THERE’S a patch of land on Shetland’s Eshaness peninsula that Tom Morton has marked out as a grave for him and his wife of 34 years, Susan. In a photograph, which he shows me, he’s standing there on the grass at the Cross Kirk cemetery, above the earth in which he will be buried, smiling. The blue sky rises up behind him. His feet look firmly planted on the ground.

Describing the choosing of that double-depth plot, he sounds almost like he’s talking about a new home . “The old chapel,” he says, “was a place of pilgrimage until it was burnt down in the 17th century by the local minister, Hercules Sinclair, enraged at what he thought of as superstition. I like the idea of being buried in an historic hotbed of gossip.”

The writer and broadcaster also observes, “It’s a really historic medieval cemetery and we were able to choose a grave there. There’s a tremendous sense of completion in that. And that’s only something that could happen somewhere like Shetland.”

The radio broadcaster is on speaking terms with death in a way not all of us are. In recent years he has become a funeral celebrant, conducting ceremonies for the local funeral directors, Goudies, in the Shetland Islands on which he has lived for decades. He has also written a book, It Tolls For Thee: A Guide To Celebrating And Reclaiming The End Of Life, and had several brushes with death himself – one heart attack, one major coronary scare.

“The idea of the book was,” he says, “simply to highlight the notion of death as something which we need to plan and prepare and acknowledge in our lives.

“Out of my own brush with death has come an appreciation of how we can live in a better way. Apart from that it’s simply to provide people with the material that they can take control of their own funerals. Having control in that situation is really helpful to folk. I’m keen that they’re not prey to in particular religious exploitation which I really don’t like.”

HeraldScotland: Tom Morton on the grave plot he has chosen, Eshaness

The mention of religion there is particularly pertinent. For Morton, the man Shetlanders turn to when they want a non-church funeral service, was raised in an evangelical Christian family, and knows the kind of words a heavy-handed preacher can throw at a funeral.

He can recall his mother being lowered into the earth with a speech that began with the words, “We’re burying her today, but she’s not, in truth, there at all. She’s with the lord.” Finally the preacher posed the question, “You must ask yourself: if that were you in the grave, would you be with the Lord in heaven?”

Much of Morton’s journey with the business of death is one he has done on the Shetland Islands, within its small community of around 22,000 people. It is he writes, “a place where community not only still exists but is a real necessity”.

“When we mourn,” he observes, “we mourn together.”

It Tolls For Thee is a moving and, at times, hilarious blend of health memoir, how-to-guide, essayistic contemplation on where we’re at with how we deal with our dead and loss and occasional examination of the funerals or mournings of rock ’n’ roll greats, Lemmy and Jim Morrison in particular.

Morton is an advocate of the “death positive” movement – he believes that if we talk about and plan our deaths and funerals, we can remove some of the stress, anxiety and unnecessary difficulty that surrounds it, particularly for our loved ones.

At a time of Covid-19, when so many people have lost their lives and so many others have been prevented from gathering to mourn lost loved ones, this seems an important conversation.

“There are people,” Morton says, “who are being asked to cope with terrible things at the moment. That inability to communicate with people is terrible. In this pandemic situation, if folk had been able to provide a living will or have talked to their family, I think it would have provided those that have been left behind with a degree of comfort which they perhaps don’t have.”

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But let’s talk first about life, and Morton’s health stories which left me reeling and also sightly fearful of cheese. There is a lot of it in the book.

Cheese keeps cropping up – on pizzas just before his heart attack, and in a vegetarian meal before his other heart scare. “High cholesterol,” he writes at one point, “and a love of cheese – not a good combination”.

Has fear of death, I ask, changed his own relationship with cheese? “I wish,” he says, “I could say it has, but I don’t seem to have been able to shrug off that addiction.”

Morton had two major scares relating to his heart. The first was a proper heart attack, the second, what he describes as “a narrowly averted disaster”.

HeraldScotland: Tom Morton, Eshaness

“That,” he recalls, “was the really shocking one for me in the sense that when I saw the scans, the cardiograms, I found it particularly disturbing to see my blocked off lower-descending artery.”

His descriptions of the events surround his heart are sometimes excruciatingly medical – which isn’t surprising given the majority of his family, including GP wife and three children, are doctors – but also, at times, beautifully poetic. His system of arteries and veins, he describes, is “like the Everglades, seen from space”.

But it’s not only his own scares, but other near losses of those close to him.

He describes how driving across Shetland, he and his son James, then just 14, came across a long line of traffic backed up because of an accident. When he arrived at the mangled cars, he discovered that one of them was his wife’s Land-Rover.

Susan was slumped, with her seatbelt fastened, covered in blood and shattered windscreen. It’s deeply sobering stuff.

“The driver of the other car was dead,” he writes. “Susan had serious injuries to her hands, legs and especially her head. Severe concussion, cerebrospinal fluid leaking from her shattered face.” But his wife survived, and also later got through another brush with death, in the form of cancer.

And that’s without even going into the stories from his Troon childhood in which, he writes, he was “surrounded by heart attacks, heart failure, heart disease, the expectation of sudden death.”

After the second heart scare, Morton felt, he says, acutely aware of the nearness of death. So much so that in the days that followed he wrote what he describes as a last “write and read”, his instructions for what should be said and done at the ceremony, an event which would be free of “emollient Biblical verses and sanitised Psalms”, preferably in a church but with no minister, and to include a raffle, soup and plenty to drink.

The sense of the nearness of death waxes and wanes for him. “Because of my cardiac condition it’s always under review. Just before you called, I got a call to say I had to come through for the results of some major testing. But you can’t live in fear of death. The idea of the book is to acknowledge death as something which highlights the value of life and the notion that we have to enjoy and appreciate every day.”

