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

Online ceremonies – first of the year

macbook with candle

Last year I did a lot of work on how to conduct a funeral or memorial ceremony – a celebration of life – on Zoom. At the time I was surprised at just how dignified and moving such an occasion could be. We normally think of Zoom as being for work related meetings or just chatting with friends, but these online platforms are very flexible and over the months of lockdown, people have been incredibly creative in how they use them.

But the threat that funerals might be stopped altogether never materialized in Scotland. Numbers were reduced but attended ceremonies did continue. So the Zoom alternative didn’t take off here.

Work never goes to waste though. Late in December I got a call from a colleague, Carrie Thomas, a Humanist celebrant working in London and the south east. Carrie had been asked to conduct a Zoom celebration of life. This had been prompted by the spread of the new COVID variation and the risks to mourners of gatherings and travel.

The two of us had chatted a lot about this and we’d always felt that it really needs two people to run a successful web ceremony – one to speak, to be the actual celebrant conducting the event. And one to be in the background guiding the technical side of things. So I agreed to be technical support in this case.

Over the last year I have become quite used to hosting Zoom calls. I regularly host them for informal discussions by local celebrants. I often use Zoom to “meet” the families I work with. I catch up with friends on Zoom.

But it’s very nerve-wracking to do it for something as meaningful and important as a funeral. There are so many things that can go wrong – so many factors outwith our control. Thankfully it went as well as we could have expected.

And putting this service together reminded us of some of the flexibility that the use of Zoom affords us: the chance to use treasured photographs and slideshows creatively, the opportunity for contributors to record their words in advance, the option for an online “wake” after the main ceremony.

And of course the central fact of being able to bring people together from all parts of the world. I was in Dundee, Carrie in London, the funeral director, Jo Williamson of Albany Funerals, in Kent and attendees from all over England and far beyond. There were none of the restrictions on numbers that we would have faced in a crematorium and we had complete flexibility on timing thereby allowing family members from Australia to be present with us.

Thank you Jo for having faith that we could put together something fitting for this lady and her family, and thank you Carrie for asking me to help you carry it out.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 11 January 2021

Welcoming 2021

Just a very short blog to say Happy New Year to everyone. In particular my fellow celebrants and the funeral directors I work with.

I am looking forward to starting this year – with a few new projects on the go. Most importantly I am starting a Masters degree in End of Life Studies at the University of Glasgow. My first day will be Monday 11th January. It’s going to be a lot of work combining it with my funeral celebrant work but I know that it will be incredibly stimulating and rewarding.

Meanwhile, the restrictions that have become almost second nature to us continue. Back in April last year I did a huge amount of work to see if it would be possible to conduct online funeral ceremonies. They didn’t take off then as we never were forced to stop attended funerals altogether. But this week I am collaborating with a London-based celebrant on a Zoom funeral. It will be really interesting to see how it goes. There are big disadvantages in doing this this way…. but also some real positives so I will try my best to make it work well and look forward to evaluating it.

Of course, 2020 was extremely difficult for everyone. Yesterday I took some time to go through my notes on all the funerals I conducted throughout the year. Just to remember all those services. And today I wanted to take this opportunity to send my kindest regards to all those families and friends I worked with to try and ensure that their loved ones received the best and most fitting funeral possible, even under restricted circumstances. I hope that you have managed to find some peace and comfort over this holiday period and I wish you all well for this new year.

Michael Hannah, Dundee January 2021

SICA Christmas Service

The very first SICA (Scottish Independent Celebrants’ Association) Christmas Service will be broadcast on their Facebook Page on Monday 21st December (Winter Solstice) at 7pm, and available on the page after that too.  

A group of celebrants from right across Scotland have put together contributions for the service, and there will be words, music, reflections, prayers and blessings that SICA hope s will bring cheer, comfort and peace to everyone as we approach a Christmas that is going to be different for us all. 

 Here is the FaceBook link:

Pushing up the Daisies

I’m very interested in natural funerals, green or eco funerals, home funerals, and I’ve been a member of the Natural Death Centre for several months. They are a source of information on all aspects of natural and “DIY” funerals from finding a woodland burial ground to sourcing environmentally friendly coffins. And it was through them that I first heard about Pushing up the Daisies.

pushing up the daisies logo

The aim of this group is to provide information and support to those who want to consider how the time immediately after death can encourage well-being. They are especially open to supporting anyone who instinctively wants to keep the body of their loved one at home (or bring them back home) after their death.

When my sister died about ten years ago, our first thought was to call a funeral director but when we realized that they would take her body away immediately, we decided to wait till the following day. Although she had died in her own home, the last few weeks had been so hectic and filled with medical “intervention” that it just felt right for her to have a last night of peace in her own bed.

