Stewart Abercrombie – musician

Last week I met Stewart Abercrombie who was the musician at a funeral I was conducting at Brewsterwells Crematorium, near St Andrews.

stewart abercrombie musician
Stewart Abercrombie, musician

I’d never worked with Stewart, so I thought I’d have a chat … the chat grew into a little interview… and I decided to add to the occasional series of musician showcases on my blog.

I started by asking him how his interest in music started:

“For as long as I remember, music was always present, and song continues to play a big part in family gatherings. My father and uncle won numerous trophies in their accordion competition days, and that is the music I grew up listening to. And which now plays a big part in my career. Hearing live performances from such a young age inspired me to take up the mantle myself. I began piano lessons at primary school and studied it throughout secondary to advanced Higher. But the learning never stops. I always endeavour to improve technique and to widen my repertoire. Each genre and composer has their own demands and technicalities to polish.”

Loving to play music is one thing, of course, but I wondered when it turned into a career for Stewart?

“In 2015, the three Fife crematorium organists retired and services were then to be engaged on a self-employed basis. A family friend in the funeral business suggested I enquire and put my talents to use. The job was something entirely new to me at the time and I remember only too well as a teenager how daunting it was to play for such important services! My confidence has grown steadily throughout the years and in gaining all the experience I have in this very niche field of work. I find this career path extremely rewarding as it makes a difference to individuals in difficult circumstances. No two funerals are the same. I also love that each day varies. One morning I’m in Falkirk, and in the afternoon I could be in Perth or Dundee – I work across Scotland although I’m Fife based.

“In my career so far, I’ve covered a broad range of events. (I embrace everything that’s thrown my way with enthusiasm.) As a full time pianist and organist, the majority of my work consists of weddings, funerals, other ceremonies, recitals and accompaniment to other musicians and singers.

“I also began playing the accordion and violin many years ago and I enjoy playing Scottish country dance music. Being in that scene for some time has afforded many performance experiences to me, playing in bands and ensembles, ceilidhs etc. I’ve even been asked to play solo accordion and fiddle at graveside ceremonies – which was a real honour.”

At the funeral we both worked on, Stewart accompanied a hymn. He also played a medley of mainly 1960s folk music including a version of El Cóndor Pasa. I know that Stewart had spoken directly to the family. So I asked him to say more about how he works with families.

“I’m generally engaged through a funeral director, or officiant. But if the bereaved family have any special requests they often speak directly to me. You have to be a consummate professional in the field of funerals. There’s just no room for error and everything has to be right. I discuss the family’s wishes down to the last detail to make sure their loved one has the fitting service. Often I can advise clients of pieces that may be suitable if they are undecided under the pressure of the circumstances. I’m able to play a huge variety of pieces in different genres – my own tastes are hugely eclectic.”

We talked a little about the decline of hymn singing. Stewart noted that: “since the pandemic there’s been a great surge in the use of ‘canned’ hymns with choirs, which for any self-respecting musician is heartbreaking.” I agreed, but noted that it can be awkward when there’s a hymn but no-one sings. What can we do about that? Well, we both felt that there are other ways to bring traditional hymn tunes into services. They can be played to accompany the coffin being brought in without the need for singing. They can be woven into a medley that reflects and evokes a life.

The important thing, we agreed, was offering families the opportunity for live music. As Stewart said “I think music undoubtedly plays an integral part to ceremonies like weddings and funerals – when it’s done correctly it can express emotion that words alone can’t. Much loved pieces of music that mean something to a family make a service so intimate and personal”. He’d love to see more soloists, whether it be woodwind, brass, string players, vocal performers or organists performing a part in funerals, just as we see in weddings so often.

Stewart went on to say how he loves the challenge of navigating a new organ (new to him – in some cases these instruments are 150 years old!)

“Sitting down and getting to know an instrument and getting a feel for the colours and possibilities it offers for the first time is like being a kid in a sweetie shop. I’m passionate about sharing how versatile and expressive the instrument can be. When approached with an open mind and imagination, the organ’s bounds extend much further than cliché hymns and stereotypes.”

