First Lonely Funeral, May 2023

I have been interested for a while in Lonely Funerals – these are funerals where the deceased has become so isolated in life that there is no-one, no friends, family or colleagues, present at that final moment. An initiative, first championed in the Netherlands, seeks to mark these sad events with a poem. Local poets are informed about an upcoming Lonely Funeral and given whatever information may exist about the person’s life. Sometimes that is just a few fragments, but that can be exactly the kind of material that lends itself to being worked up into a poem. In this way, these people who had become so isolated or marginalized in life can at least have the dignity of a small memorial.

My friend Andy Jackson and I had hoped to do something similar to the Dutch project here in Scotland. And after a lot of planning and chatting to people, mainly here in Dundee but also across Scotland, early this month we contributed to what we believe to be the first Lonely Funeral in Scotland and possibly the UK. Andy was given some of those fragmentary details of a life that are so characteristic of these events and in just a couple of days had written a beautiful and moving poem, which he read at the funeral.

Here is a fuller report of the event on the Lapidus Scotland website. Lapidus Scotland works with people, groups and organizations across Scotland, offering reading and writing activities to promote health and wellbeing, and is supporting the Lonely Funeral initiative.

It was a sad event and a sad day, but at the same time had a quiet dignity, a special moment. I hope that in future if people in whatever capacity, funeral directors, council officers, solicitors, care home staff, police…. if they become aware of a possible Lonely Funeral they will be moved to contact us so we can honour the person’s life with a poem.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 23 May 2023

The Lonely Funeral

I’ve been interested for a couple of years in a project called The Lonely Funeral that operates in Belgium and the Netherlands. A “lonely funeral” is one where the person who has died has no friends or family and so no-one is present at the final funeral except maybe a funeral director, perhaps a social worker or a solicitor as executor.

howff burial ground dundee

The Dutch project started when a poet called Bart Droog started to attend these sad events and to write poems for the people who had died alone. The project has developed through the involvement of other poets such as F. Starik – working with people in the council (initially just Amsterdam but the project has now spread to other Dutch and Belgian cities). When it becomes clear that a lonely funeral is going to happen, the poets are informed and are given wheat information exists about the person who has died. Often there is very little information … sometimes not even a name. But this is the power of poetry – something meaningful can always be written even from these fragments.

The project gives a moment of dignity and recognition to people who have often become very isolated. It also shines a light on this issue of social isolation and marginalization at end of life. I have written a little more about the project here:

I wanted to see if something similar could work here in Scotland and am working with a local poet, Andy Jackson, to explore these ideas here in Dundee. As part of the To Absent Friends festival this year, and working as part of Lapidus Scotland, we are holding a public meeting on Thursday 10 November at 17:30 in the Dundee University Chaplaincy Centre. Anyone interested in attending can get tickets (free!) here:

Andy and I will talk a little bit more about what the project is and how it might work in Scotland. We’re also delighted to say that three poems have been specially written for the event drawing on the experiences of local funeral celebrant colleagues of mine. The poets are Beth McDonnough, Dawn Wood and Andy himself.

(And thanks to The Courier for a lovely piece on the project.)

Michael Hannah, Funeral Celebrant, Dundee, November 2022.

Silent Teachers – Anatomy in Edinburgh

Back in 2019 I wrote about anatomy and body donations at the University of Dundee. How the people who donate their bodies are known as “silent teachers“. It’s a subject of great personal interest because my father donated his body to Dundee.

So I was very interested in an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland entitled “Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life”. It’s a fascinating story of how Edinburgh became a centre for the teaching of anatomy – and how the demand for bodies for dissection was met. Initially the bodies of executed criminals were used…. but as demand inexorably increased, graves were robbed and murder committed. A dark history, but one that was transformed as body donation became a more respectable and respected option for people seeking to leave a legacy to medical science and teaching.

I could write a lot more here about this thought-provoking exhibition but fortunately I was invited by my lecturers at the Glasgow University End of Life Studies Group to contribute to their blog. And so you can read my review here.

Thanks to the Group for inviting me to contribute and thanks to the Museum for putting this fascinating exhibition together. “Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life” runs until 30 October 2022.

Anatomical theatre Leiden 1610
Anatomy Theatre at the University of Leiden, 1610

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, September 2022

Murrayshall – a place for ceremony

Before the pandemic, I started a series of visits to venues that offer interesting alternatives for funerals and memorial services. That had to be put to one side, but when I got a call from Marlene Lowe at Murrayshall Country Estate I decided to visit. I asked my celebrant colleague Angela Maughan to join me, as my initial thought was that Murrayshall would mainly be of interest to wedding celebrants. Angela conducts all sorts of ceremonies including many weddings each year.

Murrayshall Country Estate
A view of Murrayshall Country Estate

First impressions reinforced my ideas that this is very much a place for weddings. It’s an attractive building set in beautiful grounds commanding spectacular views over the Tay valley and towards the mountains. It is very accessible from Perth (15 minutes taxi drive from the railway station) and a short drive from Dundee.