As a celebrant I know that the work we do with families both at a funeral and in the preparation for it can be really valuable. I also think it’s important for celebrants to be open to new (and sometimes old!) ways of working with ritual and ceremony.

So I’m please to have joined the group and look forward to taking part in future events.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, December 2020

Paisley funeral – a day of journeys

Usually when I am asked to conduct a funeral, the family has already selected a funeral director. Sometimes, if they already know of me, they will ask the funeral director to contact me. More often the funeral director will suggest me to the family.

But a recent job came by quite a different route. A celebrant friend of mine from England contacted me to say that someone she knew in Paisley needed some help and advice. Her friend’s husband was sadly very close to the end of his life. Paisley is quite a long way from Dundee but I said that I would be prepared to help if I could.

And so I had a chat with the family following the gentleman’s death. It was immediately clear that this was a very spiritual family. I felt they would want a very particular style of funeral. The daughters spoke to me about Celtic traditions – the fact that their father had died in the season of Samhain was significant to them. They also wanted a natural burial and were hoping that they could have a funeral at the woodland burial ground in Lochwinnoch. The gentleman had always loved trees and the natural world.

At that stage they had not engaged a funeral director and I could see that they would probably want an independent. So I called James Carcary , the Scottish president of SAIF (National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors). He immediately suggested Kenneth Keegan Funeral Directors. I passed this on to the family , they spoke to them and decided that was the firm they wanted to handle arrangements. So sometimes it is the celebrant who makes the recommendation of undertaker and not vice versa.

With November weather very unsettled, the family decided to hold the main part of their celebration of life and eulogy in the chapel of Woodside Crematorium. This is a very fine space, filled with light from its many windows. It also allowed the service to be streamed to many relatives and friends across the world.

Following that, we drove in cortège to Lochwinnoch, some ten miles away. The woodland burial ground is a magical and beautiful spot and we held a final and very moving ceremony not far from the River Calder, which we could hear in full spate.

For me a day of journeys. I don’t know how often I could work so far from Dundee but it was an immensely rewarding experience and one I would definitely repeat.

Michael Hannah, 19 November 2020

Meeting Liam Eaton, Piper

Just a few weeks ago I conducted an interment of ashes ceremony at Dundee Crematorium. The family had requested a piper and we contacted Liam Eaton who often plays at funerals in Dundee.  His playing was a very atmospheric addition to the ceremony. 

Liam Eaton Piper

So I decided to ask Liam if he would agree to a short interview for the blog. We met the other day for a coffee and I started by asking where he was from and when he’d started on the bagpipes. 

“I’m originally from Raasay,” he explained “and music was important from a very early age. I was just four years old when I began playing the guitar and started on the pipes at nine.” 

He went on to tell me that he started busking in Inverness when he was 13. Very nerve wracking at first but busking soon led to a huge rise in his confidence. It also leads to new openings – at some point someone will always ask “Do you do weddings?” And so starts a new career – weddings, Burns suppers, and funerals. I wondered which of those presents the most challenge. “Definitely the funerals. People are usually in such high spirits at weddings and suppers that they can easily overlook a minor mistake. But a funeral is an emotionally charged moment. Everything has to be just right because an error can really distress people.” 

“And it’s very important not just to play in a professional way but to speak to families professionally. To be able to read people.” That’s certainly something I can agree with as a celebrant. 

So how did Liam end up in Dundee? Well, it seems that music isn’t his only passion. He moved here to study forensic science at Dundee University’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID). Although no longer a student, that’s the field that Liam still intends making his career in – but in the meantime the music goes on. 

I asked whether Liam saw any differences in funeral services here. “Definitely. In the north, services tend still to be quite religious and sombre while here there’s room for elements of comedy in the services. And the music can also vary a lot. Obviously there are still the staples of funeral pipe music but one of my first new challenges was being asked to adapt Susan Boyle’s Wild Horses for the pipes. Pretty much anything can be arranged.” “Even AC/DC?” “Yes! Even AC/DC!!” 

Heavy metal aside, what sorts of music would Liam like to bring to funerals and other ceremonies apart from the standard favourites? “There’s a huge repertoire of traditional music that is really suitable for a dignified service: pibrochs, laments. It’s always great to discuss different possibilities with funeral directors and families.” 

Thank you Liam for speaking to me and all the best with your musical and scientific careers! 

Contact details 
Liam Eaton 
07751 201007
Facebook: Liam Eaton Music
Youtube: Liam Eaton Music
Instagram: @liameatonmusic