I wonder what you think of when I use the word shrine? I immediately think of the myriad of little roadside shrines in Catholic countries, often buried in a wall, or tumbledown brick pillars with a Madonna on top. They are places where people stop and pray, perhaps kneel and think of God.
Shrines to the deceased, to people we love, admire, or praise are not a new idea. They have been present for millennia. They are important reminders of someone who is not physically present, somewhere to rest, reflect, to think and feel and to pray if you want to. Many people create shrines in their homes or gardens to someone who has died.
What do these shrines look like? What do they contain and do they help?
It might be a collection of photographs in beautiful frames on the mantelpiece. It could be photos blue-tacked to the wall. It might be a chest upstairs in a quiet room which holds important objects or items that link the one who has died to the living. It might have a beautiful cloth, a central photo of the person, candles perhaps, an item of clothing, a watch, a hair ribbon, a Baby blanket or little shoe, a bracelet, a school book, a gift given or received, cards or letters, a beloved toy, stones, pieces of wood found on a beach, a school report. Pretty much anything that holds meaning for the one who is creating the shrine.
If it is a garden shrine it may be centered around a tree or flower bed, perhaps with some statuary or a water feature. There might be a bench to rest on and think quietly. There may be stones, rocks or flowers which the deceased loved. The bench might have a plaque in memory of that person.
Of course, grave sites can become a shrine too. Lovingly kept up, full of flowers, sometimes toys, balloons or teddy bears, if a child has died. Keeping that shrine pristine can become a daily mantra of love still shown to the dead. If you ever get the chance to visit La Cementerio de Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina you will see an amazing example just how important shrines still are today.
A newer way of creating a shrine is to make a memory box. In fact, it isn’t so new because people have held onto momentos from the dead for comfort and connection since time in memorial. Children are encouraged to make a memory box after a parent, grand-parent or sibling has died but actually, anyone can make one. It is simple, choose a lovely box and fill it with small items which are meaningful from the deceased or reflecting your relationship. One popular item for children is their parent’s spectacles. They might put in birthday cards their Mother gave them, a tie their Father wore a lot, drawings, pieces of jewellery which remind them of their parent. It can be any item that means something to them. It is a shrine which the child can take out when they want to and put away when they don’t. It can be a source of great comfort and importantly continued connections and closeness.
A more intimate form of shrine is a tattoo. Many people now choose to immortalise their loved one by having a tattoo. Some are quite elaborate, they may contain words telling themselves and the world what they thought and felt about that person. They may be symbolic or based in reality but they are a form of shrine which they carry with them always and as such they offer comfort and connection, literally and metaphorically.
Another modern form of shrine to the dead pop up on our roadsides. Most of us will have seen a road-side shrine where someone has sadly been killed (usually in a traffic accident). There is one where I live, which pops up every summer beside the road where the young lady sadly died. Flowers will be attached to the railings nearby with a note about who she is. I sometimes imagine her parents, their need to remind people that she existed, that they loved her and that they create the shrine as a ritual to give her life meaning. Though I haven’t seen one yet, I have heard of the ‘Ghost Motorbikes’, where friends or family or perhaps, fellow bikers paint the motor bike of someone who has died in a road traffic accident white. They then hang it where passing motorists can see it, and no doubt, they drive past it and remember their friend or relative. This is a very public memoralisation.
How do shrines help?
In times past, the emphasis in bereavement was on ‘getting over’ the death, ‘moving on’, ‘forget them and lead your life’. Nowadays, with all the research on bereavement the thinking has changed. You might have heard of ‘continuing bonds’? What that means in simple terms is that we don’t ‘get over’ the death of a beloved, we slowly get used to it and learn to live with it. I explain it to my clients this way, “the job that faces you, (the bereaved) is to metaphorically take the person who was living life outside of yourself, and bring that person inside of you, perhaps holding them in your heart and have, them ‘live’ there peacefully, in a way that is not raw or painful and eventually, have that become the new normal so that their passing can be accepted in the longer term”. For the majority of people that is the natural progression of grief. Shrines are one way of easing that progression. It is about staying close to the one who has died.