But as we toured the facilities and chatted to Marlene, it became clear that this venue offers potential for a whole range of different sorts of events. One obvious possibility is the funeral tea after a cremation or burial service. But there can be times, perhaps when someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, when it’s hard for everyone to attend a funeral. In these cases, one solution is to hold a celebration of life weeks or months later – or on a significant anniversary. A beautiful setting like Murrayshall is perfect for those kinds of events. It also lends itself to other rites of passage: naming ceremonies, renewals of vows….

One reason people aren’t more creative in choosing venues for funerals and memorials is simply time. When someone dies there is so much to do that people understandably opt for the simplest solutions. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and let your friends and family know your wishes. Easy to say! These issues of “death literacy” are tricky and people find it hard to discuss them. So it was good to chat to Marlene about how a venue like Murrayshall can help. Perhaps by hosting events like Death Cafés or Coffin Clubs. Or by working with organizations like the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association (SICA).

Thank you Marlene for your hospitality and hope to work with you soon!

Murrayshall Country Estate
Scone, Perth, Scotland, PH2 7PH
01738 55 11 71

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, August 2022

So, what does a celebrant do? Giving advice

This is an occasional series on the different things a funeral celebrant does or can do. You’re probably familiar with a celebrant being the person who conducts a funeral service. They write and deliver a eulogy… read a poem perhaps… deliver words of committal. But the role can vary and I’ve tried to explore in this page how flexible it can be. For example, one thing that I often find is that someone in the family wants to write a eulogy but thinks they need a bit of help with putting it together – and doesn’t feel able to deliver it themselves. Or sometimes a friend may want to read a poem or a short tribute but is uncertain if they will manage on the day. Grief and emotion can be unpredictable. In this case the celebrant is there as a “safety net”, able to take over if required.

Yesterday I had a good example of another way that a celebrant can contribute to a ceremony. I had a call from someone asking if I could give them some ideas for an interment of ashes she wanted to hold for her late father. She lives in western Canada so there wasn’t even the slightest question of me conducting the service. What’s more, I knew this would be a very private occasion and having a stranger conduct things wouldn’t be right in this case. At the same time, though, there might be 40-50 people attending, so even if it’s informal it still needs to be done well and people need to know what’s happening.

So my caller was basically asking for some of my time – a consultation, in this case by zoom. And without going into the detail of what we discussed, I talked about three things:

Celtic Knot
  • Firstly, I shared ideas about how I’ve conducted this type of event – and how I’ve seen others do it.
  • Secondly, I’m able to ask questions that may help trigger the organizers to have ideas of their own. (Or to ask for input from other family members.)
  • Thirdly, I can share some possible pitfalls and concerns to help the organizer prepare.

So if you are planning a ceremony and feel you need a bit of input – but don’t think you need a celebrant to conduct the whole event, consider asking for a consultation of this type. In my case I will always have an initial free “no-strings” conversation and I will explain what I can do and how long it might take so that you have complete transparency on costs.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, August 2022

Echoes across the millennia

Some time ago I wrote about my family’s experience of commissioning a funerary urn for my father’s ashes. We had asked Ann Bates, a potter based in Derbyshire, to make the urn with input from us on shapes and colours and designs. The urn now sits in a special place in the garden.

Ann contacted me recently to invite me to the opening of an exhibition in Buxton Museum of her work and of some of the things that inspire her designs. I was delighted to accept and I drove down to Buxton this weekend. The exhibition “Echoes: reverberations across millennia” showcases some of Ann’s work. It also looks at the neolithic and bronze age inspirations for her designs. There are some bronze age urns found locally in Derbyshire as well as photographs of the 5,200 year old passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. These highlight characteristic spiral designs that Ann has used and adapted extensively in her own work – including on my father’s urn.

But there are also photos of the Long Barrow at All Cannings in Wiltshire. This is a new (or “novolithic”) burial place, which was built in 2014 in the style of a traditional long barrow made relevant for today. It is has internal chambers with niches and is used as a columbarium or place for cremated remains in urns to be kept.

I’m very interested in these examples of continuity in ceremony and practice across the centuries. Here in Dundee we have a new cemetery at Pitkerro Grove. It lies just outside the city and I always like conducting funerals there as it commands fine views over the Tay and of Dundee itself. But what makes it special for me is the knowledge that when it was being constructed, much older burial sites were discovered, dating back to the early Christian period of 530-635. Evidence that this place had been used for burials for centuries and perhaps millennia.

I really enjoyed seeing the examples of Ann’s ceramics. But the highlights for me were the images illustrating the making of two pieces – the creative process itself. And one of those was my father’s urn. It was very moving to see it come together. So I have made my own little slideshow (see below) of photos from the exhibition to thank Ann for her invitation and perhaps to encourage others to think creatively about what can be done with a person’s ashes after cremation.

Michael Hannah, July 2022

The exhibition “Echoes: reverberations across millennia” is at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until 8 October 2022.

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


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