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COVID-19: Funeral celebrants and the growing ‘death positive’ movement

Click to play video: 'Confronting loss during the pandemic: The funeral celebrant taking the taboo out of death' Confronting loss during the pandemic: The funeral celebrant taking the taboo out of death
Death is never easy to talk about and, during the pandemic, it's been especially difficult without the ability to gather with friends and family for comfort. Enter Tom Morton, who is a funeral celebrant. He helps mourners confront the loss of loved ones in a positive way, to celebrate life, rather than try to avoid death. Dawna Friesen talked to Tom from his home in the Shetland Islands for The New Reality – Mar 20, 2021

For most of us, death is a subject to be avoided.

But most of us are not Tom Morton.

In fact, the Scottish writer and former journalist gave himself a decidedly unusual present for his 65th birthday this year. He marked the occasion with a trip to one of the oldest cemeteries on the remote and beautiful Shetland Islands, where he and his wife selected their burial plots.

That may seem like an odd, or even slightly morbid way to celebrate a birthday, but Morton doesn’t see it that way.

“There is that sense of taboo, that you mustn’t talk about death, that if you go to a graveyard it’ll be terribly spooky, it will be horrible,” Morton told Dawna Friesen in an interview for Global’s The New Reality.

“And these are not things we want to talk about, but actually I think it’s really healthy to talk about and anticipate these things.”

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READ MORE: ‘Unsupported grief is a real reality’ — Funeral homes adapt to ongoing pandemic

With all the deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on gatherings for funerals and remembrance services, he worries that loss and grief are going to catch up to us later.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, where there were so many restrictions on funerals, people were having to have either a very small or no funeral at all,” Morton says.

“People were saying, ‘Well it’s OK, we’ll have something later when all this is done. And now people are saying actually we’ll not, we’ll not bother, just get on with things.”

“I think we’re storing up a degree of loss which we’re going to have to at some point confront, and I think it could be very damaging for our mental health.”

Morton is part of the growing “death positive” movement.  He’s what’s often referred to as a “funeral celebrant.”

“A celebrant is somebody who provides the end of life rituals for people who are not religious,” he says.

According to the Certified Celebrants Association of Canada, 80 per cent of Canadians do not pray daily or attend religious ceremonies on a weekly basis. In that context, there is clearly a place for trained professionals who can guide people through the process of death and mourning, without the trappings of religion.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus is changing how we hold funerals — ‘another layer of grief’

Morton’s interest in helping people make plans to deal with death in a positive way, rather than a taboo to be avoided, comes from a very personal journey that forced him to accept his own mortality. He had two major heart attacks, one in 2015 and another in 2017.

“Suddenly, having gone from that feeling of being invulnerable and immortal, I really had to confront the fact that this had an ending.”

Fortunately, his wife and daughter are both doctors, and they saved his life both times. The first brush with death ended his career as a journalist, but it opened up a brand new path.

“One of the things I was always good at was telling stories, and I was also good at speaking to people and getting the stories from them. And really, one of the crucial aspects of being a funeral celebrant, if you want to use that word, is telling somebody’s story, making that story count, making that person’t life important and memorable, and that was what drew me into the world of funerals.”

Morton has written a book about his journey into that world. It Tolls for Thee is part memoir, part how-to guide about preparing for death, and accepting it when it comes.

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“And so, it began — the dying,” he writes. “I was 59. From that point on, death would be my constant companion, lurking, nudging, threatening or passively lolling about in the background.

“We’re all dying, slowly, all the time, but rarely think about it. After you go right to the edge of mortality, there he is, walking beside you, sometimes behind, ready to give you a little push.”

Morton says approaching death in a positive way is important for those who are in the sunset of their lives, and even more so for the loved ones who are left behind.

He sums up the importance of accepting and planning for death.

“It’s not too late to remember,” he says.

“There is time to recognize, recall, to grieve properly. We can walk to the end of the world with our dead, still. We should. We must. Stand with them one last time, for their sakes but especially for our own.”

See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online.

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