Janet Miller likens her job at Centennial Park to working in a botanic garden. She is surrounded by 40ha of parklands featuring themed gardens, tree-lined avenues and memorials to thousands of people laid to rest.
“When I first came in and started to explore and get to know it, I found so many beautiful places. Springbank Island is one of my favourites – it really is a little island with a gazebo – you would never imagine in a million years that you were in a cemetery,” she said.
Miller took over the reins at the Pasadena park in January from previous CEO Bryan Elliott, who resigned after 12 years in the role.
A chartered accountant by trade, she has 20 years of experience in operational and financial management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement. She was previously chief executive officer of DW Fox Tucker Lawyers, and before that, CEO of the Perks Group (Financial Services).
After years being deskbound, Miller said she had something of a mid-life awakening that led her to a home in the Adelaide Hills, a newfound love of mountain biking and a job that blended the commercial with compassion.
InDaily caught up with her ahead of Centennial Park’s 80th anniversary this year.
You have solid credentials in corporate leadership and people management, what was it about this CEO post that attracted you?
After 20 years in professional services, I was looking for a complete change. My main criteria were: a challenging role requiring a good mix of commerciality and compassion, and an industry with a strong community service focus. While I hadn’t considered a cemetery when setting those criteria, the role certainly ticked those boxes. The more I looked into it, the more interested I became.
I was really keen to do something for me, personally, with more warmth and meaning. I don’t want to reflect on the professional services industry in any negative way, but it can be quite a cold environment.
Is running a cemetery just like running any other business, only with different subject matter?
In many ways yes, but in many ways no.
Despite our local government ownership, we are a self-funding commercial enterprise and as such we are subject to competition and market pressures like most other organisations.
We have an obligation to all the families who have chosen Centennial Park as the place they most wanted their loved one to be buried or memorialised and to maintain the park to the highest standard expected well into the future. To fulfil this obligation requires strong financial and commercial management.
This of course needs to be tempered by compassion and a desire to help guide families through one of the most difficult times in their lives. In that way, we are different to many commercial organisations. There is so much warmth and humanity at Centennial Park. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
Are you expected to post a profit each year, as in other business operations?
Yes, it’s important that we return a surplus so that we can provide for the ongoing maintenance of the park. Now that we offer perpetuity, that means we will care for and maintain the park forever, literally.
You’ve been in the job since January, have you nutted out your vision for Centennial Park yet?
I’ve actually been thinking about the vision for Centennial Park since before I took up my role. I’ve been very happy to discover that those thoughts and views align very much with the direction the board would like to see the organisation move in.
We’ve been working our way through the strategic planning process and, with only a few more steps to complete, I’m looking forward to releasing it publicly in coming months. What I can say, is it will continue to have service to the community at its core.
With a café and children’s playground already outlined in 2015-2030 Future Concepts plan, how important is marketing to make these palatable to the public?
The café is actually in response to community feedback so I think it’s less about ‘marketing’ per se and more about informing the broader community.
Often a funeral is one of the few times that extended families get together, or that you catch up with old friends. The café will provide a lovely space for people to reconnect and reminisce, or maybe just have some time alone to think over a coffee.
In terms of the playground, this is a small element of the development and will allow families, who are visiting loved ones or attending a service or event, to be able to take some time out over a coffee or some lunch, and know that their children will be occupied. The playground location is well away from our memorial areas so any sounds of young children playing won’t be heard by those wanting some quiet time.
Is there concern that there is a stigma about having fun in a cemetery?
Actually, we run a lot of events throughout the year and they are, without exception, well received and well attended. This year we’ve had an outdoor cinema as well as a concert in our Jubilee Complex – both were great events. They were well attended and we received a lot of positive feedback about them.
We’ve also started conducting small group tours through our gardens and our crematorium, and the demand for places on these tours is very strong. In fact, we’ve had to add additional tours otherwise we were heading into November before we had any places available.
This is all part of the work we do in connecting with our community and showcasing Centennial Park as a beautiful place to simply spend time. If you really think about it, a cemetery is as much about the living as it is the departed, so we want people to feel comfortable to come to Centennial Park at any time – not just when they are attending a service.
What do you see as one of the biggest challenges ahead?
