it’s a question I still get asked from time to time, but the story of my journey doesn’t hold a candle to Lyeona Anderton’s.
I first met her back in the midst of the pandemic when an old friend asked me to conduct the funeral of a man called Hugh Collins. If that name rings a distant bell, it may be because you remember the title of his first book, ‘Autobiography of a Murderer’.
Hugh had been an enforcer back in the days of Glasgow’s razor gangs. In and out of Scotland’s worst prisons from the age of sixteen, he ended up in the Special Unit at Barlinnie where he was mentored by an even more notorious hard man, Jimmy Boyle.
Like Jimmy Boyle, when Hugh left the Special Unit, he became an artist. Andrew Brown who ran Edinburgh’s 369 Gallery gave him a place to work, and it was through him that Hugh met, fell in love with and married another already established artist, Caroline McNairn.
For several years now, I have tried to encourage my clients to see the creation of a funeral ceremony rather like a life drawing class. In the middle of the room sits or stands a model, and every artist sees a different angle. A good funeral aims to cover as many of those angles as possible to create a multi-faceted portrait, and that was what I set out to do for Hugh.
Several people offered to write and deliver their own eulogies; Andrew Brown, Hugh’s friend and executor, Mark McLeod, and the actor Tam Dean Burn, but Andrew also suggested I speak to the person who’d had most contact with Hugh over recent years, and that was Lyeona. It was she who found him dead at his kitchen table and that discovery quite literally changed her life.
Lyeona first met Hugh when she was asked to clean the house he was living in down in the Borders, but, as she said in her interview in The Southern Reporter, ““Hugh had been diagnosed as both a sociopath and a psychopath, and he suffered from many other mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress.Despite this, we struck up a good friendship over the years, and for the last nine months of his life, I visited every day to help with his cooking and cleaning, doing his laundry and helping him to bathe.“
When Lyeona and I first spoke, I gave her two options. She could do the usual thing and tell me about Hugh as I made notes, or she could speak about him in her own words, like everyone else. To her great credit, she opted for route B, and when she sent me what she’d written, I replied saying, “It’s a really poignant and moving tribute, Lyeona. You should be proud of it and I am certainly proud of you for writing it.”
On the day, Lyeona spoke incredibly well. I would have been even more impressed had I known she’d just been told that her 65-year-old mum had been diagnosed with stage four cancer.
Fear has a hierarchy. Speaking in public comes top of the list, but I would say that speaking in public about the people we love is more frightening still. What Lyeona did that day was extraordinary, and that is why I suggested she might think about training as a celebrant. Spoiler alert; she did.
I’m delighted that she is now one of my colleagues in Celebrate People and I look forward to hearing wonderful things about her in the years to come.