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The story of the caskets for the Unknown Warrior

In 2004, the remains of a New Zealand World War One soldier were laid to rest at the National War Memorial’s Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

Cabinet maker and military veteran, Robert (Bob) Jones tells the unique story of the caskets made for the Unknown Warrior.

Video of Bob Jones explaining how he made the caskets for the Unknown Warrior, courtesy of the Greymouth Star on Vimeo.

Born in Hokitika, a fourth general West Coaster, Bob Jones became an apprentice cabinetmaker after finishing high school.  During this time, Bob joined the Territorials before going onto the Army which saw postings to Malaya and Borneo and finally with the Victor One Company in Vietnam.

Following his military service, Bob returned to the building trade and joinery sector, working at the Westland Funeral Services who were selected to supply three caskets for the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

One outer casket and the inner casket were sent to the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval in France to collect the warrior and the second outer casket was later donated to the National Army Museum at Waiouru.

The inner casket was copper lined and sealed after the warrior was placed in it.  This was to comply with regulations to stop any contaminated soil coming into New Zealand.  It was made with totara sourced from the Grey Valley while the two outer caskets were produced using kauri.

Bob Jones undertook careful research connecting the wood to New Zealand’s military history such as sourcing kauri for the inner frame from an old Hokitika Wharf, a place that would have seen departures and arrivals of military personnel over the years.

The batterns which are long strips of wood that strengthen the casket, also draw upon strong military ties such as one battern for the inner casket coming from the shed on land settled by Samuel Mitchell, a Victoria Cross recipient. Another battern for the outer casket was sourced from a hand-made butter storage barrel and represents the home comforts sent to service personnel based overseas. A piece of kauri found in Ross represents the Korean War, while other blocks honour the Vietnam War and New Zealand's 37 casualties.

The inside cloth lining the outer casket is an apricot colour, symbolising earth while the clear highly polished outer surface represents water. The dark stain on the casket is for remembrance and the bottom is flat, so that the warrior once more rests firmly on his native land.

There are four small columns, one on each corner representing the four points of the compass that New Zealand’s military personnel have served throughout the world.  The lid has raised edges which features moulding based on early Greek designs and represents the multi-cultural aspects of the New Zealand Defence Force.  The modern chrome handles stand for the continued physical and technical advances of our military services.

Members of the Bearer Party alongside the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior on Armistice Day 2004, image courtesy of the NZDF.

During the making of these caskets, Bob Jones showed in his actions what these caskets meant to him as a soldier and a cabinet maker, making them worthy for the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, New Zealand's foremost symbol of remembrance for all New Zealanders who did not make the journey home after serving their country overseas.

Our thanks to Bob Jones for sharing his insights into the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior caskets.


Updated on 16th January 2018