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‘Being a pallbearer for my granny changed the course of my life’: Funeral director Mark Shaw celebrates 20 years in Aberdeen

The Kincorth undertaker is marking two decades since he launched his business in the Granite City.

Mark Shaw Funeral Director, who has been in business for 20 years. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson
Mark Shaw Funeral Director, who has been in business for 20 years. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

As a son of the manse, Aberdeen funeral director Mark Shaw can’t point to a time when death wasn’t part of his daily life.

Yet it was one moment, at the funeral of his beloved granny, that piqued the nine-year-old’s interest, setting him on a trajectory for years to come.

Now, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the launch of Mark Shaw Funeral Services, obituaries writer Lindsay Bruce sat down with the titular undertaker.

Life and death matters

Usually, when I call Mark Shaw, it’s to enquire about a prospective obituary. The very soul of discretion, he rarely parts with information he doesn’t think I should have.

So it’s decidedly unusual to have such candid – and relaxed – access to the Kincorth businessman and president of the National Association of Funeral Directors Scotland as he talks about his life and business.

Wearing an open-collared blue shirt – which is “about as casual as it gets,” and speaking from the homely setting of his Kincorth funeral home, Cowdenbeath-born Mark recalls a childhood where death was very “matter-of-fact”.

Memories of granny

His father was a Church of Scotland minister and so presided over religious funerals – a trend which Mark says he’s seeing less and less of these days. The neighbouring property to the Shaw family home was a funeral parlour.

“It was all very ordinary,” said Mark. “I’d watch hearses coming and going with coffins in them, and often look over the fence to see what was happening.

“With dad being a minister, life and death – christenings and funerals – were always part of our awareness.”

However, one poignant memory stands out more than most.

“I’ve vivid recollections of my grandmother’s death. I was nine and given the honour of holding one of the cords to lower the coffin into the grave,” Mark said. “I was struck by how well she looked.”

Moray bound

By his teenage years, following his dad’s appointment as minister of Auldearn, Mark moved to Moray. He attended Nairn Academy and work experience with a local funeral director solidified his ambitions. A week after completing his Highers he moved to the Granite City to begin work as a trainee funeral director for a national chain.

Mark Shaw at his Kincorth business location. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

“I loved the job. The variety from day to day, the solemnity of it, there was such a sense of occasion. Even in the sadness, spirits were uplifted as lives were celebrated.”

Learning curve

You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s describing weddings, not funerals.  Surely there was some trepidation?

“Oh there was definitely an initial moment of wondering how I’d handle things. Seeing a dead body, for the first time, can be shocking. I think work experience helped ease me in. Though I was very aware I had an awful lot to learn.”

And learn he did.

With an inclination already in place that he’d one day work for himself, Mark studied economics and management at Aberdeen University, while working part-time “here and there” when he could.

He remained in Aberdeen after graduation, returning to his previous firm.

Appreciating other customs

With branches all over the country, Mark had the opportunity to move to the Midlands. Though it was just a two-year stint it enriched Mark’s experience and practice.

“There were obvious opportunities to learn. Organising a funeral for an Anglican congregant compared to that of someone from the Church of Scotland for one. Back then, certainly, in the north of Scotland, there was also much less diversity. Those Midlands years helped give me insight into other cultures and customs,” Mark explained, “which prepared me for how Aberdeen has evolved over the years.”

While south of the border Mark gained more than just funeral knowledge.

Granite City business launch

It was there he met his wife Annick. The pair returned to Aberdeen in 2003 and Mark bought 347 George Street, the first branch of Mark Shaw Funeral Services.

The couple started a family, going on to have a son and a daughter, while simultaneously growing the business.

“It really was a case of starting from scratch,” Mark said. “I had business knowledge and experience as a funeral director but I was going up against very well-established companies.

Mark Shaw funeral director at his first Aberdeen premises 20 years ago.

“Much of our business comes from word of mouth or having seen for yourself the care and attention to detail offered at the funeral of someone you love.

“It takes years to earn that right and reputation, but when it comes you work hard to build on it, then it snowballs. I’d say that was our experience.”

