Exit stage left…..directing funeral literacy in Fife

I am delighted to see that the University of Glasgow End of Life Studies blog has published my post. I wrote it in collaboration with my friend and celebrant colleague Stella McCulloch (seen above to the right of me, after speaking as a “student friend of Alex”).

The article deals with our experience at the recent SICA staged funeral event at Brewsterwells Crematorium, which we held as part of Demystifying Death Week and which was supported with a grant from Good Life Good Death Good Grief and our colleagues in Agnostic Scotland.

Thank you to Dr Naomi Richards for publishing this and thank you to Good Life Good Death Good Grief for your support!

Michael Hannah, Dundee, June 17 2024

Posting for Pride – Transgender Naming Ceremonies

Rainbow on Broughty Ferry Beach
Rainbow over Broughty Ferry

At a recent SICA event, a CPD session on creative writing, I had a chat about naming ceremonies with Elaine Cormack, one of my celebrant colleagues. Of course typically, we tend to think of baby namings in a celebrant context. But as it’s LGBTQ Pride season we were also thinking about trans people and re-naming.

Because adults sometimes change their names as well. For example, in English speaking countries, women have traditionally adopted the surname of their husband. But perhaps after a divorce a woman may wish to reclaim her original name. In Spanish speaking countries, people usually have two surnames – children inherit the surnames of their father and mother. In the past, the paternal surname always came first but it is possible for an adult to reverse this. Then there are people in the entertainment business who often have “stage names”.

And one of the most important modern examples of people changing their name lies in the transgender community. Here the change in name represents a very profound statement about identity. Taking a new name can feel like a public declaration of that identity – and almost a symbolic death of the old name. Indeed trans people will often talk about “deadnaming”, that is, when people use their old name.

It is in these situations that ceremony and ritual can be helpful in transforming a private moment into a public statement, and in including and involving a person’s friends and chosen family. Elaine and I agreed that celebrants could play a role in helping people to devise a ceremony that felt right for them.

I’d love to chat to trans people who might be thinking of holding a naming ceremony. Or who have held one already and would be happy to share their experience for the benefit of others. Or indeed other celebrants who have conducted these ceremonies – here in Scotland or in other countries. I’m keen to learn more and to share knowledge and experience. Feel free to contact me to chat.

Michael Hannah, Dundee June 2024

DeathWrites Public Symposium, Glasgow

On Friday I went through to Glasgow to attend the DeathWrites Public Symposium in Adelaide Place. The DeathWrites network supports 30 Scotland-based writers from across disciplines and genres to write and publish powerful, accessible work. It’s supported by the University of Glasgow End of Life Studies Group… which is of course where I studied for my masters degree.

So although I’m not part of the network myself, I am very interested in their work. All the more so because my good friend and colleague Andy Jackson is a member of the network. Andy and I work together on the Lonely Funeral project and he read one of the poems on Friday.

It was a great evening – there was a fascinating conversation with Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Andrés N. Ordorica and Marjorie Lotfi all of whom read some of their work. I was particularly draw to Andrés’ work, “queer liminality and questions of belonging” always being matters of great interest to me.

Then many of the other members of the network read pieces. I especially loved the work of Angie Spoto – an unsettling but beautiful fairy tale.

I don’t seem to get out much in the evening these days! So it was a special pleasure to have a day in Glasgow and, coming so soon after the SICA creative writing day, really reinforced the investment I’m trying to make in my own creativity and writing at the moment. And a great chance to meet some friends – Marian Krawczyk, Naomi Richards and Carrie Foulkes from the End of Life Studies group. Andy of course. And my friend and fellow celebrant, Stella McCulloch.

Many thanks to Naomi and everyone who helped organize the evening.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, 9 June 2024

SICA Creative Writing Workshop

Yesterday I was delighted to attend one of the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ professional development sessions – a creative writing workshop. Nine celebrants gathered at the beautiful Subud Centre in Perth for what was a bit of a departure for SICA. Most of our CPD sessions are quite short, focussed on one topic, and held on Zoom. But yesterday we all got together in person and spent the best part of the day writing.

We’d asked Beth McDonough, a former university of Dundee lecturer in creative writing and a published poet, to lead the session, along with SICA member Fiona Beeley. Together they devised a programme designed to help us unlock our creativity – or help the people we work with to unlock theirs. We focussed on funerals in the morning and then after lunch turned to weddings, blessings and other sorts of ceremonies. It was a strictly low tech day – no powerpoint, no slideshows, no fiddling with projectors, no laptops (though I was impressed with Helen Parker’s reMarkable table!).

