Celebrant Showcase – Gillian Robertson from Falkirk

Yesterday I travelled through to Falkirk to have a conversation with Gillian for the blog. I’m originally from Falkirk and I still have family there so it was a chance to drive my mum through to see her sister, while Gillian and I spoke about our work as celebrants. It’s always a pleasure to speak to Gillian – we’re both on the committee of the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association (SICA) and we often meet on zoom calls for local celebrants.

Portrait of Gillian Robertson, Celebrant

So over tea and cakes I began by asking how long Gillian had been a celebrant and what had drawn her into this profession. “I started in March 2020… not, as it turned out, the best time to be launching into a new profession!”

After a career in special education, Gillian was seeking something that would continue to be challenging and rewarding – but would allow her more flexibility to pursue her interests. She had experienced bereavement and loss in both personal and professional life and hadn’t always been impressed by the quality of the ceremonies. And so the idea grew that she might bring some of her lived experience and skills to the world of celebrancy. “When you’ve led school assemblies as I have – and I loved them – you certainly develop the ability to hold a space.”

What sorts of services does Gillian perform? “Funerals, namings of all kinds, memorials and, as I am ordained as a OneSpirit Interfaith Minister, I can conduct legal weddings.” Does that mean that Gillian’s ceremonies are religious? “No, not necessarily. As with all independent celebrants, I follow what family and friends want from the ceremony, from something completely non-religious to incorporating spiritual elements.”

Funerals, naming and weddings are the usual sorts of services that most celebrants offer. But Gillian wanted to speak about two other types of ceremony. “During the pandemic, I was asked to perform a couple of private graduation ceremonies. It’s obviously been hard for colleges and universities to organize in-person graduations so that’s led to a desire to mark the achievements of these students by their families. I held ceremonies in private gardens – numbers were limited but I was able to read out messages from friends and family. Now that things are settling down it will be interesting to see if families will still want these more private events.” That’s certainly something that interests me as I progress through the second year of my masters degree. My course is an online one and even though I would like to attend a graduation ceremony at Glasgow University itself, many of my classmates live in other countries and would find it difficult to visit.

Another type of ceremony that Gillian wants to develop is an honouring of ancestors: “Many people are interested in finding where they come from and who their ancestors were. We might be talking about immediate family or even quite distant relatives. And in exploring this, some people feel a need to mark these connections. I think that’s where a sympathetic celebrant can offer a valuable service.” These thoughts held resonance for me, sitting as we were so close to the town where I grew up and from where so many of my own ancestors lived. Gillian is keen to explore how this work might align with organizers of tours for people searching their roots in Scotland.

So what, I wondered, was it that Gillian brings to her celebrant work? “Maybe it stems from my background in special education, but I have a great interest in how I can offer additional support to families struggling with grief and loss. For instance, a mother trying to explain the death of their father to the children is hard enough but imagine the situation if a child has autism. This is where I feel I can ‘walk together’ with families and offer something extra in helping them deal with these immensely difficult situations. And I’m working on innovative ways, such as Talking Mats, to help people talk about and plan funerals.”

Does that special support also apply to weddings? “Perhaps not with the same intensity. But I really feel I need to get to know the couple. I may perform fewer ceremonies but I bring that same level of commitment to each one.”

Thank you Gillian, for your time and for speaking to me about your work. It was fascinating and inspiring!

To find out more, visit Gillian’s website or Facebook page.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, March 2022

Celebrant Showcase – Sarah Burnside from Fife

In these showcase posts I usually interview …. or at least have a conversation with… the celebrant. But in this case I’m just posting a video that Sarah made and which she has kindly shared with me.

Sarah is based in the East Neuk of Fife near St Andrews and works closely with our mutual friend Cate Reid. She is a member of the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association (SICA) and conducts different types of ceremonies in Fife, the Dundee area – and across Scotland.

If you would like to know more about Sarah, visit her website – or better still, give her a call on 07484 331 764.

And here she is speaking about her her work:

[Posted by Michael Hannah, Funeral Celebrant, Dundee March 2022]

Celebrant Showcase – Cate Reid from Fife

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing my good friend and colleague, Cate Reid. Cate and I met at a talk I’d organized on the History of the Scottish Funeral. That was just a short time before the pandemic put a stop to meetings. But we kept in touch through regular zoom meetings and what started just as a way of sharing information, grew into a really valuable source of mutual support. And in the process we’ve become friends.

