History of the Scottish Funeral

A public talk by Eddie Small of the University of Dundee
Thursday 12 March 2020
18:00 – 20:00
Dalhousie Building, Old Hawkhill, Dundee DD1 5EN

The history of the Scottish funeral is like no other. Prepare to be surprised as Eddie Small guides us round the key events and persons.

The funeral world is changing fast with people seeking more personalized ceremonies for their loved ones and even planning ahead for their own funeral. 

But how did we do things in the past? To give us some answers, Eddie Small presents his acclaimed talk on the history of the Scottish Funeral followed by questions and discussion.

Entry is by ticket only …. but they are free! To obtain your ticket, click here.

If you’re interested in the talk but can’t make it on that date, contact me directly because we may organize future events, possibly in Perth and St Andrews.

Eddie Small, University of Dundee


Eddie Small is an author and historian, and a tutor at the University of Dundee. He has presented this talk on the Scottish Funeral to cross-party groups of MSPs at Holyrood, and to a sell-out audience at the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as at many other places across Scotland. His book, In Memoriam, on body donation, won the Stephen Fry award and prompted a sell-out conference at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Michael Hannah, Feb 2020

The writing group

On Sunday I went through to my writing group in Glasgow. I haven’t been for a long time so it was great to see everyone and we did a lot of catching up. Larry Butler, one of the group facilitators told us about this year’s retreat at Myres Castle. And Jo Davidson prepared some seasonal writing prompts for us – Chinese Lunar New Year, Burns Night and Celtic imbolc all happening about now, so lots of ideas about winter and the promise of spring and rebirth.

Writing a eulogy is now central to what I do as a funeral celebrant. So any work that helps the words to flow is valuable to me. And it’s great therapy to get some of life’s frustrations safely out on the page.

And while I’m thinking about writing I want to congratulate my good friend Sam Jenks for two short stories recently published in the magazines Litro and Fruit.

Michael Hannah, January 2020

Goodbye 2019

This has been a pretty eventful year for me. In January I attended a writers’ retreat at Myres Castle. It was the perfect way to start the year. A chance to review things and think about my plans to become a funeral celebrant. A chance to get away from the usual day-to-day pressures and routines of life. And, of course, a chance to meet some lovely people and spend my days writing.

At the end of February I left the University of Dundee. It was an emotional farewell but I was glad to be moving on even if I knew I would miss working alongside so many wonderful and talented people.

I officially launched my new career in March and became a professional civil funeral celebrant. It’s a scary thing to launch a new business but also exhilarating. My first month was spent turning the ideas I had about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it into concrete plans and leaflets and a website.

Which is all very well, but in April I actually conducted my first ceremony. As with every funeral, it was an enormous privilege to act as celebrant. It was also hugely nerve-wracking.

But it seemed to go well and it was a massive boost to my confidence to be able to say that I had completed my first job. Of course, what has followed has been a series of other “firsts” – first funeral outwith Dundee, first with a funeral director other than the Co-op, first graveside ceremony… And it’s worth emphasizing that every single job is unique – presents its own challenges.

I couldn’t be sure, when I started on this new path, whether it would be successful or not. And I’m still finding it hard to make connections with funeral directors. But as 2019 comes to a close I know I made the right decision and I’m looking forward to 2020 with confidence and anticipation.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 30th December 2019

The Silent Teachers

In 2018 the University of Dundee celebrated the 130-year anniversary of the Cox Chair of Anatomy. I recently attended the launch of a book written to commemorate this significant milestone.

Entitled “To Bodies Gone”, the book by Edward Small (creative writing teacher at the university and a good friend of mine) charts the ups and downs of the anatomy department in Dundee. There was a time when it seemed that anatomy might disappear as a subject in its own right. But the reorganization that pushed Life Sciences to prominence in Dundee gave anatomy a lifeline. And that was compounded by the arrival of Sue Black.