For me it’s having the discussion around how important it is to memorialise – we really see the need for a sense of ‘place’. People tend to need somewhere to go and yet we have this trend of scattering ashes and so on, and it leaves people with no place to go. I think for me that is a significant challenge and we need to be able to have that conversation.
People are definitely favouring cremation by and large but I think we’ve moved right away from grieving. We now have celebrations rather than the sombre funerals, which is good, but I don’t know what the impact on the community is of that move away from grieving. It’s about being able to have those conversations – understanding what family members want. For me the cemetery is as much about the living as the dead. Let’s demystify it – let’s get people in there and take away any of the stigma.
I’ve read about biodegradable cardboard caskets and a liquefying process whereby a body is steamed to liquid – what are the latest trends around death?
Natural burial has been an emerging trend in recent years, although it has become clear to me that ‘natural burial’ means different things to different people, so it’s important to fully understand what it is that people expect or want.
In terms of cremation, there is an alternative, alkaline hydrolysis – also known as acquamation. It is a method that uses water and alkaline at high temperatures, but although it was developed many years ago, we haven’t seen a significant uptake to date. It doesn’t produce the air emissions of traditional cremation, but there is still the issue of the disposal of the water to be considered.
As space and land availability become issues, is there a push towards encouraging cremations?
We are fortunate to be able to offer a range of options for both burial and cremation.
There are many cultures, religions and individuals who still prefer burial and we respond to that need with a range of choices. We have, for example, recently completed three new burial areas that cater for particular needs. Olive Terrace provides full monumentation vaults for those in our community who prefer this type of burial; Olive Views provides an area for lawn burial but with grander monuments than the traditional burial areas; and Martinique Grove with lawn burials in a checkerboard arrangement around beautiful magnolia trees.
Similarly, there are a number of choices when it comes to memorialising someone who has chosen to be cremated. We have garden bed and wall positions, rose gardens, landscaped grounds, water features and the list goes on.
What is important, regardless of whether burial or cremation is chosen, is having a place for family, friends, and future generations to come to visit. It’s the memorialisation – the sense of place – that’s important.
About what percentage of business now is cremation versus burial?
About 10 years ago, it was about 75:25 in favour of burial. These days, it’s closer to 20:80.
The other trend, perhaps overseas more so, is themed funerals. Are we seeing these here and if so, what sorts of themes are popular?
We’ve certainly seen services take on a more celebratory and uplifting tone. The funeral service many years ago used to last for about 20 minutes and was very sombre. Now, it will last for about an hour. Family and friends are asked to wear brightly-coloured clothing, the choice of music is less traditional and more upbeat than in the past, and there is generally a video collage of photos reflecting happy times. We provide audio visual services to help families with this aspect.
The fully themed funerals that we see from time to time overseas are yet to make their way to Adelaide, but it’s possibly just a matter of time.
We all have preconceptions about death and working in a cemetery environment: how do you stay grounded and hopefully happy while surrounded by people at their most vulnerable?
The reality is Centennial Park is a fabulous place to work. The natural environment is beautiful for a start – it’s like working in a botanic garden. Beyond that, I work with a fantastic team of people who are all proud of Centennial Park – they are highly professional, but down-to-earth, warm and friendly. And happy! I also get a lot of joy and satisfaction from seeing the positive impact our team has on the families that choose us.
All industries are moving into digital or automated territory, how do these advancements affect the business of burials and cremations? Are interactive headstones and webcasting funerals really a thing?
Yes, live streaming of funerals is quite commonplace now; in fact many of our visitors livestream straight onto social media.
We have introduced a free online memorial service for families of those buried or cremated at Centennial Park. This is a great way for families to connect from anywhere in the world and build an online memorial or record of the life of their loved one. This will be important for future generations.
Death is inevitable, what are the decisions you should make in advance to help your family when the time comes?
I think the most important thing is to have the conversation. Be open and honest with your family or friends about what it is you want, and don’t leave this as something you put in your will – it may be too late by the time the will is read.
I also urge people to think not only about what they want, but about what those who are left behind may want. This is particularly important if someone is considering having their ashes scattered. This is irreversible and does mean there is no permanent memorial for family, friends and future generations to visit.
We have a simple card available from Centennial Park on which will help guide you in terms of what your loved ones needs to know. This card can be kept with other important documents as a record of your final wishes.
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