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

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: thelonelyfuneral.wordpress.com.

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: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-lonely-funeral-tickets-458215142827

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
info@murrayshall.co.uk

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.