Stewart ended by summing up: “I have been a church organist for nearly a decade and I’m currently privileged to serve the congregation of St Bryce, Kirkcaldy. It’s a grand old building built in 1877 of 13th century gothic style. The congregation are fantastic and I’m lucky to accompany their choir on a three manual organ and grand piano.

“Music has been extremely rewarding to me. I’m almost 28 and look forward to the future opportunities it presents.”

And away from music, which clearly plays such a huge part in his life? “I have a love of studying history and architecture. I enjoy the countryside and the outdoors. I have a love of horses and keep a large selection of poultry. I love good food, drink and socialising with friends.”

Thanks to Stewart for taking the time to chat! He can be contacted on ‭07766 477834‬. Or by email: Or via my own contact form.

Below is a little clip of him playing Elgar’s Imperial March at St Margaret’s Memorial Church, Dunfermline.

Text by Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, July 2024

Speaking to a funeral photo tribute (Obitus)

Most celebrants will be familiar with the various kinds of picture tributes that are now possible at funerals. Obitus, a company that provides music for many crematoriums, can also display photos or pictures on a screen or screens. Their products range from a single photo that remains static throughout the ceremony to slideshows.

michael hannah celebrant conducting a service at brewsterwells crematorium with sarah lawson BSL interpreter
Michael at Brewsterwells below the tribute screen (from a staged funeral, not the service referred to in the blog)

These can be set up in different ways. They can loop through the entire service, for example. Or can provide a moment of focus or reflection with the slides being set to music.

At a recent funeral that I was to conduct, the partner of the person who had died was very keen to use some of the many hundreds of photos that the couple had taken throughout their life together. They were great travellers and these pictures chronicled their many adventures. But we were unsure whether to loop them throughout the service or find a piece of music to set them to. Looping them means that they do form the backdrop of the ceremony. But it can detract from the spoken eulogy and at the same time, people don’t really focus on the pictures or the story that they tell.

Making them a point of focus seemed a better solution but what music would be appropriate and not distracting? Or would it be possible to show them in silence?

In the end, I suggested that I speak to the slides. This would be quite normal in other situations. But I’d never done anything like it in a funeral. And my worry was that it would seem too like a powerpoint presentation. I was also concerned about the logistics. Would I be able to see the photos and stay close enough to the microphone? Would I have long enough for each slide?

Helpfully, the photos illustrated milestones and themes in the person’s life. So I was able to note these themes in the spoken eulogy in advance of the photos. That meant I felt I could make more general comments as the slides rolled by, rather than it feeling like spoken captions. The ceremony was at Brewsterwells Crematorium where SICA had held a series of staged funerals and I was able to look at the visuals to check if I could see screen easily while staying close to the mic. I also called Obitus who were very helpful and double-checked that the pictures were in the right order. They explained just how long each slide would display and how long the transitions would be.

Overall, and having now watched a recording of the service, I feel it went well. It brought focus to a life of travel and adventure. It complemented the spoken eulogy. And it provided variety and a a change of tone.

I’m sure other celebrants have done similar things with images but this was a first for me. Definitely something I can suggest in future.

(Photo courtesy of SICA and PhotoJenniK)

Michael Hannah, Dundee, 16 July 2024

Do-it-yourself graduation ceremonies (with celebrant!)

gillian robertson leads a private graduation ceremony in the cloisters of glasgow university
Gillian gathers us in

I finished my MSc in End of Life Studies at the end of 2023 and duly enrolled on the July 2024 graduation. For our School, summer graduation takes place on the Dumfries Campus, not at the main Glasgow University buildings. I was disappointed at this and decided to organize something private in Glasgow anyway.