Sue came with a background in forensic human identification. She also brought boundless energy and a huge talent for problem solving and team building. And so she took the department in a new direction. Today it is called CAHID – the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. CAHID has established an enviable international reputation for research and teaching.

One of the innovations that Professor Black championed was the use of a new technique called Thiel embalming. The donation of bodies by selfless individuals has been the bedrock of teaching anatomy throughout the 130 years of the subject at Dundee. And CAHID continues to believe in the vital role of these “silent teachers”. There has been no attempt to replace actual dissection with more “screen-based” instruction.

But the Thiel process results in far greater flexibility of the embalmed body than older techniques could provide. In turn, that improves the experience for students. And significantly, it also leads to new opportunities for research.

I have a special interest in this because my father is one of those “silent teachers”. Two years after his death, he is still helping medical teaching and medical research. We are all proud of that legacy.

For more information about body donation, contact the University of Dundee.

Last of the Urquharts

Recently I wrote about my experience of dealing with the funeral of my father’s cousin down south. Betty lived for many years in Farnborough, latterly in a care home. Her funeral took place in Aldershot Crematorium.

But she was a Falkirk bairn and had requested that her ashes be brought back to Scotland and buried in the Urquhart family plot in Camelon Cemetery.

I held power of attorney for Betty in her later years and among all her papers I found the original receipt for purchase of the lair. Betty’s father, George Urquhart bought the lease back in 1920 for the sum of three pounds and three shillings!

So I had no trouble in requesting an interment of ashes from Falkirk Bereavement Services. They just needed that proof of ownership and a cremation certificate.

On the day, I set off from Dundee with my mother. We’re both from Falkirk ourselves so it always feels like returning when we go there. And especially as we drove down Heugh Street where Betty was born and brought up.

It was very cold that day – quite frosty – but crisp and sunny. There were a few other relatives in attendance and we just held a short ceremony by the grave. But it was very beautiful in the cemetery with all the fine wintry trees. And moving to know that George had bought that plot exactly ninety-nine years ago to the day for his family.

Afterwards we all went for a lunch in a restaurant on the site of the old Rosebank distillery – a place that held a lot of significance for our family. It was a solemn and strangely peaceful day.

Betty was the last of her branch of the Urquhart family. And so our little ceremony on that winter’s day in Falkirk drew the story of their lives to a quiet and dignified close.

HMS Unicorn

Another historic venue with very personal significance to me

Almost exactly two years ago, I conducted a memorial service for my father. This was before I started working professionally as a celebrant – before I even trained.

But dad had donated his body to medical research. That means no funeral. (Even now, two years later, the university is still using his body for research – something that he would have been very proud of.)

HMS Unicorn, Dundee

That’s difficult for the family though. We all need rituals, closure. And so we organized a memorial service in place of a funeral. Dad had been a seafarer all his working life and had worked briefly for Dundee Harbour. So a “naval” venue seemed appropriate. Since we’d already held a 70th birthday party for him onboard HMS Unicorn, that was the obvious place to celebrate and honour his life.

The frigate Unicorn was launched in 1824, making it one of the oldest ships still afloat anywhere in the world. Today it is both a fascinating museum and an incredibly atmospheric venue for all sorts of events.

Of course, being such a historic ship does mean that some things are a little more tricky…. access can be a problem. But at dad’s memorial, even with a large contingent of elderly sailors, we experienced no problems at all.

If you would like to know how we organized and conducted the service, don’t hesitate to contact me. Or speak to the Unicorn directly:

Lucy Richardson, Events Officer, HMS Unicorn 01382 200900 lucy@hmsunicorn.org.uk.

To Absent Friends 1-7 November 2019

The 2019 To Absent Friends festival was launched on 31 October at the University of Dundee. As part of the festival (organized by good life, good death, good grief) I highlighted a poem and a story in memory of my sister Katie and my father.

lily garden to absent friends
Lily garden for To Absent Friends Festival, University of Dundee

The festival is now over – I didn’t take part in any other events this year but maybe next year hope to be more active. Leave me a message if you’d like to help organize something in Dundee or nearby next November.