Cate conducts all sorts of ceremonies – funerals, weddings, namings, vow renewals. She is now based in the East Neuk of Fife, not far from St Andrews, and works across the Tayside area. But Cate is originally from Glasgow and still often conducts funerals in Glasgow and Clydebank. She is also part of the Open Sanctuary faith community, and it’s through this that, as an ordained minister, she is able to perform weddings in full.

Celebrants are sometimes asked what their “unique selling point” is. When Cate and I talked about this before we agreed that it was quite hard to put a finger on exactly what ours were! But as you can see in the video, Cate has come to realize that her USP is …. Cate herself. An enormously caring and kind person, Cate is a skilled listener and she very much aims to co-create a service with the family.

Thank you Cate, for your time today and for all your help, support and friendship over the past couple of years.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 23 February 2022

Coffin Club Caledonia

Talking about death is difficult. It’s the one thing we can all be sure will happen to us but we act much of the time as if we were immortal. In previous centuries death was quite literally much closer to home, but now many people live into adulthood and even middle age without having seen a dead person.

But it will happen – to ourselves and to those we love. Isn’t it a good idea to prepare? To start thinking about how we want to be cared for in old age (anticipatory care plans). To reflect on what kind of funeral we might want to have. Not least, this takes away a burden from our family. When someone dies there is not much time to plan for a funeral and it can be so helpful to know what their wishes are.

There are all sorts of projects to help us talk about death. One of these is the Death Café – people getting together over a coffee to discuss any aspect of death.

Members of Coffin Club Caledonia
Sarah, Angela, Ann, Kimberly and Gillian from Coffin Club Caledonia

Then there is Coffin Club. Originating in New Zealand, Coffin Clubs are now opening up across Scotland and England. Several of my celebrant friends and colleagues have started Coffin Club Caledonia, which has four branches: Dundee & Angus, Fife, Perthshire, and Falkirk. The clubs are educational forums, running courses and providing comprehensive information about end-of-life choices to the general public.

Each week, industry specialists (funeral directors, end-of-life doulas, natural burial grounds, crematorium staff) come and talk to club members. It’s a chance to inform them of how they can effectively fulfil their funeral wishes. All done in a warm and friendly social setting.

Coffin Clubs are about choice. They are absolutely not about telling people there’s a right way or a wrong way to celebrate a life. Instead they help inform people of all their options and let them plan the way that’s right for them – be that a direct cremation, a conventional crematorium, burial, a religious service, or something more bespoke.

And of course, there’s the opportunity to sign up to decorate your own, study and suitable ‘flat packed’ coffin.

For more information contact:

Dundee & Angus – Angela Maughan 07770985736
Fife – Sarah Burnside 07484331764
Perthshire – Ann Gourlay 07881865000
Falkirk – Gillian Robertson 07940484319

Empower yourself to sort out the end of your life so you can get on with living…. ¡viva la funeral revolución!

Michael Hannah, 14 February 2022

Online ceremonies in 2022

On 16 January I conducted an online memorial service on zoom for someone who had been living in Portugal. She was originally from Linlithgow in Scotland (not far from where I grew up myself). However, she and her husband had lived in several different countries throughout her life. So although her son (himself from New York) had organized a funeral in a local cemetery in Portugal, he was aware that many friends and family members couldn’t travel and attend. Obviously that was influenced by the continuing restrictions…. but in fact it would always have been hard for everyone to gather together in a single place.

So he looked into organizing an online ceremony that could be held shortly after the funeral itself. His research took him to a page of information about online funerals and memorials set up by my colleague and friend Emma Curtis. And that brought him, through a listing there, to my web site.

I then worked with him to devise a ceremony that would bring everyone together and include live tributes from friends and family, a beautiful poem that had been specially written for the occasion by Madi Maxwell-Libby, some moments of quiet reflection, some music and some photographs of his mother. And on the day itself, I conducted the service on his behalf.

