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 

Creating Rituals for Healing & Change

I completed some more CPD training in the form of a workshop last week. The session was led by William Ayot, poet, ritualist and teacher.

There was a lot of discussion about different types of rituals – rituals of growth (such as rites of passage), of continuity (nature based rituals such as samhain) and rituals of alignment (such as atonement, separation). In particular I found some of the distinctions between the use of the words ritual, ceremony and ceremonial very useful. William described “ceremonial” as ritual or ceremony that has become empty, lost energy. I certainly recognize that sometimes that can happen in funerals -there is a sense of just going through the motions. Something that I work hard to avoid.

And lots of practical advice on preparation and on the different stages of ritual.

I was particularly struck by some of the “public health warnings” that William gave. The need to respect a duty of care not just to the people you perform a ritual for but also to yourself. The need to retain a “peripheral vision” so that even in the midst of a moving ceremony, you can keep an eye on the practicalities – like a candle burning down.

Perhaps most important in the context of my work, the need to “get out of the way”. There’s a tendency as a celebrant to be the showman, the performer and to forget that a funeral is NOT ABOUT YOU.

Really useful and productive webinar – thanks to William Ayot and to the organizers.

Michael Hannah, 27th October 2020

Diversity Conference for Celebrants

As part of my continuing professional development (CPD), I’m attending an online conference run by Ceremony Matters.

Originally the conference, whose theme is diversity, was scheduled to be held in a hotel down south but had to be “relocated” online. To prevent zoom fatigue, it is now being held over three weekends: this one coming, then one in January and finally one in April next year.

The first weekend is entitled “Non-binary thinking: Understanding LGBTQIA+ Identity” and will have sessions on “Non-binary thinking”, “Being transgender”, “Disenfranchised loss & faith”, “Creating meaningful funerals for LGBTQIA+ people”.

I’m looking forward very much to it. Although I’m an “old gay activist” myself and have thought about and discussed many of these issues of identity for a long time, I’m aware that the world has changed and as a celebrant I need to keep up. I’m also looking forward to catching up with the people I know in the Ceremony Matters community and to making some new friends.

The second and third conferences will be about “Racial Equity” and “Mental Health and Disability” respectively. I’m sure that there are places still available if anyone is interested in participating.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 8 October 2020

Meetings with Funeral Directors – Graham Millar of Millar Family Funeral Directors

For my interview this week I stayed in Dundee and visited the Millar Family Funeral Directors in their modern and welcoming premises just off the Clepington Road. Husband and wife team, Suzanne and Graham have been in business as an independent family firm for almost two years.

But their experience in the funeral world goes back a lot longer than that. I chatted to Graham in their comfortable family room and he explained that he had some 37 years in the business. “As a young man I was working in garage when I saw an advert for a job as a trainee funeral director with a local firm. Maybe it was because my grandfather had been an undertaker but I just realized it was something I wanted to do.”

Graham’s career sounds like a roll call of Dundee funeral directors: Ashtons, Samsons, Dignity, the Co-op. And between them, Suzanne and he have over 50 years of working together as a team. But what was it that spurred them into starting up on their own?

“Having our own business means we can do things our way. We can personalize a funeral according to the family’s wishes and needs. We can be flexible. We want each funeral to be about the families themselves and we always try to accommodate their wishes.”

Of course many independent funeral directors say the same – that they’re able to tailor the ceremony to the family’s needs. But I put it to Graham that their long experience must help inform the advice and support they give: “Yes, every funeral is different and over the years we’ve seen everything! That does mean we’re able to advise on what works and what might not. But we always try to be flexible and we’re also committed to keeping costs down.”

Being a smaller family firm obviously helps them to deliver a very personal service but I wondered if it might restrict the Millars when it comes to larger or more complicated ceremonies. Do they have the capacity to compete with the big companies? “Absolutely!” replied Graham, “Again, it comes back to the experience we hold. And as for resources we are always able to access whatever we need. That comes partly from the really strong bonds we have built up with other independents in the area. So we can handle sensitively anything from a very small funeral with just a couple of people present right up to a really big ceremony, perhaps for a local celebrity, that attracts lots of folk, media, and requires live music, video etc. We have a very ‘can do’ approach to our work.”