The Dumfries Campus is pretty – very leafy and green, with some beautiful buildings. But for me it doesn’t have the historical or emotional connections that I feel in the main university area of Glasgow. So I decided I would ask my good friend and celebrant colleague, Gillian Robertson, to lead a little private ceremony. Gillian has conducted graduation ceremonies in the past and she was happy to do this with me.

gillian robertson leads a private graduation ceremony in the cloisters of glasgow university
Smiles (but there were also tears!)

It turned out that several of my fellow students were also interested in the idea. The masters course was delivered online, so we are quite a far-flung group with students from several countries. But by happy coincidence several of the Canadian students were attending a conference in Glasgow immediately before the graduation. So in all, five out of the six “Dumfries graduands” would be in Glasgow just before the main ceremony. Plus another two of the continuing students – one from Glasgow itself, the other from Portugal.

Gillian and I did an early reconnaissance trip in March to plan just where we would hold this impromptu ceremony. We earmarked the Learning Hub where we could all gather (with a café and toilets!). Then we decided we would all process over to the front of the main historic building, overlooking the Kelvin. But we also realized that we might have to be a bit flexible in dealing with the Scottish weather…

And so it turned out – decidedly wet and windy conditions kept us under cover. In the end, Gillian, Marian Krawczyk (Programme Convenor), the five students, plus family and friends gathered in the “cloisters”.

gillian robertson leads a private graduation ceremony in the cloisters of glasgow university
Wrapping it up

Gillian (herself a Glasgow graduate) had familiarized herself with the themes of the course, and been in touch with the students and lecturers so that she could put together a short but very appropriate and inspiring address. She also wove in some words of Maya Angelou and then invited each of to speak about the personal impact of achieving something like this (in some cases, like my own, somewhat late in life). She also delivered a message from the Director of the End of Life Studies Group and my personal supervisor, Dr Naomi Richards. And she even had beautiful gifts for us all from Gina in Mexico who had graduated last winter. (And a little “minding” from Glasgow itself.)

It was a very moving and special moment. Quite different from the more public spectacle of the main Dumfries ceremony. Much more personal and tailored to our own circumstances and the nature of the programme.

The experience underlines the variety of ceremonies and rituals that celebrants can lead. I wanted to thank Gillian for putting it together and leading it so sensitively and effectively. I’m sure she would be very happy to speak to anyone thinking about staging a private ceremony to honour academic achievements, and to find ways to make it an even more special occasion.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, July 2024

gillian robertson leads a private graduation ceremony in the cloisters of glasgow university
Friends and family!

Dundee Crematorium Refurbishment – update

Michael Hannah and Angela Maughan at the Landmark Hotel, Dundee

I mentioned in a previous blog that Dundee crematorium was closing for refurbishments. To be more accurate, it has closed for services – it will still continue to carry out cremations. Services will take place in the Landmark Hotel instead. At least, this is the alternative arrangement that the crematorium’s owners have put in place for the period of closure…. but people may decide to make other arrangements.

There was an “open day” today at the hotel and I went with my friend and SICA colleague, Angela Maughan. Neither of us had actually been invited or indeed informed officially about the changes …. but we heard on the grapevine, and the possibility of free coffee drew us there!

View of the function room at Landmark Hotel

Sadly, no coffee on offer! Just Martin, one of the chapel attendants whom Dundee celebrants will know, looking a bit forlorn. But he was extremely helpful and showed us the room. Both of us have held ceremonies in the room in the past so we weren’t completely unfamiliar with them. The room can hold just over 100 people but there is also an overflow room. I was slightly more concerned about the car park. Actually, they have allocated quite a big area for funerals – probably more car spaces than at the crematorium itself. Of course, it’s not easy to say what people might do if it is full. There aren’t many streets close by to park on. Also, as it’s a hotel, people may decide to hold a post-service tea there and that could complicate parking.

Lectern and position of coffin at Landmark Hotel function room

The room itself – see photos – is a bit corporate but it’s OK. Angela worked some design magic on the curtains and blinds to create a better feel! Apparently there will be Obitus, so music will work in the usual way, there will be a screen for picture tributes, and there will be a camera for live streaming. None of that was in place today but we can hope that it will be there by Thursday when the first service is held there. (And they could do with some signage to direct mourners.)

