Delegates from around NZ and Australia met at the Riccarton Racecourse in Christchurch for the bi-annual New Zealand Cemeteries and Crematoria conference and awards from 11-13 April 2018. An outstanding line up of speakers and industry experts covered diverse topics from the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes, managing stress and burnout, the influence of technology on the sector and NZ and international trends in death and funerals.

The conference is a collaboration between the New Zealand Recreation Association (NZRA) and the New Zealand Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective (NZCCC). Delegates came from a range of backgrounds and organisations including cemeteries staff from council and private cemeteries around NZ, funeral directors, monumental masons and suppliers allied to the industry. The theme for the three days was “Looking to the past, present and future”.

Following a mihi from Ngai Tahu, and a welcome from Dr Karleen Edwards the CEO of Christchurch City Council, the NZCCC AGM was held. Michelle Rivers was re-appointed as the Chair and the committee was re-energised with three new members.

The keynote speakers covered a range of topics from all aspects of the industry. First up was Sally Raudon a research fellow in social anthropology from the University of Auckland and a Churchill Fellow. Sally presented her latest research into NZ and international trends in death and funerals. In particular the rise in popularity of direct disposal amongst the baby boomer generation, scattering ashes in non-cemetery locations, and the practice of “living with the dead”.

Darryl Thomas, Chair of the Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association (ACCA) Board provided and update on trends, issues and opportunities in the industry in Australia. Like New Zealand, Australia has high rates of cremation and families are often undecided about what to do with the ashes. Some are left with the cemetery or funeral director and these are becoming a growing problem especially for funeral directors who by law are unable to dispose of them in Australia. ACCA has recognised the importance of memorialisation of cremated remains as part of the grieving process and is working with members to improve understanding of this in the community.

Abigail Smith, a landscape architect from Christchurch City Council was the conference’s third keynote speaker. Abigail was working at council in February 2011 when Christchurch was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that killed 185 people and injured several thousand. The earthquake came 6 months after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in September 2010 and caused widespread and severe damage in the central city area. Abigail spoke about the immediate response to the quake, the damage that occurred in cemeteries and the challenges that the team faced from fallen headstones to liquefaction making some cemeteries unusable. She also spoke about the creation of an interment site at Avonhead Park Cemetery for victims of the February quake. The site includes an area for the burial of unidentified remains and to commemorate the four unfound victims of the earthquake. Consideration of the families of the unfound victims was central to the design of the site which provides a contemplative restful area for families and visitors surrounded by established trees in a park like setting.

Day two started with a focus on digital and social media strategies for cemeteries and crematoria with a presentation from one of our Australian keynote speakers Matt McLean. Matt has built a strong reputation on the international stage for creating sales and marketing strategies with cemeteries and funeral directors. He challenged delegates to consider how consumers are changing the way they make decisions and interacting with businesses and how we keep cemeteries relevant in that environment. Matt discussed how to create a strategy based on what the consumer wants rather than how the cemetery have traditionally communicated or approached the market.

The keynote presentation from Sally Gilbert of the Ministry of Health provided an update on the policy work that has been undertaken by the ministry following the Governments response to the Law Commissions review of death burial and cremation in New Zealand. The Law Commission made 127 recommendations including a number relating to the regulation of Cemeteries and Crematoria. These were grouped around the management of existing cemeteries, approval of new cemeteries and the regulation of existing and establishment of new crematoria. Other issues that the ministry have been working on include novel forms of body disposal and future proofing the legislation for what may come in the future. There will be further engagement and consultation with the sector later in 2018.

The final keynote presentation for the conference was from Simon Manning a Wellington Funeral Director who is the National coordinator of the NZ Funeral Disaster Response team. Simon was responsible for the management of the funeral directors response following the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. He coordinated funeral directors from around the country to provide much needed support to the Christchurch Funeral Homes in the immediate aftermath of the February quake. There were many lessons learned from the experience in Christchurch including thinking ahead about how to accommodate workers from outside the region who come to assist in responding to a disaster, dealing with media, how to facilitate and streamline communication and looking after workers and recognising and managing their stress.

Throughout the two days at Riccarton Racecourse there were also presentations on a range of industry topics including Green Burials, Muslim Burials, the use of technology in cemeteries including presentation of work that is being undertaken currently, managing stress and burnout, a number of cremation topics including changes in cremator technology and construction, alternatives to cremation, homemade caskets and other crematoria challenges, and recycling metals from the industry. Delegates were also fortunate to hear from Ngai Tahu on their experience of repatriation and reburial of koiwi tangata or ancestral human remains.

The weather improved for day three of the conference which was spent on field trips. The day started with a walk through central Christchurch to Oi Manawa Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. Officially opened on 22 February 2017 on the sixth anniversary of the devastating earthquake, the memorial is located on the banks of the Avon River. The memorial was chosen from over 330 submissions and developed to its final form through an extensive consultation process with families of the victims of the quake. The memorial wall area contains the names of all 185 victims of the February 2011 earthquake in both English and the deceased’s first language including Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Serbian and Thai. The inscriptions were arranged in consultation with bereaved families with names grouped according to the relationship between victims.

The group then split in half with one group heading to Avonhead, Yaldhurst,Linwood and Bromley cemeteries followed by a tour of the Canterbury Crematorium and Woodlawn Memorial Gardens. The second group visited Decra Art, Canterbury’s largest monumental mason and New Zealand’s largest suppliers of memorials, followed by a tour of Belfast Cemetery and then to Harewood Memorial Gardens and Crematoria.

In summary, the location was outstanding, the speakers were generous in sharing their expertise and the delegates were passionate about the cemeteries and crematoria industry – the recipe for an awesome conference. Despite some challenges posed by the weather, we had a wonderful time and returned home brimming with enthusiasm for the work we do.

Thank you Christchurch.
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