That led me to my usual discussion about natural and green funerals. Would they be open, say, to using a coffin that a family had sourced themselves? Or let a family decorate a coffin? “Yes, definitely”. But I think this is where they bring a quiet wisdom to the process, something that stems from those many years of experience. Because there are many things to consider: what kinds of paints would be safe to use in decorating a coffin, for example.

And home vigils? Well, it’s just not something that people ask for much these days and modern houses are not always suitable. But I got the feeling that Millars would always try to make it work for the family – “we’d find a way” is very much a theme of this chat.

Flexibility is a theme – and so is team work. The Millars are a team in every way and it’s clear that Graham takes pride in knowing that when a family call up to ask anything about a funeral, it doesn’t matter who they speak to, they get the right answers promptly.

So what does the future hold for the business? Growth definitely. Plus a willingness to adapt to an ever changing environment. But not at the expense of those core values, and nothing sums those up better than their own tagline “Our family caring for yours”.

Many thanks to you Graham, for your time and best wishes for the future.

Millar Family Funeral Directors Ltd
12 Graham Street, Dundee DD4 9AH
01382 827000

Michael Hannah, Dundee 2 October 2020

Eddie Small

Portrait of Eddie Small

Some sad news this week. I heard that my good friend and mentor, Eddie Small, had died.

We first met in about 2009, not long after I moved back to Scotland. We did keep in touch but it was only after I started working for the University of Dundee where Eddie was a much loved lecturer that we we began to meet more regularly. We’d often have coffee together, usually in the Level 10 Café overlooking Dundee. Conversation with Eddie was always stimulating and inspiring – he was someone with a genuine interest in whatever the person he was talking to was up to.

And in turn I was always fascinated to learn about the projects he was involved with. And delighted and honoured when he asked me to take a small role in a production of his play “The Four Marys”!

I knew, of course, that he worked extensively with Professor Sue Black and the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID). So when my father was thinking about donating his body to medical research, I chatted about it with Eddie and was able to give dad lots of useful information to help him make a decision. And when dad died, I turned to Eddie to help with a eulogy and readings.

That experience was a key factor in my deciding to train as a celebrant two years ago. And throughout the process, Eddie was a constant source of support and advice.

Of course Eddie had a special research interest in the culture of death and he regularly gave a talk on The History of the Scottish Funeral. In fact, I asked him to deliver it this year. It was held just before lockdown and I often thought in the following months how interesting it would be to invite Eddie to give a reprise and to explore some of the profound changes that have happened since that evening in March. We talked only a few weeks ago about doing just that. Sadly not to be.

Eddie was a man of enormous charm and boundless enthusiasm. Always interested in what others had to say. Always modest about his own achievements and talents which were many and significant. He’ll be greatly missed by so many friends, colleagues and by his family.

Goodbye my friend.


Jane Sheppard – funerary urns

Just recently a friend of mine mentioned that he worked with a ceramic artist who is also a celebrant and interfaith minister, Jane Sheppard. He thought I might like to see her work, especially her funerary urns.

I had a look and I was really struck by some of her designs. They are quite distinctive and very different from the usual urns and caskets that are available.

Each urn is individually made in the same way as Jane’s other work – hand built using the ancient technique of coiling.  This is a slow, contemplative and meditative method. There are parallels between coiling and ceremony and this allows Jane to create a sense of sacred space within.

I think it’s very important as a celebrant, to be able to point people in the direction of alternatives to the usual coffins and urns. Of course it can be difficult when planning a funeral to consider these alternatives simply due to the lack of time. But the process of deciding on final ceremonies for interment of ashes is usually more relaxed and it gives people more opportunity to be creative with their choices. 

You can find out more about Jane’s work here. (Also Facebook and Instagram.)

Thank you Jane for allowing me to showcase your work.

Michael Hannah, Dundee 28 September 2020

Meetings with Funeral Directors – Steven Stewart, Cupar

Steven Stewart Funeral Director in Cupar
Steven Stewart Funeral Director in Cupar

From time to time I like to visit the funeral directors that I work with just to catch up and share experiences. That’s been difficult during the lockdown but now there’s more opportunity as long as we’re careful. So when I had to go to Cupar yesterday for some personal business, I asked if I could visit Steven Stewart and do a mini-interview with him for this blog.

