Meetings with Funeral Directors – Steven Stewart, Cupar

Steven Stewart Funeral Director in Cupar
Steven Stewart Funeral Director in Cupar

From time to time I like to visit the funeral directors that I work with just to catch up and share experiences. That’s been difficult during the lockdown but now there’s more opportunity as long as we’re careful. So when I had to go to Cupar yesterday for some personal business, I asked if I could visit Steven Stewart and do a mini-interview with him for this blog.

I’ve worked a few times with Steven and his colleague Rhys Small but it’s nice to have the chance to chat more generally about our work. I started by asking how long Steven had been in the funeral world and how he had started out.

“I sort of fell into the business,” he replied. “About 23 years ago I got a job with William Jordan & Son, then one of the independent undertakers in Cupar. I started out cleaning cars, doing maintenance – helping out in all sorts of ways, but gradually I took on more responsibilities, started arranging funerals and at the same time, studied to become a funeral director and embalmer.”

Very much a mixture of learning on the job alongside formal study – and the evidence for the latter is an impressive set of diplomas on the wall of the family room in their modern premises. 

Eventually, Steven decided to take the plunge and set up his own business some ten years ago. With national companies like Dignity and the Co-op dominating the market, as well as a new generation of “cut price” funeral suppliers, I wondered how an independent family business like Steven’s survives.

“Ultimately, it comes down to service. I’m from a big Cupar family and I’m a well-kent face here and throughout north Fife, St Andrews and further afield. So folk know us and know we offer the same service to them that we’d give to our own family. And they can be sure that the person they speak to first will be the same person that takes them through the whole process from that initial arrangement to the ceremony on the day and support afterwards.

“We also offer a very flexible service that’s tailored to people’s wishes. We’re open to some of the new trends – for example for natural, green burials. Or older traditions like home vigils. And we’re totally transparent on price. No hidden or unexpected costs.”

How has COVID affected the business? “Well, all the restrictions that everyone has had to deal with. Lots more remote working. Much smaller ceremonies.” Is that always negative? “No! One thing we’ve found is that people are often relieved not to be having the big funeral. They like a smaller family-centred service that is more intimate.” 

Steven Stewart Funeral Director, Cupar
Steven Stewart Funeral Director, sponsors a flower bed in Cupar with Fife Council

Lots to think about and lots of changes that may prove lasting.

So thank you Steven for a great chat. It’s really good to see independent and family businesses thriving and delivering such important service to people just at the time when they need it most. And looking forward to your celebrating 25 years in the business!

Steven Stewart Funeral Directors Ltd
01334 655 323
www.stevenstewartfunerals.co.uk

Michael Hannah, Dundee, September 2020

A trip to Balintore Castle

Last week I visited Balintore Castle, a few miles north west of Kirriemuir in Angus. I’ve known the owner, David Johnston, for just over ten years but it’s a while since I’ve visited his home so it was nice to drive up and see progress on the castle.

Balintore, a traditional Scottish castle
Balintore Castle, Angus

David bought Balintore in 2007 when it was little more than a ruin. Now with a huge amount of hard work he’s been able to launch a self-catering Airbnb business and, COVID permitting, is considering opening a restaurant.

Of course there is still a LOT to be done – this is a long, long-term project!

But it’s a project that clearly gives David huge satisfaction. He is dedicated to restoring this traditional Scottish castle in the most authentic and appropriate ways – constantly on the lookout for Victorian furniture and fittings. And he takes especial delight in unexpected finds: He proudly showed me two deer heads mounted on shields “bagged” at an online auction for a song. Well, Balintore was built as a hunting lodge so no surprise that he snapped them up. But there was no hiding his delight in the labels only discovered after the purchase – Deyrolle of Paris – probably the best taxidermy emporium in the world!

wedding photo from Balintore Castle, near Kirriemuir, Scotland

So I asked if Balintore is a potential venue for ceremonies? “Definitely,” replied David, “in fact we recently held our first wedding – with a colleague of yours officiating – Angela Maughan! We’ve also held a scattering of ashes. And in time it would be great to offer yoga retreats and the like.”