It was an inspiring day, not least because when we get together we always network, make connections and share ideas. Hopefully this will be the first of many other sessions.

And one bonus for me was chatting to Mirabelle of the Subud Centre itself. She was interested in our work and wondered if we might use their centre not just for training but for actual ceremonies. I think it would make a beautiful setting for all sorts of small intimate gatherings. Memorials, namings, blessings. And I think even a funeral ceremony would be possible if linked to a burial or direct cremation. Always good to have options to suggest to families.

Michael Hannah, 26 May 2024 – contact me here.

Happy Birthday Brewsterwells!

brewsterwells crematorium in fife

Brewsterwells Crematorium is two years old! I’m very pleased to send best wishes to Jake and the team as well as to the owners and directors. I’ve always found it a very good place to work – more relaxed than many crematoriums but always completely professional. The light airy interior and the beautiful setting really help to dispel a lot of the anxiety that people understandably feel when visiting a crematorium. It is situated just a few miles from St Andrews and is really convenient for people across Fife and Dundee.

I worked there most recently when SICA held a staged funeral event as part of its Demystifying Death Week activities. The staff could not have been more helpful and accommodating.

Thanks again and very best wishes – looking forward to the next two years!

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, May 2024

Demystifying Death Week – SICA staged funerals

 The initiative Good Life Good Death Good Grief organizes a week of activities each May to raise awareness of issues around end of life, death and funerals. It coincides with Dying Matters Week in England and Wales.

This year SICA (Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association) ran two events – one of which was a set of two staged funerals at Brewsterwells Crematorium in Fife. I wrote a bit more about why we wanted to do this in another blog post.

Today I just wanted to thank everyone who was involved – it was a great success and we really enjoyed doing it and meeting everyone. Thanks especially due to Jake at Brewsterwells and everyone at  William Purves Funeral Directors in particular, Drew who gave up his Sunday! Sarah for BSL signing and coping with last minute changes to scripts. Kaylie at Oor Fleurs for creating some memorable and appropriate floral tributes – and Agnostic Scotland for their support.

I also wanted to say a personal thanks to everyone who came along to support us on the day, to those of you who spoke as “friends and family” and those of you who played the equally important role of “mourner” (especially Cooper who I asked – at very short notice! – to place a little flag on the coffin). It all felt so authentic even with the cameras running. It was also an opportunity for celebrants, doulas, soul midwives, and others connected with end of life and funerals to get together and network.

Now we’ll work with Jenn Knox of PhotoJenniK Photography and Lee Phillips of six4 productions to create a portfolio of images for SICA and its members to use. I’m looking forward to the results.

And a final thank you to the star – Millie the dog!

Michael Hannah, Dundee 13 May 2024

Demystifying Death Week – A Place for Keening Today?

As part of the Good Life Good Death Good Grief death literacy initiative, I attended an evening talk on the tradition of keening. This workshop was organized by my friends and colleagues in Pushing up the Daisies, and was led by singer and storyteller Madge Bray.

Keening (or caoineadh) is a form of ritual lament practised in the Gaelic speaking lands of Ireland and Scotland. It played a key role in wakes and funeral practices. Madge described it in terms of “holding a process of release of suffering”. It certainly was a very powerful expression of grief at both a personal and community level and was predominantly the work of women. Perhaps not surprisingly it did not find favour with the churches and was banned in Scotland as ungodly…. Yet it survived in isolated places and perhaps more importantly, the very sounds and emotional energy seem to have lived on in the music of the bagpipes, in the pibroch of laments.

Madge sang an example of a pibroch chant or canntaireachd that she has given voice to. She chose one written in the aftermath of the Battle of the Park. This took place near Strathpeffer in the late 15th century with much loss of life. Even after all this time and even across the medium of zoom, it was an incredibly powerful moment to hear her sing unaccompanied in this ancient way.

The theme of the evening was “a place for keening today?” and it made me wonder about the relevance of these traditions for celebrants today. I’m very interested in the power of words in a funeral, the power of storytelling. And I wonder if we pay enough attention, not just to the meaning, but to the sound of our words and how we deliver them. And of course music plays such an important part in funerals today. Even an old favourite like “My Way” can acquire a startling power in the right context.