In terms of timing, they told us to keep services to the 30 minutes that was the standard at the crematorium (except of course that we sometimes get told that it’s only 20 minutes…. and some officiants seem to take as long as they want….!). There will be a bit more time though for families to get in and out.

You may be able to see a trolley in one of the photos. That is where the coffin will be placed. It can either be in situ when people enter, or brought in at the start of the ceremony. The lectern is…. basic. And very small. But we suggested having a little table to place a glass of water etc.

Committal can be either by draping the coffin in a pall cloth, or taking it out to a side room or to a hearse (this will depend on the funeral director). Of course celebrants may come up with other innovative ideas for committal rituals.

They are estimating 16 weeks for the work to be completed. But that may require a spell of dry weather (!) and for nothing to go wrong. But even by the most optimistic forecast, that means this arrangement will be in place for a long time. I think it’s highly significant that take-up seems to be slow, which suggests that people and funeral directors are already thinking differently. If that means that people get more choice – with perhaps a better experience and maybe even pay a bit less then that can be no bad thing.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, 1 July 2024

Using the staged funeral to inform

Recently I helped lead a project for SICA to stage two funerals for educational purposes. This involved us in conducting ceremonies for imagined people at Brewsterwells Crematorium near St Andrews.

Michael leads a committal at Brewsterwells Crematorium

I’m now starting to use the footage to help families plan funerals. It’s a great help to see the actual layout and get a visual picture of the different parts that make up a funeral. Even in this short time it has been useful to be able to show people what we mean by “committal” for example and how this can vary. It can depends on location – but also on the wishes of the family. Looking at photos of a real ceremony or even watching snippets of video is proving to be valuable.

From a local perspective, Dundee Crematorium is due to close next week (July 2024) for another set of major refurbishments. Cremations will still take place but services will be held at a hotel. While this will be a good solution for many families, it’s also possible that people may consider other places such as Parkgrove, Brewsterwells or Perth. (Especially for people who live near but not in Dundee itself.) It’s really helpful to be able to show people directly how different crematoriums look and work. The similarities and the differences.

The images are available to SICA members. But if you feel they would be useful in your work, contact us to discuss possibly sharing them.

(Photo courtesy of SICA and PhotoJenniK)

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, June 2024

Dundee Crematorium – closing for refurbishments

Dundee Crematorium will close for services at the beginning of July. Cremations will still take place there, it’s just that funeral services won’t happen in the chapel. Instead, they have arranged for services to take place at the Landmark Hotel. This is quite close to the crematorium.

There is an information day on 1 July, so I will have more information after then about how it will work and can let anyone know.

But as I understand it, services will take place with the coffin in place at the hotel. The coffin will then be taken away (as a sort of committal) and driven to the crematorium.

This is actually similar to what some funeral directors are increasingly doing anyway. I have conducted funerals for William Purves and for Sturrock Comb and Davidson where there has been a funeral service held in their own rooms (both companies have venues in Broughty Ferry) with the coffin then being taken, unaccompanied by family, to Brewsterwells Crematorium. The exit of the coffin on its final journey is a moment for a respectful farewell.

The advantage of this arrangement is that the service can usually be a bit more relaxed in terms of time. Some crematoriums are notoriously strict on timing. Families may think they are booking a one-hour slot but as it takes time to get in and out, the actual time for a service shrinks to perhaps 20-30 minutes in total (it’s longer at Brewsterwells and some other newer crematoriums). Separating the service from the cremation in this way can also give more choice to the family in terms of venue. Some funeral directors have their own rooms but in theory you could hold the funeral anywhere appropriate. And perhaps save money.

The refurbishments are likely to take months so it will be interesting to see what impact this has on how funerals are conducted in Dundee and perhaps accelerate trends away from having a service in the crematorium itself.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, 22 June 2024

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