In time, it is likely that people are ready to dismantle the shrine because they no longer need it. Although that might feel as if you are either letting them go or being disloyal, what I think it really means is that the transition of accepting that person (who is greatly missed and still loved), into your heart to live peacefully there has happened by osmosis and you no longer need the shrine as an outward reflection of love and connection.
Shrines are deeply personal portrayals of love and longing. If you have created a shrine do tell us about it below. If you continue to struggle with grief and would like to discuss counselling, you can contact me here.
When I worked at a Hospice as a Bereavement Counsellor, we were offered the chance to go to a Funeral Directors for a morning, and in the afternoon, we went to visit a Crematorium. The thing I remember most was whilst standing in the room where the coffins were prepared, I noticed a long shelf with a lot of cardboard boxes on it. I asked what they were, the response was they were ashes which had never been collected. Before I had a sensible thought, I asked the Funeral Director why anyone would leave the ashes there. He said his Uncle John was up there and he didn't know why he didn't claim them and bury him. Think tongue and scissors!
The ashes hold many meanings.
For some they are the person. For others they are just the remains of the person they loved. Some see them as the body itself. Others may feel the ashes represent the death, others the last bit of life. Some may feel the ashes hold no meaning what so ever. Ashes can be felt to be the last remaining connection to someone they have loved and as such they cannot be let go of. They may even be revered.
Emotionally they are undoubtedly complicated.
Some people, like the Funeral Director don’t deal with them at all. I imagine it is a form of denial of death. It might go something like this, “If I don’t pick them up, then it didn’t happen, and I don’t have to face it”. Wholly understandable I think. Many people feel extremely attached to the ashes and that can, in time create problems for themselves or other family members. A lot of comfort can be derived by having the ashes of their loved one close. It can alleviate and soften the death. Occasionally, people want to have the ashes close by, but in the end feel uncomfortable with them in the house. It can be a clash of hope and reality and is made all too concrete by the presence of the ashes.
Where do people put the ashes?
In the bed, in the wardrobe, under the stairs, in the garage, on the mantelpiece, in fact anywhere really. Having said that, they probably want to feel that the remains are safe, dry and close by. Let me say straight up that it is natural and normal to speak to the ashes, to have conversations with the one who has died and that can be very comforting and offer a semblance of normality at a time when nothing feels normal. It’s just the same as talking to the grave, which is something a lot of mourners do. Don’t think you are crazy, you aren’t!
The big question is can you let go of the ashes? Do you need to? If you can, where, when and how might you do that?
Firstly, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, though I know families can apply a lot of pressure, under the mistaken belief that there is a time limit on keeping ashes. My experience of counselling many people who had ashes at home, is that you will know when the time is right to deal with the them. You will probably wake up one morning and think, yes today I can sort that out now. It might be weeks, months or years after the death. It is all OK.
The only time it is more difficult is when the presence of the ashes causes others a problem which doesn’t get addressed or sorted out. An example of this might be when parents of an adult child, who was married want to scatter the ashes somewhere, but the husband wants to ‘keep his wife at home’. Another example might be a husband who has remarried but still keeps his first wife’s ashes in the new home. The now famous expression, ‘there are three of us in this marriage’ might ring true for the new wife. I empathise with both parties but some sort of compromise or solution has to be found so they can move forward.
There are some places where you are not allowed to scatter ashes. I found that out when I wanted to scatter the ashes of my brother on the Matterhorn. Apparently you are not allowed to! Football grounds will not let you scatter ashes on the pitches because the phosphate in the ashes can upset the local ecology. Remember too, if you scatter them in a public place, you may be put off by the presence of other people and the wind can play havoc with ashes, sending them in different directions.
Keep them in an urn to either keep or bury.
Mix them with clay or concrete and make something.
You can split them up and give some to each child to whom it is important to have some.
Mix some with paint and paint something or commission an artist.
Fire them out of shotgun cartridges.
Scatter them from a hot air balloon or light aircraft.
Scatter them at sea.
Have them turned into a diamond.
Have them mixed with glass and made into an ornament or pendant.
Keep some in a locket or pendant.
Have them made into a firework display.
Fire them into space.
The point is, whatever YOU chose to do is your choice, don’t worry about what other people think. Find what is right for you and your family and however long it takes is the right time.