I certainly came away with much to think about. Thank you to Pushing up the Daisies for this inspiring talk.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, May 2024

Demystifying Death Week – SICA activities

Scottish Independent Celebrants' Association (SICA) logo

Each year in May, the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care organizes a week of events designed to raise awareness of end of life issues, funerals etc. The partnership runs this via its initiative Good Life Good Death Good Grief.

This year, the Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association (SICA) has planned two events or activities for this Demystifying Death Week. The first is a sort of poetry exchange. We will ask our members for poems and readings for funerals that are perhaps a little different from the usual. Perhaps something that the celebrant has written themselves. Or something they have found that just captures someone’s life or character. Perhaps something that a family member has written.

It might even be something that doesn’t seem like a funeral type of reading at all…. imagine reading from a car maintenance manual for someone who had loved nothing better than tinkering with engines! We hope to collate all the results and make them available to members and perhaps more widely.

The other event is a staged funeral (two actually) at Brewsterwells Crematorium in Fife. We wanted to have some good images of funerals. Of course, unlike weddings, it is rarely appropriate to take photos at funerals. So we’ll be staging these “mock” funerals with our members and guests as “mourners”. A professional photographer, Jenn Knox of PhotoJenniK Photography will create a portfolio of images for SICA and our members to use. Jenn’s work shows incredible sensitivity to the many issues that images of death and grieving present.

But we also wanted this event to be a way to raise death literacy – demystify death. So we are making a video of the funerals. Our videographer, Lee Phillips of six4 productions, also has a keen understanding of what we need. SICA hopes that the resulting video clips will provide a really valuable tool to explain what happens in a funeral… and what possibilities exist. Something we can use over and over and that creates a template for future events. Brewsterwells is a crematorium but we might repeat this in a natural burial ground or a completely different venue.

Thanks are due to Brewsterwells and its team. Also to William Purves Funeral Directors, Good Life Good Death Good Grief and Agnostic Scotland for their support. And we are grateful to Sarah Lawson for BSL signing and helping to underline the importance of accessibility at funerals. Finally – thanks for beautiful flowers from Oor Fleurs!

This event will not be open to the general public but if you are interested to know more please don’t hesitate to contact me, Michael Hannah, on 07712 892479.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, May 2024

The Coffin Roads

Book cover of The Coffin Roads - Journeys to the West by Ian Bradley

I wanted to say thanks to Pushing up the Daisies for organizing a fascinating, informative talk yesterday. The speaker was Ian Bradley, Emeritus Professor at the University of St Andrews. Ian’s theme was his book Coffin Roads – Journeys to the West in which he discusses these ancient tracks along which people carried their dead to burial. Such roads are found in many places, but Ian’s special interest is the network in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. In examining the roads and the customs and traditions related to them, he explores Hebridean and West Highland attitudes to death and dying.

Many of the customs may seem to belong to a forgotten and lost past. But what strikes me about Ian’s work is how some of the traditions such as the three-day wake, the death croon and the keening seem to find correspondences in our modern funeral rituals. Perhaps it’s fanciful but I think of our modern emphasis on music at funerals. I think of the family visit we make as celebrants before a funeral, and how that affords people an opportunity to speak about their loved ones and recall memories. I think about the emphasis we place on telling someone’s story. Maybe we are recreating in modern terms some of the things that gave meaning to funerals, and to death itself, in the past.

Such a stimulating and fascinating book and such a great talk. Thanks again to Ian and to Pushing up the Daisies for making it happen.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 28 February 2024

Michael Hannah MSc (Glasgow)

Back in 2020 I enrolled on a masters degree at the University of Glasgow. I’d wanted to return to study when I turned 60, and I discovered that Glasgow was offering a new qualification in End of Life Studies that seemed perfectly to complement my professional practice as a funeral celebrant. Not only that, the course is entirely taught online and can be done as a part-time degree. So it was both relevant to my work and accessible, based as I am in Dundee and with my own celebrancy career and family caring responsibilities.

Now three years later, I have finished the course and in July will celebrate my graduation. It’s been a long haul and not always easy. It’s a demanding course and juggling all those demands proved hard at times. But always stimulating and fascinating. Taught modules included:

  • Study of the history of ideas around death and dying
  • Palliative care and compassionate communities
  • Assisted dying (very relevant at the moment in Scotland with possible legislation moving through Parliament)
  • Cultural representations of death
  • End of life issues seen from a global perspective

I found myself studying things as diverse as the development of compassionate communities in Inverclyde and Kerala; the portrayal of illness and death in the soap opera, Coronation Street; euthanasia in Colombia; global disparities in the availability of the most basic opioid drugs to relieve pain. And finally, I was able to conduct research into my own profession by completing a year-long dissertation exploring the shift in how funerals in Scotland have been conducted over the last twenty years.

