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Blessing Ceremony, Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

Blessing Ceremony, Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

This is certainly an occasion that will remain in my memory as the start of a project of great significance and poignancy for New Zealanders.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, representing some 27,000 New Zealanders who have died in service overseas, will bring into focus the casualties New Zealand has suffered as a result of military involvement in world affairs.

The world has entered a turbulent period, and it is timely to remember the part New Zealand has played in military history in the past. Memorials throughout the country remind us of the active service of New Zealanders and the contribution they have made to international peace and security.

But this has come at a price. Every New Zealander lost in service represents an immeasurable tragedy for family and friends.

Events that shape history are composed of many individual stories. Some are stories of great loss. The accounts in our history books, no matter how well told, cannot do justice to human experience in that degree of detail. People who wish to commemorate loved ones lost in service overseas need something tangible they can relate to on a one-to-one level.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior will provide this by being representative of any family member or friend lost in service. This is why it is so important that he is genuinely unidentified.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior will therefore be, as well as a site of national significance, a place of personal significance where those who are still living with a past sorrow can come to quietly reflect on it and maybe resolve it in some way.

I am most impressed with the design by Robert Jahnke, which is both aesthetically pleasing and meaningful. It incorporates many symbolic elements yet retains a simple dignity.

It is interesting to pause and think back to the history behind this project. The original concept of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is thought to date back to an Athenian ceremony honouring men who had died in the war against Sparta, which included an empty coffin representing the bodies of the 'missing'.

The first Tombs of Unknown Warriors were established in London and Paris in 1920, containing unidentified soldiers who had died in the Great War. While over the next decade many other countries adopted the idea, when members of the British Empire sought to do this they were told that the body in Westminster Abbey was sufficient to represent the whole Empire.

The idea of creating a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior for New Zealand first arose in the late 1950s but was not progressed. The idea resurfaced more recently with interest from the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association and the National War Memorial Advisory Council, and this time the government listened.

In December 2001 Helen Clark directed the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to investigate the feasibility of establishing a tomb.

I see this project as an affirmation that historic places do not have to be static and unchanging – they can be adapted to reflect changing needs.

What we are putting in motion today will contribute to our evolving national historic heritage. It will help ensure that the National War Memorial will remain relevant to New Zealanders in the 21st Century.

I very much look forward to watching progress on the building of the Tomb, and to the events celebrating the homecoming of the Warrior in November.

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