Professor Joe Goldblatt
“We provide upright burials.” This introduction to my new friends from Victoria, Australia caught me by surprise at the 40th annual Orkney Folk festival. I turned away momentarily from the musical splendor of hundreds of Scottish folk musicians and asked Tony and Lois how they came to be in the business of burying people in the standing position?
Tony explained that for many years they have owned farms and a small cafe and were looking for additional ways to contribute more positively to the eco – system. Their solution was to offer upright burials as they require less space and use a bio degradable shroud in place of a wooden coffin. They said that business is booming for their 13 year old business and there have been many inspiring experiences since they begin offering the first and according to Lois, currently the only upright burial service in the world.
“A man who was a paraplegic placed a pre – burial order with us and said that although he could not walk for many years he wanted to enter and spend eternity standing up.” Lois went on to explain that the service they provide involves a large augur digging a deep vertical hole and then the family and friends may use shovels to fill the space where their loved one will become one with mother earth.
As I listened to their fascinating tale of business success from down under I begain to realise that this year’s fortieth annual Orkney Folk Festival is also a tale of uprising, reslience, and the ever increasing demand for authentic and indigenous cultural phenomena. The evidence of this increase demand is best proven by the record ticket sales for the 2023 festival featuring one of the largest assemblages of folk musicians from Orkney, Scotland, the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America.
As the fortieth Orkney Folk Festival gala doors opened the large and enthusiastic audience was surprised to see nearly 50 young people, the future of global folk music, standing side by side and two rows deep upon the large stage holding their fiddles, accordions, and other instruments. The musicians were from Kirkwall Grammar School, the largest town in the Orkney Islands, and they represented one of the most successful music education programmes in Scotland.
The musical prodigies were followed by professional folk musicians from Orkney and the west of Scotland and then following a short interval the headline classic popular musical ensemble Capercaillie who first performed at the Orkney Folk Festival in 2023 walked on stage to a huge roar. The lead singer of this internationally acclaimed seven member ensemble announced toward the end of their set “We hope you have enjoyed this. We are exhausted!”
This was not surprising in that they have been touring the world for 40 years as global ambassadors of Scottish folk music. One of their songs celebrated the authenticity of Scottish culture when they sang At the Heart of it All in Scots Gaelic and English these lyrics.
At the heart of it all Is a calling to this land
In the words of our salvation
Is a song for the common man
At the heart of it all Is a story to be told
For the sake of our salvation
And the troubles we behold.
As over 1000 folk from all over the world, including my new friends from Australia raised their voices to sing along I quickly realised that whilst other forms of entertainment rise and fall, the folk music genre may be the most resilient of all forms due to the wide demographic range of the audience and the deep personal engagement audiences feel as they watch young and old musicians singing stories that resonate with their history, their culture, and their daily lives.
Capercaillie were joined upon the giant stage by over 100 local musicians and at one point I was afraid that the platform might crash to the floor in the joyous atmosphere of musical jubilation. However, just as the Orkney Folk Festival has survived enumerable challenges from difficult economic times, uncertain transport availability for artists and musicians, and most recently a global pandemic that forced cancellation of live performances, they have continued to rise because of their high quality and the continuous demand by their global fans.
Just as my friends from down under have discovered a niche market for life everlasting that may not be wide, is certainly deep, the Orkney Folk Festival and other similar events throughout the world have also discovered perhaps the fountain of youth for live music. As I rose from my seat to dance with those around me to the Gaelic tunes performed by musicians with experience from a few years to nearly 50 years, I was happy to still be upright at nearly 71 and delighted to join my common men and women in discovering the heart of the stories we have been told through the melodic salvation we shared together. Long may we tell these stories in full voice for many years and folk festivals to come!
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot To learn more about the Orkney Folk Festival visit https://orkneyfolkfestival.com/ For more information about Upright Burials visit https://uprightburials.com.au/