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

Death over Dinner

Sitting down to dinner to talk about death might seem a rather odd way to spend an evening. But in recent years there have been several initiatives with the aim of helping us to be more open about this taboo subject.

One of these, the Death Café movement, has become a worldwide phenomenon since it started back in 2011. I’ve been to a couple of these and found them interesting. It’s odd to have a cup of coffee with complete strangers and discuss death but it seems to work for many people.

Death over Dinner is a newer addition to these “death positive” initiatives and is currently USA based. But like the Café it takes the idea of sharing food and drink as a starting point. A way to break the ice and create an informal atmosphere from the start. A least that’s the idea…

I doubt if I would have attended or even had an invitation for a Death over Dinner if it hadn’t been for my MSc course. Two of my classmates, Jennifer Rigal and Kelly Oberle, thought that it might be a good way for us to get to know each other better as a class and give us a different way to explore our mutual interest in end of life issues.

Of course, the original format of both the café and the dinner was an actual meeting – all together around a table. But we’ve adapted over the last year to move events online and this is no exception… and, in fact, our class is very international with people from several countries, Kelly and Jennifer both live in Canada, so the online option is the only way we could manage this (though it wan’t exactly “dinner time” for us all!)

We had some trouble with the official website so we decided to go ahead and organize it with our own Zoom meeting but following the format. This includes homework in the form of several things to watch or read, and some prepared questions to guide conversations. And here is one big difference from the Death Café format which is usually much less structured. Which is better? Well, we could see advantages in both. It’s probably a question of personal taste but for us as a group of people who are all studying these issues, the more formal and structured format worked well.

Mind you, we didn’t answer all the suggested questions. In fact we had so much to say that we didn’t get beyond the first item on the list! And this is something I’ve noticed before. Although death is seen as a great taboo, when people gather in these sorts of groups there generally is plenty chat. Maybe it’s because the format really does encourage it. Maybe because the people who choose to attend are already comfortable talking about the topic.

At any rate, we found it a valuable exercise. A good way to get to know one another a bit more. And to chat a bit more widely about things that motivate us.

Kelly and Jennifer were asked to write up the experience for the End of Life Studies blog and you can read their entry here. Many thanks to them for organizing the event. And thanks to all my classmates for making it a memorable evening.

Michael Hannah, Dundee. 5 April 2021

A St David’s Day Online Memorial for my friend Bryan Bale

Last year one of my closest friends, Bryan Bale, died after a long illness. On Monday I conducted a one year on memorial on Zoom. It was pure coincidence of course but Bryan, always a proud Welshman, died on St David’s Day. And so we thought it would be fitting to hold an anniversary memorial on that day.

portrait of Bryan Bale for Zoom memorial

Being ill for a long time meant that Bryan was able to plan for his end of life care. He also spoke to me not just a friend but as a funeral celebrant about his wishes. He had decided that he didn’t want anyone present at the crematorium at all. But for us all to gather a few weeks later and celebrate his life with a party.

We were able to honour the first part of his wishes but we put the party on hold because of the COVID lockdown. As the one-year anniversary approached we thought about postponing again …. but it has been so difficult to plan. So instead we opted for an online web ceremony.

Obviously it would have been lovely to meet up in person (and I hope we can still do that). But Bryan had friends in many countries and it would have been difficult for them all to attend. Lots of travel.

So Zoom has many advantages. Just under 40 people attended, from England, Scotland and Ireland as well as Wales of course. But also Denmark, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Israel, The United States and Australia! A really international gathering.

Even so, some people weren’t able to attend but another advantage of this type of event is that they were able to record a little message in advance that I could play during the memorial. And that is also an option for people who find it difficult to speak live. These little recorded tributes don’t need to be long; two or three minutes is often enough time to say what you want to express.

And they don’t all have to be spoken tributes. One friend played a little piece of music on the guitar and I set this to some photos. Another friend, singer and artist Martin McCann recorded a favourite song of Bryan’s.

We showed a clip from a film that Bryan’s friend Angela Clarke had made about Bryan’s life as a gay man in the London of the 60s, Bachelor 38. And we were even able to play a recoding of Bryan himself, reading some poetry and singing a song.

One special feature of the evening was participation. Not just in lighting a candle together. And not just because we opened up to a sort of “virtual wake” after the main part of the memorial was done.

But also because another friend, Rupert Kirby, who is a food blogger and cook, suggested we all prepare something to eat during the evening and he provided some “Bryan-themed recipes” on his blog as well as a lovely personal tribute. It’s a great idea for building connections and participation, even on the sometimes impersonal medium of Zoom.