Of course it’s not the same as all being in the same room. And of course a burial, a cremation, an aquamation…. these all have an elemental quality to them. A real and physical sense of a person’s body returning to the earth. A Zoom funeral can never have that quality. But I continue to be amazed at how powerful these web gatherings can be. One reason I think is the opportunity they offer for participation. People can speak, read poems, light candles, take part.

By coincidence, today I received an email from Obitus who provide the music at many Scottish crematoriums. They also provide live streaming of services. Today’s email listed “10 reasons why people choose to watch a funeral online”. Interesting points ranging from physical accessibility difficulties to social anxiety. There’s no doubt that during the last two years, this service has been a lifeline. But it’s a passive experience and I think that the more interactive zoom memorial is here to stay.

If you’d like to know more about what can be done to celebrate a life online then I’d be delighted to chat to you. Just contact me and we can arrange a call.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 25 January 2022

2022

As for so many people, last year was a strange one for me. There were some significant achievements. For instance, I started my masters course in End of Life Studies at Glasgow University and it has gone very well. It’s hard work and takes up a lot of my time but I have enjoyed studying and being able to examine complicated, and often contentious, moral and ethical issues like assisted dying in a calm and considered way.

But last year also saw me having to step into the role of carer when my mum fell and broke her hip. Inevitably that’s had a big impact on my life and for a while I had to cut back on my funeral celebrant work. Nevertheless I managed to conduct a lot of, I hope, very meaningful ceremonies including some online Zoom memorials (one especially poignant one for my dear friend Bryan who had died right at the start of the pandemic).

And of course, COVID had affected me like everyone else. Though I did manage to have a lovely road (and sea!) trip away to visit my friends in Ireland.

Anyway, the new year has started and I am finding renewed energy. My university term has started, meaning that I’m now half way through the taught part of the degree. I have several funerals to prepare this week, including an online one. And my mum continues to regain mobility and independence. So despite all the difficulties and the often depressing news, I am feeling more optimistic for 2022. Happy New Year!

Michael Hannah, Dundee, January 2022

SICA AGM

Susan Fraser and Rachel Cheer of SICA
Susan Fraser and Rachel Cheer – outgoing Chair and Secretary of SICA

Last weekend I attended the AGM of the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association (SICA)….. in person!! And it was so good to meet everyone. I have come to know many of the members there over the last year or so since I joined. But most of those “meetings” were via the now ubiquitous zoom screen. I’ve become a big zoom fan and I think it’s great for all sorts of reasons. But it’s still so nice to meet people face to face.

We had a busy day. Joe Murren of SAIF (The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors) spoke about their work in Scotland. We discussed and approved a new strategic plan that a sub-committee have been working up. And we elected an almost completely new committee with myself as “ordinary member”!

This promises to be an exciting year ahead as we work to raise standards of celebrancy in Scotland and raise the profile and standing of SICA. And hopefully bring in more work for our members as a result. I will no doubt be writing more as the year unfolds.

Michael Hannah, 19 October 2021

Commissioning a funerary urn

It’s almost four years since my father died in October 2017. At the time we weren’t able to have a funeral because dad left his body to medical science. We did hold a memorial service instead, just a couple of weeks after his death, so I think for most people there was little difference. But it did mean that we could be a bit more creative with the venue so instead of the local crematorium or cemetery, we held the ceremony on board a ship. Highly appropriate as dad had been in the Merchant Navy.

But what happens to bodies that are used by teaching hospitals in this way? Well they may be used for teaching anatomy or in research. We know that dad’s body was used in research and while that can be difficult and painful to think about, it would have made him very happy to know that even after his death, he was contributing in such an important way to science.

Then, after no more than three years, the university holds a direct cremation and the ashes are returned to the family. So what happens after that? Some people want to scatter the ashes. Some want to have them interred. Some people want to keep them.

In our case, dad hadn’t left any instructions but we felt it would be nice to keep the ashes in the garden of the house where he lived for 50 years and where my mother still lives. So we thought about getting an urn to keep them in.

There’s no shortage of attractive (and not so attractive…) options. But we thought it would be appropriate to get something personal and I knew of ceramicists who make bespoke funerary urns. In fact, I wrote a little piece for this blog about Jane Sheppard who does lovely work. But in the end we decided to invite Ann Bates, a Derbyshire based potter, to make something for us.

