Our People: Weddings, funerals and talking about death over tea and cake

Richard Marchant at home in Lincoln with the family dog Clara. Photo: Supplied
Richard Marchant at home in Lincoln with the family dog Clara. Photo: Supplied
Talking about death is not morbid or depressing – it is liberating and helps people prepare for the inevitable. So says Lincoln funeral and wedding celebrant, Richard Marchant, who founded the district’s first Death Cafe in Lincoln. He spoke to Susan Sandys

Tell me about the global social movement of Death Cafe and how you came to be involved.
The whole idea of Death Cafe is strangers gather to eat some form of food, and just talk about death. I saw one advertised in Christchurch in 2019. I checked my diary and I could make it, so I went along to my first meeting. And it was just wonderful, just the whole idea of being around other people willing to talk about death and dying.  

Do they have a morbid fascination with death or is it depressing?
Not usually – and it isn’t depressing. It’s actually quite a liberating topic. All the evidence suggests people who talk about death and dying are less scared of the whole concept, and obviously they are more prepared. 

Now you have set up a Death Cafe in Lincoln?
I decided towards the end of 2020 – would it be viable anywhere in Selwyn? I put a message on the Rolleston community page, Lincoln community page and Selwyn community page. I didn’t get much of a response from either Selwyn or Rolleston, but I did from Lincoln.  

How many people belong to the Lincoln Death Cafe?
About one month ago, we passed 100 (Death Cafe Lincoln NZ) Facebook members, which I was really pleased about. It’s usually anywhere between six to 10 at each monthly meeting.

What are some of the subjects people talk about?
The kind of subjects we talk about, it is fascinating. Funeral planning comes up. End-of-life planning, near death experiences, people talk about their own personal loss. It’s rare for people to come along who have just had somebody die, often people will leave it six months or even a couple of years before they are ready to talk about it. 

Any other subjects?
Someone posted on the Death Cafe Lincoln NZ Facebook page all about terramation. It’s basically the official term for human composting. They have found this lovely 60-second doco from Washington State in America. They were the first in America legally allowed to do human composting. It’s basically putting your dead loved one or family member in a kind of chamber, which is full of alfalfa, straw and sawdust. Eventually, weeks later, you have bones that need crushing up just like you would after a cremation.

It doesn’t sound very dignified.
From the video, it actually looks quite cool. For those few weeks it is going on, the family come in, there are family photos up and they spend a little bit of time. It seems to be very similar to a kind of funeral home, there is a little area set aside for your person while they are going through the process.

So it is sort of like an extended wake?
It’s wonderful, and it’s very different to where we are heading in New Zealand at the moment, which is nothing. One of the hot topics at the last few Death Cafes is that since Covid the whole concept of direct cremations has gone up. I’ve got nothing against direct cremations as long as they are followed by something else. What I am getting anecdotally now through Death Cafes and from being attached to the funeral industry is a lot of people opt for a direct cremation and then nothing at all. No ceremony, no ritual, all those things that help us move on. It is quite a worry because it can leave people quite stuck. They are not able to move on. Often it is the close family who will make these decisions, but if you are a work colleague or a more distant relative that decision has been made for you. You don’t have to have what we traditionally see as a funeral, but it is important to do something.

Members of the Death Cafe meet monthly at the Lincoln Event Centre. Photo: Supplied
Members of the Death Cafe meet monthly at the Lincoln Event Centre. Photo: Supplied
Can you see terramation coming to New Zealand?
I would love it to. I am aware of one woman in Canterbury who is looking at bringing a form of water cremation to New Zealand. The whole idea of water cremation is you lie in this solution of water and chemicals for so many hours. The chemicals work so quickly. 

Has there been any attempts at your Death Cafe to connect with the spirits of the dead?
No, we’ve had a few people over time who have been very close to dying themselves and a few attendees who knew they were dying. That’s always quite special to actually be part of that journey. You are giving somebody an opportunity that isn’t always out there in the majority of New Zealand homes. A lot of people come to Death Cafe and they talk about the fact they can’t discuss death with anybody else. It is often a conversation that is shut down. I, like many at Death Cafe, grew up not talking about death. The guy who set up Death Cafe in England in 2011, he was called Jon Underwood. One of his quotes was: ‘Talking about sex does not make you pregnant, just like talking about death does not make you dead’. I love that. I used that for one of the posters for one of our monthly meetings. 

Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I was born just outside of London. I went to university and got a BA in social policy and administration. I worked as a prison officer and was a county councillor in the UK.

What brought you and your wife Sally to New Zealand?
Everything is just a little bit slower. The fact there is a lot less people has a huge amount of appeal. At that time the conversion rate of the pound to dollar was quite good. We arrived in Christchurch in 2004, we were out to Selwyn just over three years later. And you can’t ignore the scenery, just how beautiful this place is to live. My girls were 4 and 6, so it was just the perfect opportunity really. We left our life behind in England. It was time to live a little bit of the rural dream really. 

Richard and Sally Marchant and daughter Hannah (right) at their eldest daughter Rosie’s Lincoln...
Richard and Sally Marchant and daughter Hannah (right) at their eldest daughter Rosie’s Lincoln University graduation ceremony. Photo: Supplied
What was your career path here?
I trained and worked as a primary school teacher, then became a Canterbury SPCA education manager, before going down the route of being a funeral celebrant. My first ceremony was 2019 in a garden. It was the most beautiful celebration of life, and literally from doing that first one I just knew that was something I really wanted to do. I was going to just do funerals, but doing the course work weddings just suddenly found an appeal for me. It ended up being a dual role really. Often wedding celebrants become funeral celebrants, but it doesn’t often happen the other way around. 

You are also a zoo educator at Orana Park?
Yes. I did my celebrant training and then suddenly one of my daughters said they are after teachers at Orana Wildlife Park. It’s one of those jobs I could not resist, I’ve been an animal loon for a long, long time.

•To find out more about the Death Cafe at the Lincoln Event Centre contact Richard Marchant through the Facebook page, Death Cafe Lincoln NZ, or email richard.celebrantnz@gmail.com


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