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.
Here is a list of things you could do with ashes from The Good Funeral Guide by Charles Cowling:
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.
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