If you are struggling with bereavement and the issues it throws up, feel free to contact me about counselling here.
We would love to hear about your experience of letting go of your loved one's ashes, join the conversation below:
No-one really thinks about the social implications of grief. Why would we really?
In our Western society death is something to be ignored, pushed aside and we certainly don’t want to think about it. If we can avoid the words ‘dying, death or dead’, we will. We then find ourselves in a double bind, because what remains after a death is a family, a loved one, a spouse or friends and children who are floundering with grief and all the myriad of feelings that go with it, and we should be facing them, supporting them but they are closely associated with the very death we have been trying to avoid (even unconsciously).
The grieving can make us feel very uncomfortable. We might be thinking, how can we face them? Can we avoid them? Do we have to talk to them, and if we do, what shall we say? We don’t want to make them cry (because that will be really uncomfortable). We avoid the word died, we might even speak in hushed tones and use euphemisms, for example, “she has just gone to sleep”, and we certainly may consider not mentioning the deceased at all.
To cover our own discomfort we might resort to talking about our own losses and/or bereavements or we might proselytise about our own belief systems. We may end up relating stories about people who have died in similar ways or in worse ways (to somehow make the recent death look better by comparison). We may judge the behaviour of the bereaved person as inappropriate or somehow wrong? None of this is done with intentional harm of course, but it can be wounding and isolating for the bereaved.
All of the above only end up making the bereaved feel worse and somehow socially unacceptable or unpalatable.
There is a plethora of ways that the bereaved may feel socially unacceptable. Think about all the deaths of loved ones that cannot be acknowledged. For example, a married man who has a gay lover or a mistress whose long term lover dies, but who remains hidden to keep the secret. It may be that the bereaved is the first wife, and senses from others that it is not appropriate to be seen to grieve since they divorced their husband anyway. To be an ‘ex’ can be very difficult when a death occurs.
Widows and widowers may feel they don’t fit in anymore at social occasions. At an all couple event, for example a widow may experience her new single status acutely. It is not uncommon for widows to face a complete lack of invitations. Many of them have told me they think their friends worry that they will steal their husbands (though this is the last thing on widow’s minds in my view). Strangely, this is not so apparent for widowers, who often seem to be swept up by supportive female friends, fed and watered and cared for. This leads to another social implication, because they may not want to be! They may see this as unwelcome or a betrayal of their wife or partner.
Another social implication is that the bereaved’s circumstances may change in any variety of ways. They may have to move and they may become more socially alienated from their community. Their financial situation might change radically; perhaps there was no Will for example. Their job may be unsustainable during a difficult bereavement period, or their partner was the main bread-winner. Holidays may be unachievable now because there is no-one to go with, because they can no longer afford them or because they feel left out of groups that used to go away together previously.
In the case of the death of an adult child, if the child’s spouse did not have a good relationship with his or her parent-in-laws, grandparents can find themselves having grandchildren withheld from them which at the time of a bereavement leads to additional heartache and sadness.
For young boys and men, if their father dies, they may be expected (either overtly or covertly) to step up to be the ‘man of the house’. They may be told things like, “your mother needs you now” or “big boys don’t cry”. Although they may not be able to articulate it clearly or understand it at the time, they may feel their status as a child in the house has come to an end and they now feel a full sense of responsibility towards their mother and siblings.
How can friends and families help the bereaved to alleviate some of these social implications?
Here are a few simple ideas to think about:
• Persist in inviting the bereaved out, even when they keep saying no because one day they will say yes, and they will feel wanted and connected
• Used the deceased’s name liberally in conversation, they want to know you haven’t forgotten him or her
• Don’t pretend nothing has happened…..it has
• Don’t assume others will be there to help, they may not be
• You can say the D words, dying, death and died
• Accept the new person they have become, they had no choice but to adapt and grow through their bereavement
• Suggest they find someone to talk to, a counsellor is just one way to do that
If you have been bereaved and this article resonates with you, feel free to call me about the possibility of counselling if you want to, you can do that here.
Photo credit: armadano / Foter / CC BY
Have you felt socially isolated after a bereavement? We would love to here from you below: