What happens when an earthquake hits as a funeral is getting underway?

That’s exactly the scenario that Barbara Terry faced on the afternoon of 22 Feb 2011 when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island.

The earthquake devastated the city and surrounding area, 185 people were killed and thousands injured. 

As part of a ‘Spotlight’ webinar series by OpusXenta, Barbara was today’s guest speaker. When the quake struck, she was (and still is) the manager of two memorial sites, the Canterbury and Harewood Memorial Gardens and Crematoriums in Christchurch.

Barbara Terry was a webinar guest of OpusXenta

Here is some of her extraordinary story:

Barbrara admits she wasn’t ideally dressed to deal with a natural disaster that day. “I was wearing a dress, high heels, and new pantyhose.”

Sitting in her office at Canterbury and talking with a funeral director, she noticed the rumbling.

“Then the force of the earthquake took over.”

The funeral director was thrown from his chair and Barbara braced herself with a filing cabinet against the wall.

“It felt like it lasted for minutes, even though it lasted seconds. It was noise I’d never experienced.”

Now what?

Not far from her office was the chapel where a funeral service was due to start. The casket was in place, as were 200 mourners.

In her high heels, she “hightailed it to the chapel and was so grateful to see it standing”.

Built in 1936, the chapel has an octagonal shape. It’s that shape that is credited for keeping the chapel standing during the earthquake.

“The cement block fencing around the chapel had collapsed. People had poured out of the chapel, dazed, weeping, hugging. Nobody was injured. The ground seemed to have developed waves.”

But what now? A grieving family and their friends were there to farewell a loved one.

As aftershocks continued, Barbara made a decision.

“We needed to do something for this family”.

The casket was still inside the chapel, at the front. She decided to bring the casket out, but because the stability of the chapel was still unknown, Barbara didn’t want to risk the safety of her staff. She and one colleague went into the chapel to get the casket. Once it was out, a committal ceremony of sorts could be performed.

As she entered the chapel she noted pews with broken backs and things tossed around. There were still aftershocks rumbling.

“I tried not to absorb it because we had a job to do. We wanted to offer the family a simple committal. We didn’t know there were 185 fatalities. We were in a bubble,” she said.

The 1936 chapel stood stong but has since be reinforced.

The personal story.

While this was happening, the enormity of the tragedy was unfolding away from the memorial gardens.

Not only does Barbara Terry work in Christchurch, she lives there too. She’s a wife and mother.  Thankfully her son was on a mid-term break and had been working at the memorial gardens when the quake struck.

As she recounted seeing her collapsed son’s bedroom, Barbara’s voice cracked and she admitted that this story makes her weepy every time. It was a reminder that, after 12 years, the trauma remains for many.

“If he’d been in the bedroom …”

“Communication was patchy. My phone was on 18%. I made sure my team was ok. I’d established that my husband was alive, and we were realising the enormity of the occasion.”

“Everyone was terrified. We didn’t know if the biggest earthquake was still to come.”

Barbara’s son’s bedroom can be seen in the middle photograph. Barbara admits there are thousands and thousands of stories like hers.

Sprinkled in fairy dust

Liquefication was an immediate major problem in Christchurch. Not only were buildings destroyed by the quake itself, but liquid and silt from underground were pushed up.

Barbara explained, “It’s liquid that bubbles up from the ground and settles to become a solid muck with a dreadful odour”.

It buried streets and gardens, and caused buildings and vehicles to sink. Incredibly, the memorial gardens were relatively unscathed.

“It was as if fairy dust had been sprinkled around the gardens, we only a little liquefication.”

“Our community needed us”

In the following days and weeks “we had cremations and service booked… so we turned to manual systems,” said Barbara. A lack of communications and power outages meant that their usual technology couldn’t be relied upon.

Of the two memorial garden and crematorium sites that Barbara manages, all operations were relocated to the self-contained Harewood site in North Christchurch. Harewood had its own water supply via a water well. It had working septic infrastructure. The crematorium there was powered by 45kg LPG gas bottles.

Keep in mind that, while funerals and cremations continued, staff were also dealing with their own personal situations and traumas.

“We had team members who were homeless through to those with just slight damage”.

Damage to the wall memorial

Three thousand sets of ashes were displaced when the memorial walls collapsed. The remains were in containers, and they were labelled with names.

They, and any surviving plaques, were stored in a shed until new memorial walls were built. The new walls have been designed to withstand earth tremors and aftershocks.

The memorial walls that contain cremains (ashes) have been rebuilt.

How the funeral industry coped after the earthquake

The Funeral Director Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) has a disaster response team.

This team’s volunteers provide practical support for local funeral homes, and coordinate transport to get the deceased back to their families. This team has been operational during the Christchurch mosque terror attack, the Whakaari White Island erruption, and is currently assisting in the flooding recovery in Hawkes Bay and Gisborne.

The NZ Funeral Disaster Relief team got to Christchurch as soon as they could after the earthquake, establishing a headquarters at Lincoln, just outside of the city.

During the aftermath of the quake, the New Zealand Government deemed funeral providers to be an essential service. They and their suppliers did everything they could to ensure funeral and crematoria services could continue.

(That’s a stark contrast to Australia during the COVID-19 crisis where deathcare was not considered to be essential. But that’s a whole other subject, so here’s some extra reading on a report that the Death Tech team from Melbourne Uni compiled – https://deathtech.research.unimelb.edu.au/2021/09/05/an-essential-service/)

Even in a time of tragedy and destruction, Barbara admits some people expected providers such as hers to continue as normal and “to be able to provide the services we always had been”.

“We had to try not to take that personally because you can be worn down by certain people’s attitudes.”

Barbara finished her Zoom presentation with some words often attributed to Mother Teresa.

“The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.”

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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