Growth and development

The business began with just one full-time funeral director – Mark – and a handful of people providing ad-hoc help as required, with a single car.

Two decades later there are 10 full-time staff, some others employed on a part-time basis, six vehicles, and a second premises in Kincorth.

It’s clear Mark is proud of what he and his team have achieved.

Mark pictured at his Kincorth branch.

“Abbotswell Crescent – a former doctor’s surgery – was purchased in 2009. In 2019 when the adjoining guest house came to market we jumped at the chance to expand,” he said.

Community focus

Situated in a largely residential street both the longevity of the business and its commitment to community integration have seen them thrive.

“There’s always a bit of apprehension with any change of use, for nearby residents. We weren’t the exception. I think there were concerns about traffic, and I suppose the nature of the work may have been off-putting for some.

“The more we’ve become involved in Kincorth, the better it’s been for everyone.”

A nod to some of the groups sponsored by Mark Shaw Funerals, such as junior football teams and the Bon Accord Bowling Association, Mark confesses to enjoying supporting the sports and hobbies of others, without having any time for “that type of thing” himself.

“It’s a very immersive job. Perhaps I’d go as far as to say it’s more of a way of life than a standard job. I don’t always find it easy to switch off. ”

Times have changed

But then he does have plenty to think about.

During 20 years of providing funeral services much has changed, not least who conducts the final rites of passage.

“When I first started it was the norm for most funerals to be led by a priest or minister. It’s now celebrants,” Mark said.

“Even the time between someone passing away and how quickly the funeral will take place has changed.

“Years ago it would have been almost unheard of for a family to be left in grief for an extended period of time. It’s fairly common for up to three weeks to pass now before a funeral occurs.”

Additional duties

One constant, and a source of pride for Mark, is the part his business has played in supporting other agencies, such as Police Scotland.

“Over the years the firm has attended a number of situations where police are dealing with sudden, unexpected deaths,” he explained.

“These occasions highlight the fragility of life and often the varying, and at times traumatic circumstances, which can surround a death.”


Mark Shaw, who reflects on two decades of serving the people of Aberdeen. Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Being the person called upon, as chosen funeral director, when someone has been killed in an accident or other tragic circumstances surely can’t be easy?

“I don’t think you’d be human if it didn’t impact you,” Mark adds.

Pandemic impact

I’m curious as to how the Covid years impacted Mark’s firm – and the trade in general.

“You know, we had a couple of weeks where we watched the news and saw unfolding atrocities in Italy, so put a lot of contingency plans in place. In reality, not a huge amount changed for us – it was how families experienced the rituals of losing someone that changed.

“There were the obvious things like streaming funerals but smaller gatherings, while perhaps not the original hope, did certainly work well for some families.

“One of the few things to carry on from the pandemic is a likelihood of a smaller funeral gathering being planned for, rather than a big one.”

Champion of highest standards

And while the funeral rite of passage remains a key part of life in Scotland and around the world, Mark Shaw Funerals, like other businesses, has had to innovate and adapt.

“More eco-friendly funerals are just one of the ways we have tried to remain at the fore.”

President of the NAFD Scotland, Mark Shaw.

And as president of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) Scotland, Mark has been a leading voice in lobbying for the so far self-regulated industry to come under tighter scrutiny.

To this end, the Scottish Government has implemented the Funeral Directors Code of Practice. Opening the way for inspectors to have statutory powers and to ensure all funeral directors provide a minimum level of service, it is a move Mark wholeheartedly welcomes.

“This will bring with it investment in infrastructure.  Primarily aimed at ensuring both the deceased and their families are properly looked after and treated fairly and openly, both myself and the NAFD Scotland are in full support.”

Team pride

The only thing left to ask is how he plans to celebrate two decades with his team.

“I mean, maybe a lunch together,” he says. By his own admission, Mark’s not one for blowing his own trumpet – or for big social gatherings.

With the modest professionalism I’ve come to expect in our exchanges he adds that “we’re an incredibly busy bunch – who work all times of the day and night. But I am very proud of the team here, and the business we have built together.”