
Some 4,000 Chinese miners had arrived in Otago by 1871, but were largely separate from the European community, culminating in a Poll Tax being charged on every Chinese immigrant to New Zealand from 1891. This Poll Tax was eventually waived from 1934 and repealed in 1944. Most Chinese buried before 1902 were disinterred to be shipped home in order carry out the age-old Chinese custom to be buried in the soil in which they were born.
There were two mass disinterments of Chinese bodies throughout New Zealand - one completed in 1883 and another in 1902. The steamer Ventnor, carrying the coffins of about 500 resurrected Chinese to Hong Kong sank off Hokianga, Northland on 28 October 1902, with the loss of nearly all of the remains. For many years, few remnants of the Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery remained as headstones and records disappeared, until the Lawrence 125th anniversary in 1986 when schoolchildren cleared the overgrowth. In 2002, members of the public undertook further restorative work and the Chinese Section has been kept tidy since.
Lawrence Cemetery Research
Beginning at the end of 2017, the University of Otago is planning an archaeological and bioarchaeological research programme at the Lawrence Cemetery, concentrating on the southern end where Chinese and possible paupers’ graves are located. This project will involve excavation and analysis of a number of unmarked and unknown graves, with a particular focus on areas where there are no records of who might be buried. The project will also examine the old Lawrence Cemetery (now in private ownership) to determine whether any burials remain there. The research is intended to examine the life, health and wellbeing of an early goldfields community. After the analysis is complete, the burials will be reinterred in their original locations, and the information gained will be made available to the community.
For more information on the research project, or for help with early burial records and plot locations, please contact the Lawrence Information Centre at 17 Ross Place.