I’ve worked a few times with Steven and his colleague Rhys Small but it’s nice to have the chance to chat more generally about our work. I started by asking how long Steven had been in the funeral world and how he had started out.

“I sort of fell into the business,” he replied. “About 23 years ago I got a job with William Jordan & Son, then one of the independent undertakers in Cupar. I started out cleaning cars, doing maintenance – helping out in all sorts of ways, but gradually I took on more responsibilities, started arranging funerals and at the same time, studied to become a funeral director and embalmer.”

Very much a mixture of learning on the job alongside formal study – and the evidence for the latter is an impressive set of diplomas on the wall of the family room in their modern premises. 

Eventually, Steven decided to take the plunge and set up his own business some ten years ago. With national companies like Dignity and the Co-op dominating the market, as well as a new generation of “cut price” funeral suppliers, I wondered how an independent family business like Steven’s survives.

“Ultimately, it comes down to service. I’m from a big Cupar family and I’m a well-kent face here and throughout north Fife, St Andrews and further afield. So folk know us and know we offer the same service to them that we’d give to our own family. And they can be sure that the person they speak to first will be the same person that takes them through the whole process from that initial arrangement to the ceremony on the day and support afterwards.

“We also offer a very flexible service that’s tailored to people’s wishes. We’re open to some of the new trends – for example for natural, green burials. Or older traditions like home vigils. And we’re totally transparent on price. No hidden or unexpected costs.”

How has COVID affected the business? “Well, all the restrictions that everyone has had to deal with. Lots more remote working. Much smaller ceremonies.” Is that always negative? “No! One thing we’ve found is that people are often relieved not to be having the big funeral. They like a smaller family-centred service that is more intimate.” 

Steven Stewart Funeral Director, Cupar
Steven Stewart Funeral Director, sponsors a flower bed in Cupar with Fife Council

Lots to think about and lots of changes that may prove lasting.

So thank you Steven for a great chat. It’s really good to see independent and family businesses thriving and delivering such important service to people just at the time when they need it most. And looking forward to your celebrating 25 years in the business!

Steven Stewart Funeral Directors Ltd
01334 655 323

Michael Hannah, Dundee, September 2020

A trip to Balintore Castle

Last week I visited Balintore Castle, a few miles north west of Kirriemuir in Angus. I’ve known the owner, David Johnston, for just over ten years but it’s a while since I’ve visited his home so it was nice to drive up and see progress on the castle.

Balintore, a traditional Scottish castle
Balintore Castle, Angus

David bought Balintore in 2007 when it was little more than a ruin. Now with a huge amount of hard work he’s been able to launch a self-catering Airbnb business and, COVID permitting, is considering opening a restaurant.

Of course there is still a LOT to be done – this is a long, long-term project!

But it’s a project that clearly gives David huge satisfaction. He is dedicated to restoring this traditional Scottish castle in the most authentic and appropriate ways – constantly on the lookout for Victorian furniture and fittings. And he takes especial delight in unexpected finds: He proudly showed me two deer heads mounted on shields “bagged” at an online auction for a song. Well, Balintore was built as a hunting lodge so no surprise that he snapped them up. But there was no hiding his delight in the labels only discovered after the purchase – Deyrolle of Paris – probably the best taxidermy emporium in the world!

wedding photo from Balintore Castle, near Kirriemuir, Scotland

So I asked if Balintore is a potential venue for ceremonies? “Definitely,” replied David, “in fact we recently held our first wedding – with a colleague of yours officiating – Angela Maughan! We’ve also held a scattering of ashes. And in time it would be great to offer yoga retreats and the like.”

Balintore isn’t the easiest of venues to reach. And there’s still a lot of work required to restore some of the larger rooms. But it’s a unique place with a very special character. And the location and views are truly stunning.

Definitely worth considering if you want somewhere a little “off the beaten track”!

MIchael Hannah, 7th September 2020