Meeting Neil Dorward, Pioneer Civil Celebrant

It’s about a year since I trained as a celebrant. So I thought it would be good to catch up with Neil and Annie who ran the course.

I’ve been working professionally as a celebrant for eight months. Meanwhile, Neil and Annie are now married – so a busy year for us all!

We got together for a coffee while Neil and Annie were in Dundee visiting family. Neil was one of the first people in Scotland to practise as a civil celebrant. Not religious, not humanist, but able to incorporate whatever elements a family might request. So, as something of a pioneer, he has watched the movement develop and grow.

I asked him what changes he had observed over this time.

Firstly, he sees more attention being placed on families and their needs. The family can be more involved in planning the funeral service.

And this is a profession in its own right. Unlike a priest or a minister who will have many duties to perform, celebrants can usually spend more time with families and more time writing and preparing their eulogies and services. Because that’s what we do.

Celebrants are trained not just to listen, but to practise “active listening”, specifically in the context of a bereaved and grieving family gathering.

What’s more, Neil feels that standards of delivery, enunciation, “performance” have risen. And all of this means better funerals, which is not just better for the grieving family but for the wider society.

People are maybe reacting to the rather clinical and inevitably hurried service so common in crematoriums and looking for something a bit more personal that still reflects the solemnity of the moment. (We talked about the fascinating Grayson Perry TV series on Rites of Passage.)

And the future? Well, Neil and Annie believe that these trends will only continue and opportunities for celebrants will grow. Interesting times for the development of the Scottish funeral!

Many thanks to Annie and Neil for your time and all your support over the last year!

Myres Castle

First in an occasional series of profiles of interesting alternative venues for funerals and memorials in the Dundee and Fife areas

Myres Castle Auchtermuchty
Myres Castle, Auchtermuchty

I first encountered Myres Castle in January 2019 when I attended a writers’ retreat there. It felt like an incredible privilege to spend time in such beautiful surrounding.

At that point, I was still planning the launch of my career as an independent funeral celebrant. So inevitably, that came up in conversation. And, since one of my interests is holding services in different sorts of places, I did wonder if Myres Castle might be interested in hosting memorial services.

In fact, the castle already is a highly successful wedding venue. And they also host writers’ and yoga classes and retreats.

So I drove over to Auchtermuchty last week to chat to owners, Amanda and Henry Barge. This was the third time I’d visited – the first was the retreat in the dead of winter. Then I came for coffee in spring when the carpets of daffodils are legendary. And now I was there on a golden October morning.

It’s very clear that weddings are the main business of the castle and the Barges have established an enviable reputation. But, of course, weddings are mainly held in spring or summer and almost always at weekends.

So Amanda and Henry would be very open to chatting about the possibility of hosting memorial services or funerals. And it really is a wonderful location. The castle itself with its history and sense of tradition, the beautiful gardens and grounds, and the more modern Applestore and Barnquee where currently the ceremonies take place – a perfect blend of solemnity and informality.

If you would like to know more, contact me or contact Myres Castle directly:

Myres Castle, Auchtermuchty, Fife, Scotland KY14 7EW
Phone: +44 (0) 1337 828350 Email: enquiries@myrescastle.co.uk

Creating a place of reverence

Just a golf club and a table tennis racket placed at the foot of a coffin.

Let’s be honest, crematoriums are not attractive places. Sometimes corporate, sometimes municipal – and usually, in a clumsy way, trying to be a “chapel”. (There are honourable exceptions, Friockheim.)

Buddha and candle

And, the pressure of schedules is always there, squeezing the ceremony into a twenty-minute straitjacket.

But it is possible to bring reverence into the proceeding. A well crafted eulogy, a sense of dignified ceremony. And sometimes a few touches can help transform the space. Like a naval flag, British Legion standard bearers and a bugler. Or a brass Buddha and three tea light candles. Roses placed on the coffin.

And today it was a golf club and a racket placed at the foot of the coffin.