Balintore isn’t the easiest of venues to reach. And there’s still a lot of work required to restore some of the larger rooms. But it’s a unique place with a very special character. And the location and views are truly stunning.

Definitely worth considering if you want somewhere a little “off the beaten track”!

MIchael Hannah, 7th September 2020

Celebrant Showcase – Angela Maughan from Tayside

Yesterday I interviewed another celebrant for my “Celebrant Showcase”. Angela Maughan works, like me, throughout the Dundee, Perthshire, Fife and Angus areas. Unlike me, though, she is also a wedding celebrant…. and is more than happy to accept bookings for “destination weddings”!

We talk in the video about how Angela first entered this profession, what motivates her and what she sees as her particular style. Always based on the needs and wishes of the families she works with. Always driven by love.

Contact Angela on 07770 985 736 or info@angelamaughan.co.uk or www.angelamaughanceremonies.co.uk (going live shortly).

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 29 July 2020

The Natural Death Centre

The Natural Death Centre

I have just joined the Natural Death Centre – it’s a great source of information on all sorts of issues around natural burial grounds, green funerals and so on.

I think it’s very important to recognize just how medicalized death has become in recent years and how environmentally damaging funerals can be. But there are other ways to approach this.

Of course, here in Dundee, we are very lucky to have a beautiful natural burial ground just outside Kellas. CairnBrae is a magical place and offers a tranquil alternative to “traditional” cemetery burials or crematorium services.

Please contact me if you would like to discuss these sorts of alternative approaches to funerals.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 22 July 2020

SICA

Today I successfully joined SICA – the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association.

It’s part of a constant endeavour to meet and network with more celebrants across Scotland. To share experience and hopefully to improve my own practice and hone my skills.

Many thanks to Rachel Cheer of Hope Ceremonies for observing one of my funerals and conducting today’ application interview. (And also many thanks to the family who kindly agreed to let the livestream from the crematorium) be observed in this way.)

Very happy to be a new member and looking forward to meeting other members!

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 10 July 2020

Faded rose from days gone by

My good friend, Paul Connell, is a photographer based in Dublin. During lockdown he found that the nearest open place he could walk in and get a bit of fresh air – without having to dodge joggers and cyclists – was the Mount Jerome Cemetery.

He started to notice the plastic “floral” tributes that people left on the graves.

At first it seemed like just another way we litter the world with our pollution. All the more so because in Mount Jerome, barely a blade of grass survives the Roundup regime.

But then, his photographer’s eye began to see a strange beauty in these flowers. Laid there in moments of profound grief and respect, they seemed to acquire an aura, a poignancy in the plastic.

Today Paul launched his new web site and there’s a lovely gallery of some of these faded roses.

Congratulations, Paul, on the new web site and thanks for all the beautiful and moving images!

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 1 July 2020

Celebrant Showcase – Jill Jones from Teesside

Jill Jones, Funeral Celebrant, Teesside

One of the good things to have come out of lockdown for me has been making a lot of new contacts with celebrants not just locally, but further afield. I thought it might be nice to do a short series of interviews with some of these new friends to make a kind of “celebrant showcase”. An opportunity to speak about their work, why they became a celebrant and what they believe they bring to it.

The first in the series is based on a chat I had with Jill Jones last week. Jill and I met on a forum set up and moderated by Emma Curtis of Ceremony Matters. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis we’ve taken part in regular zoom calls and have become friends.

I started our interview by asking how long Jill’s been working as a funeral celebrant. What was her trigger to entering this profession? Jill replied that she trained in 2013 – “Before that I had written eulogies and even taken part in funerals. Then a funeral director friend wondered if I was interested in doing it differently – as an occupation”

Jill spoke about something that will be familiar to most celebrants – her experience of good funerals…. and not so good. “I’ve had the experience of attending a friend or relative’s funeral and of leaving the chapel and realizing that I hadn’t actually said goodbye to them. The ‘process’ has been gone through but without that chance to say goodbye”. And maybe one of the key triggers to Jill’s move into this work was her work on the service for her own dad.