I still hope that we can get together but Monday showed we could have a fitting and worthy tribute by gathering in a virtual space and I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who contributed.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 4 March 2020

More Zoom!

On Friday last I took part in a talk about online Zoom funerals organized by Louise Winter of Poetic Endings, a progressive and forward thinking independent London funeral director. It was led by Christina Andreola and Amber Carvaly. They are a team based in western Canada and the USA. Christina’s background is in event management and Amber is a funeral consultant.

They went through the nuts and bolts of how to set up and conduct an online ceremony using Zoom. Lots of useful information for anyone new to this, though most of it I was already familiar with.

What interested me though was the business model and the pricing. Of course, they are operating in a different setting. Online ceremonies are much more commonly used and accepted in north America. The west coast is prosperous even by US standards and in any case, the very nature of a web ceremony means that it isn’t restricted by geography.

But I was surprised that they don’t provide celebrancy – the writing of a eulogy, the “conducting” of the ceremony. They create a space and an event that families can use (possibly bringing in a celebrant themselves or conducting things themselves). This is not to say that they don’t provide a lot. They have professional Zoom accounts and modern equipment – no working from a tired old laptop on the kitchen table! They put together the audiovisuals (and ensure that they have the appropriate music licences to use music online….). They manage the event.

So, pricing? From a Scottish perspective the prices are eye-watering. Way over £1000.

But this raises lots of questions for celebrants here I think. I suspect that even when we are through the worst of the pandemic, we will continue to be asked to conduct ceremony online. It makes sense for families that are scattered across the world – and who are used to connecting in this way. So we need to make sure we DO have the right equipment, reliable internet, valid LOML …. and we need to make sure that we take account of all the extra time that is required to transform a mediocre Zoom experience into a proper professional service.

And there are lots of savings on cost that can be made – no limos, no flowers (though there are ways to make a really beautiful floral show online…). The online ceremony itself can be organized in different ways – it doesn’t have to be an expensive option. Sometimes all that is needed from a celebrant is a bit of help to generate ideas.

So I am rethinking the ways I charge for my work and am moving to an hourly rate. My work on online funerals and memorials is the trigger to all of this but I hope to extend this in time to all my work. I’ll be writing more about this on the website soon.

Michael Hannah, Scotland, 4 February 2021

Conference: Racial Equity – Deeper than Skin

Last weekend I completed the second part of the Ceremony Matters super conference on Diversity & Inclusion. The first part on Non-Binary thinking and LGBQ+ identity was held last October and there will be one more section on Mental Health & Disability in April.

Of course we should have been meeting in a lovely conference venue and able to chat away till late over a glass of wine or two. I really miss that social and networking aspect of a conference. It’s just not as easy on Zoom. On the other hand there’s no long journey in winter down to England and I save a lot of money on accommodation. (And wine!)

I also find that it can be easier to really focus on a presentation when it’s on screen. And there were some excellent sessions. It’s always really important to hear people’s own experience, and one thing that struck me was the constancy with which people of colour face all those daily “micro-aggressions”. And the toll of stress – major and minor but continual, that I as a white man just never have to deal with. Of course we all face stresses and have to contend with difficulties in life but the colour of my skin isn’t one of them.

Dundee is not a very ethnically diverse city but I still think it’s important as celebrants to be aware of these issues and how they and the language around them is changing. Today we hear a lot of criticism of political correctness and “woke” culture but for me it’s about trying to understand people and their situation. To really listen to their stories without judgement or pre-judgement. To do so with respect.

Thank you to Emma Curtis who organized the conference and to all who presented and attended and took part. Well worth the tired eyes by the end of Sunday!

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 21st January 2021

Back to school!

This week I started a Masters course at the University of Glasgow. The course is run by the End of Life Studies Group and is a completely online part-time course that will last for about three years.

It’s very exciting to be studying and there are lots of topics in the course that will of huge interest to me. I applied last year with some concern that it’s been about 40 years since I was last at university! But the course is very much aimed at people in work and returning to study. Just the fact that it is an online course is significant. This wasn’t a response to COVID, the course was always designed to be delivered remotely.

Woman using a laptop with an empty screen

And I got a real sense of that yesterday with our first class seminar, held on Zoom. There were people from England, Scotland, Canada and Mexico on the call.

That fact alone makes this really significant to me. Because I’m really looking forward to sharing experience with people from different countries and professional backgrounds. I want to explore how funerals work in other countries. What I can learn as a celebrant from other professionals like death doulas.

Of course, it will be a lot of work. And I still need to conduct funerals and make a living. But I think the rewards will be huge and I look forward to updating this blog with my progress and some of the things I’m learning.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 15 January 2021