Ann was extremely helpful all throughout the whole process. We had chosen one of her existing urns as a starting point. Then we asked for designs that would echo the sorts of spirals that Ann often uses but with a hint of waves and the sea. We also wanted if possible to bring in the idea of stars and navigation.

That gave Ann something to work with and she came back with some design ideas. She also gave us some samples to help choose the kind of colours that we were after – sea greens and blues. In particular she came up with the lovely suggestion of incorporating a star map on the inside of the lid.

Ann kept us informed and sent photos at every stage of the process. It helped us feel involved in the creative process.

Now we have the finished urn and will choose a time and prepare a spot in the garden for it soon.

Thank you Ann for making such a personal and beautiful object to honour my father.

Travels in my Honda e

Usually I use this blog for my work but from time to time I do post more personal things. I just took a short break, visiting my good friends Paul and Avi who live in a small village in Co Westmeath in Ireland and I travelled by car. That’s something I’ve never done before so I thought I’d write it up and make a “vlog”.

I’ve known Paul for many years and I have other good friends in Ireland. So I used to visit quite often and always flew to Dublin. Now, partly because of covid and partly because of the environmental crisis, I’m keen to avoid flying. To be honest, all the security at airports means that there’s little pleasure (and much stress) in flying.

And then Paul moved to the country to renovate and live in the family home that he had inherited. Suddenly a flight from Edinburgh to Dublin would mean travel at both ends, so I started to think about driving down and taking the ferry.

Earlier this year I bought a new car – a Honda e, which is a fully electric vehicle (EV). That meant that my journey would be even more “green” – but also presented me with new questions. How easy would it be to charge outwith Scotland? I’ve grown accustomed to charging here in Dundee and it’s become part of my routine. But on a long journey? And in different countries? And how would I cope with suddenly going from miles per hour to kilometres?

Well, last week I set off and drove from Dundee down to Cairnryan. Then across in the ferry to Larne. I could have gone straight down to my friend in Westmeath but I had decided to make a bit of a road trip of the whole experience so I stayed overnight in Larne then drove along the beautiful Antrim coast.

Overall it was a really interesting experience. The car performed extremely well and charging it mostly wasn’t an issue – it was just something I factored in with stops I planned to make anyway. The philosophy I adopted was “don’t stop when you need to charge… charge when you need to stop”. The people at ESB and EasyGo Ireland were very helpful in getting me set up to charge in Ireland – including in the north.

I had a chance to catch up with Paul and Avi and to explore some bits of Ireland (and Scotland) that I didn’t know, most memorably, the Hill of Uisneach in the very heart of the country. And I adapted very quickly to Irish road signs and speed limits (and it’s really easy to switch the car’s instruments from one system to the other).

Plus this was an opportunity to learn a bit about basic filming with a phone. This brings me back to my work. Online ceremonial work can involve making recordings of people’s tributes and then weaving them into the ceremony. My skills in making and editing video are still very basic so I wanted to gain some more experience.

Here are the two little YouTube video – please let me know what you think.

Part 1

Part 2

Michael Hannah, 19 September 2021, Dundee

Meetings with Funeral Directors – Steven Stewart revisited

It’s almost a year since I interviewed Steven Stewart, funeral director in Cupar, Fife. We’ve worked together since then so I’ve had a chance to speak to him and to his colleague Rhys Small, but only to discuss particular funerals – not to have a wide-ranging chat.

Portrait of Steven Stewart funeral director in Cupar, Fife

So I thought it would be good to have a proper catch up and see how Steven has been faring during this time of great change in the funeral business. I started by asking the inevitable questions about how the pandemic has played out for his business and what if any will be the lasting effects of this time. A year ago, Steven said that while the restrictions had been desperately hard for people to have to deal with, there were some positives. He had noted that some families were relieved not to have to cope with a big public ceremony. I wondered if that was still the case.

“To some extent, yes, although numbers allowed at crematoriums and graveside have been relaxed. But we’ve seen people having a bit more time to plan things and, although that can be a mixed blessing because many just want the funeral to be over with, for others it’s a chance to think a bit more about what they want from the ceremony.

“And we’ve also seen some practical things change. Paperwork and correspondence all had to go online and that was very positive for us. I’m hoping that can continue as it makes things easier and quicker for us.”