The learning experience has been greatly enriched by working with an amazing group of fellow students. The online nature of the course means that people from all over the world can participate – there are students from Canada, the US, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Asia…. and we have made connections and firm friendships that will last long after the excitement of graduation subsides.

But that excitement is still to come! Our course is based at Glasgow University’s campus in Dumfries and that will be where the main Graduation in July takes place. I wanted to do something in Glasgow itself though and so we are organizing a private celebration on the main university campus in the West End. It will be led by my friend, fellow celebrant and SICA member, Gillian Robertson who carries out these private celebrations of graduation and academic achievement.

Lastly, I’d like to thank my course tutors and supervisor Drs Naomi Richards and Marian Krawczyk for all their support and guidance over these past three years. And for those of you who might be interested…..I am attaching below a summary of my dissertation. All in all it has been a fantastic opportunity and a reminder that it’s never too late in life to start new endeavours.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, February 2024

Always carry a towel in the car…..

On Tuesday 2nd of January 2024 I set off to conduct a family visit. This is the meeting that a celebrant has with a bereaved family to plan the funeral and it’s usually a central part of the process of arranging the ceremony. Of course, you try to be fully prepared. You take note pads and pens. You perhaps carry books of poetry. I always dress smartly, in this case with suit and tie and polished black shoes. And, of course, I plan the route to arrive in plenty of time and to allow for mishaps on the way.

This particular visit was to a town in Fife and I judged it might take 40-50 minutes from my home in Dundee. I set off in good time and wasn’t too concerned when I missed a turn-off just outside Cupar. Google suggested an alternative route with only a slightly later arrival. But here’s the difference between trusting Google and checking on a proper map… the alternative took me along some very small country roads. The weather had been terrible with torrential and persistent rain. There were dense patches of fog. And suddenly I came across a flooded dip in the road.

It’s easy to look back and think how ill-advised it was to press on. Surely I should have seen how deep it might be. But press on I did, completely misjudging the water’s depth. All sorts of exotic warning lights flashed on the dash. I tried to back out but only managed to move myself into a ditch. And with a sort of resigned spluttering, the car’s power quietly died.

I’d like to think that I calmly assessed the situation and proceeded logically to take action – but there was a definite moment of panic. A moment heightened by the realization that water was entering the car. But I did regain some poise and called the family. Then I called the roadside assistance who arrived remarkably quickly (thank you Honda!). Unfortunately, it turns out that they were not able to move my car until the waters subsided. But yes, the very friendly and helpful man from the AA agreed to give me a lift. All that I had to do was to…. wade over to his van.

At this point it is worth mentioning some other things that the well prepared celebrant should carry in the car at all times. One (or preferably several) carrier bags in which to place polished black shoes and socks in the event of a flood. And a towel.

I did in fact make it to my family, albeit rather late, and I did manage to have a good conversation, even if my note-taking was hampered by very shaky hands. And I have to mention the several local people who offered to help (including a farmer who has kept me updated with the extent of the flood) – thank you to them all. And thank you to West End Garage – the Honda dealers in Broughty Ferry – who were so helpful and supportive. The benefits of buying a car from a local and family-run business.

So now I will always favour caution when encountering flooded roads. And I will always remember to carry a towel in the car.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, February 2024

Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association – new Chair

At the last AGM of SICA (Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association) I was elected as the new Chair. It’s a great honour and I wanted to thank the members of our association for placing their trust in me. I’ve been a committee member for a couple of years now and this year my main job was to help manage the rebuild of our website (celebrants.scot) so I have come to know a lot about how we work. I’ve also met and got to know a lot of our members. I hope that I can work in this new role to continue to raise the profile of SICA and to work on behalf of our members.

As independent celebrants there is no legal necessity to join a professional body like SICA. However, I have found that the opportunities to network and build contacts has been invaluable. I’ve also had the peace of mind of knowing that I am fully insured at a decent price – something that is very important for self-employed professionals. And I’ve benefitted from continuing professional development sessions and our peer-support. As Chair I want to help us continue and build on this work.

If you’re a celebrant working in Scotland (conducting funerals, weddings or other rites of passage) and you would like to know more about SICA and its work, don’t hesitate to contact us via the SICA website or contact me directly.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, November 2023