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Hence Morton’s message doesn’t just revolve around death and mourning, It Tolls For Thee is also infected with a lust for life. It’s as if he is saying that if we think and talk more properly about death, then we can properly live our lives more. And it’s a hymn to the importance of family and friends – if one informed by some regrets, including the missed funeral of a colleague and friend he had fallen out with.

Also, the family he left, in his younger adulthood – two sons, Sandy and David, and their mother Anne, who went on to marry again, but sadly died of cancer.

“Sandy and David,” he writes in It Tolls For Thee, “came back into my life after I left them and their mother. I could say ‘parted’, but it was all me. My selfishness and stupidity. They forgave the unforgivable. I never really forgave myself.”

Is he better at those things now? Since his own scare?

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just older. When you’re younger you do have feuds, you can get into strops with people, even your close friends and family, and end up not speaking for weeks, months, sometimes years. And I think certainly now – now that I know time is short that’s not something that I’m prepared to let happen.”

Not long after that first heart attack, Morton was asked to speak at a friend’s funeral. At the time he had stopped broadcasting, because of the health problems and the realisation that he was no longer enjoying it. He felt aware that as a journalist and broadcaster, his skills had a very limited application.

“But as it happened,” he says, “being able to take notes and interview people about somebody’s life then put it into a cogent form and then present it in public – these are all things that I was quite well qualified to do.”

It was Anne Goudie, who then ran the funeral directors for the islands, who properly recruited him to the practice of celebrancy, saying, “Tom, we would love you to do some celebrant work – at the moment I’m having to bring a humanist up from Orkney.”

Morton does almost solely funeral work as a celebrant. This isn’t because he doesn’t like weddings. It’s because in order to perform a legal marriage, a celebrant has to either be attached to a church, or an organisation like Humanist Society Scotland. At one point described himself as a “religious humanist” and he even thought about training as a humanist celebrant, but he found the society’s insistence on excluding all Christian content from ceremonies too restrictive.

Though there are now other organisations like Celebrate People and Agnostic Scotland, which provide ceremonies which are flexible about the inclusion of hymns, prayers and other religious elements, he seems happy enough just to be the lone wolf, unattached funeral celebrant, free to include whatever he wants from any religion.

He has, he notes, been known to even include a bit of Catholic mass in some of the events he has done. “So far I’ve not been struck by lightning.”

For him this is key because, “there is so much helpful ritual in religious practice, which provides a lot of comfort for folk”.

The grandson of a preacher, brought up in the arms of evangelical Christianity, Morton doesn’t see himself ever entirely escaping his ties to religion. “You don’t shrug these things off easily,” he says. “A lot of my family still very much involved in it. The hurt that can be caused to them by overtly and publicly rejecting it, is quite extreme.”

He now, he says, views religion in the same way as he views music, literature and art. “These are great elements of how we cope with life – culture – and provide great comfort and great methods of exploring the meaning of life and our relationship with the things that we have to cope with in life.”

The pandemic has brought us not only death itself, but also a ripping away of our ability to gather and mourn our lost ones properly. “One of the important things,” he says, “that we’ve missed so much in the pandemic is that public ability as a community to mourn collectively.” The result is, he believes, that this pandemic is leaving us with a “backlog of grief.”

Morton describes having conducted a Covid-era ceremony with just 12 people in attendance. Shetland, surprisingly, for such a small community, was originally hit badly by the pandemic – due to a wave of pre lockdown infections. Aware at that time that some people were having to conduct their own graveside services, or memorials, and that they might need material to help them do that, he published his own services and advice online.

“What I decided to do was to put as much material as I could online for free that people could use because at that stage people were having to essentially conduct their own services – graveside services. A great deal of the material which is in the book is online and available for people to use as and when they want to.”

Morton explains the “death positive” movement, of which he is part.

“I think the best known of element,” he says, “is the death café. The movement is really about saying that if we don’t plan for death, if we just ignore it, then when it does happen either to ourselves or to our loved ones, we can be left not just in a state of grief and bereavement but unable to cope with practicalities of it, and unable to enact what really the person who is dying wanted to happen.”

There is, he believes, something hugely positive about the traditional Shetland way of dealing with death. “In Shetland normally people would bury their own dead. In a small crofting township there would be somebody capable of making a coffin. Family would have a piece of land, or there would be a graveyard and they would dig the graves themselves. That personal physical involvement I think is a component of grieving and is actually something we have lost, but it’s more prevalent in Shetland.”

Interestingly, Morton sees parallels with the industrialisation of food production, and new movements towards appreciating where food comes from, or finding new ways of connecting to its production. “We need that kind of conversation around death.”

The portrait he creates of death and its rites within his small community seems romantic and almost alluring – compared at least with what we have in urban areas.

“These rural cemeteries in Shetland,” he describes, “are some of the most historic and spectacular places you can imagine. When you’ve been involved in carrying a coffin across a spit of sand to a tiny graveyard that’s been there for maybe a thousand years and you’ve watched the grave being dug perhaps and that person is lowered into it – you’ve been through a really important ritual. Then walking away, that walking back into life, I think is tremendously powerful.”

When I observe that it sadly doesn’t feel so accessible for people like myself, who live in densely populated cities, he says, “Shouldn’t we fight against the industrialisation of death?”

“That’s one of the messages of the book,” he adds, “that we should. Because if we just turn it over into some sort mechanised disposal then we are really losing something of our humanity."

It Tolls For Thee is published by Watkins