Steven also noted the slow return to normality in the hotel business and the chance for families to organize get togethers after the funeral. “Yes, that has definitely made our job easier. Especially as we had to stop using our own function suite. We’ve been using that space to provide a safe place for people to view their loved ones.”

So a little chat about pandemic stuff. But we mainly talked about all the many projects that Steven is involved with locally. He’s from a Cupar family and a family that’s always been involved in the community. His granny was very much the “go to” person in her neighbourhood and it seems that Steven has inherited that mantle.

We talked about his involvement with local sports clubs, his concern for a generation of young people but especially young men who seem lost, about his work with local charities. And especially about how a late night comment on Facebook turned into an idea for a party and festival to celebrate at least some kind of normal life at last….. and how that idea is now close to being realized as C-InThePark on 18th September. Steven is a man who turns ideas into action.

What has this got to do with the funeral world? Well, I think that being such a well known figure in the town and someone who is so involved with the community in so many ways, means people can feel comfortable about talking to him about death and funerals. About their own plans or what they want for a loved one. Subjects we all find difficult to speak about.

And people can feel confident that Steven will always try to make things work out the way families want, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Thanks Steven, as always, for a great chat. And best wishes for C-InThePark and for your funeral work.

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

Michael Hannah, 2 September 2021

The Sacred Screen

This weekend I attended an online teaching with the Zen Buddhist Upaya Institute. It was led by Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. Joan is Abbot of the Upaya Monastery and Frank is co-founder of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco (now the Zen Caregiving Project).

I first became aware of Joan Halifax’s work quite recently when my good friend and celebrant colleague, Emma Curtis, recommended her book Standing at the Edge. The book explores how some of the qualities we normally consider to be entirely virtuous and good – altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement – can also become the cause of personal suffering. A classic example might be an end of life care nurse who empathizes too closely with the pain and suffering that their patients are experiencing and so “takes on” that pain themselves. It’s not that empathy is wrong – a nurse would not be able to do their job effectively without it. But these qualities, what Halifax calls Edge States, can sometimes get out of kilter.

I found it a fascinating and extremely useful read, especially the discussions on altruism. So I was very interested to see a weekend teaching on the themes of Love and Death: Opening the Great Gifts and I signed up.

The Upaya Institute is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico so this was strictly an online experience and quite demanding for me because of the time differences. But immensely rewarding. Both teachers are wonderful speakers and they gently explored many of the difficult and painful issues around death, suffering, grief and love. They are not simply intelligent, articulate, and inspiring people – they also speak with a deep wisdom that comes no doubt from their long experience of practical work in the areas of end of life and palliative care. And they brought poetry and their own Buddhist perspectives to the sessions.

A couple of things stood out for me. One was that, contrary to a common idea of Buddhism as a rather remote and dispassionate practice (an idea that I often held myself), these people are fiercely aware of and passionate about tackling social injustice and the great challenges of our age – most especially the climate crisis.

And secondly I was so impressed at how they succeeded in making the zoom room such an intimate, respectful and at times reverential space – a “sacred screen”. There were more than 400 people in that room and yet it really did feel like a small gathering. Usually in zoom trainings there are times when I zone out or actually switch off, but this weekend the sessions held my attention from start to finish. Lessons here for my own online ceremonies and practice.

I hope to attend similar programs in the future – and in the meantime, sending gratitude to Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, to the Upaya Institute, and to Emma for the recommendation.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, August 2021

Blogging for Pride

rainbow flag LGBTQ

On Friday I was delighted to see that an article I wrote for the University of Glasgow’s End of Life Studies Group blog was published.

I was especially pleased that the article came out in June – now widely regarded as LGBT Pride month. Because my topic was the fear that many LGBT people have of having to enter long term care as they age – and the possibility of having to “return to the closet” as a result of discrimination.

As I grow older myself, it’s an issue that is becoming increasingly important on a personal level and something I hope to continue to study as part of my masters work at Glasgow.

Meanwhile a Happy Pride to everyone – let’s hope that the progress made towards greater equality in recent years in countries like Scotland continues but also that LGBT people across the world can benefit from greater understanding and acceptance.

Michael Hannah, June 2021