So now, several years later, I wondered how Jill describes herself and what kind of ceremonies she conducts. “An independent celebrant rather than a ‘civil celebrant’. To me the word ‘civil’ suggests the office of Registrar too much. Also, to a lot of people it means no religious content at all. Whereas I say that, while I don’t conduct ‘religious ceremonies’, I can deliver a ‘ceremony with religion’. I do funerals, weddings, naming ceremonies and vow renewals. But though I enjoy all these ceremonies, it’s the funerals I really love.”

Jill is based in Stockton-on-Tees and she works across Teesside, county Durham and north Yorks areas. Middlesbrough, Darlington, Hartlepool, even as far as York.

So what, I asked, does Jill bring to her services? “Gentleness, calmness. And people skills honed after 30 years in education.” The family visit is clearly central to Jill’s work. She also spoke about active listening and scribing skills to ensure she captures the essence of the person we’re saying goodbye to. In her words, she is trying to find out how we say goodbye. But before we can say goodbye, we first have to say hello. And, for Jill, empathy isn’t enough, there has to be compassion.

We always say that celebrancy is a vocation, a calling, But it can be difficult. It’s emotional work… we’re relatively isolated… the phone doesn’t ring for days. What motivates Jill Jones to keep going? “When I’ve been out and I see someone who waves. And I know it’s because they know me as a celebrant.” So a recognition of important work done well. And Jill added that the networking she does with funeral directors, other celebrants and the continuing advanced professional development (“I took my own CPD into my own hands.”), it all helps her to keep going.

So what does the future hold? What goals does Jill have?

“To do what I do better. And, while I will always be prepared to conduct traditional crematorium and graveside ceremonies, I also want to move in a direction to do things that are green, natural, ecological. And of course, continuing to support families in a bespoke way.” So, natural burial grounds, coffin clubs, home vigils, home funerals even.

Thank you so much Jill! I leaned a huge amount and it was great to speak to you and, as always to share ideas and experience. With very best wishes. Michael

To contact Jill or just read more about her approach to her work see her web site jillvjonescelebrant.co.uk.

And here is a little clip from our conversation…..

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 27rd June 2020

Mike and Florence Crook

When I lived in London, one of my good friends was a man called Mike Crook. We’d got to know each other through work and, after we both turned freelance in about 2000, we started to meet regularly.

One of our favourite things was exploring some of the less well known bits of east London and I captured some of those walks on camera.

After I’d known Mike for a while, I discovered he had an alter ego named Florence. At first I thought that Florence only really existed in Mike’s imagination but I came to understand that she was a fully realized aspect of his personality.

Sadly, Mike died of cancer over ten years ago. But before his death I was privileged to meet Florence and we made two memorable walks through London – and again I took some photos.

At Mike’s funeral, I was saddened to find that Florence barely had a mention. That sadness that a significant part of a person’s life might not be recognized has informed my work as a celebrant.

Of course I know that people often have aspects of their life that they don’t want to share. But I also knew that Florence was increasingly being introduced to a wider world while Mike was alive.

So I put together a small slideshow of photos I had taken, uploaded to a web site and shared it with some of Mike’s friends after his death. That web site is long gone but recently I found the original “slides” and I have uploaded here in loving memory of a very special and much missed friend: Mike and Florence Crook.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, June 2020

Latest COVID-19 guidance for funeral services from Scottish Government

The Scottish Government has just updated its guidance on funeral services during the coronavirus lockdown. The guidelines are still very restrictive, in line with the fact that we are at a very risky stage with a real danger of a second wave of the virus.

The guidance does not lay down a maximum number for those attending a service – it leaves it open to individual crematoriums and local authorities to decide within the overall guidance. So if you are having to arrange a funeral it’s important to check how many people can attend your local cemetery or crematorium.

Michael Hannah, Funeral Celebrant, Dundee, Scotland