Thoughts about Cremation and Scattering of Ashes

Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our departed, as we commit
 the body to the deep; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

        Dad died on January 24, 1987.  He was 82.  My brother has had the ashes on a shelf in his garage pending a decision about their appropriate disposal.  Mom died on January 8, 1997.  She was 96.  Another brother has had her ashes in his keeping since then.
        On August 9, 1997 my brother David, his wife, Jamie, my two grandchildren, Andrew and Grace, and I, took our sailboat and the two boxes of ashes out on to the water.  We motored about a mile onto Case Inlet in Puget Sound between our cabin and the western view of the Olympic Mountains.  My wife, Jean, and daughter, Linda, watched from the far deck of our cabin.

        I chose this date because it was the 67th anniversary of their marriage.  Dad was 25 and mom 30 on that sunny afternoon in August of 1930.

        As a minister I have had a part in the scattering or placement of ashes of numerous people.  Ashes of some I have known and loved have disappeared to unremembered places.  I don’t know what happened to the ashes of my grandfather Weage, for instance.

        One rainy afternoon we placed the ashes of our friend Paul’s dad in a concrete lined case in a cemetery.  Gravediggers waited until we were through before sealing the container.  We wondered why all the protection from nature was so necessary and required.

        I traveled with friend Brian to witness the scattering of his mother’s ashes over the Pacific from an airplane.  Ashes were released with care to be sure they streamed back from the window rather than back into the plane.  Roses followed their drift to the sea.

        On several occasions I have taken loved ones and their plastic-wrapped containers out on Puget Sound where they poured the remnants of a mortal life into reunion with the living sea.  We did so one quiet day for ashes of Jean’s mother.  As ashes sparkled in their settling beneath the water we added a blessing—“Say Yay!”— placing a rose and taking some pictures to send to the family.

        One morning I went with the Dean of the School of Forestry and an elderly friend who had once worked for the University out to Peavy Arboretum north of Corvallis, Oregon.  Our friend wanted us present as he spaded in his wife’s ashes in three special places.  We were instructed to remember the places so that we could distribute his ashes in the same places—beneath a towering cedar tree, in a garden behind an old building, and a spot at the edge of the woods where a beloved dog had been buried.  We talked as we walked, memories were stirred to life, and our friend tenderly divided his wife’s ashes in those sacred places.

        One day the principal of one of the schools in which I did some volunteer work called me aside into her office.  She wanted to know how she could bring herself to dispose of her husband’s ashes.  Tears welled as she admitted herself unable to make that final move.  We talked about grieving as “letting go,” and of her need to process her grief.  Burial of the dead and disposition of ashes are important parts of grieving.  I wondered whether she could move beyond where she was until his ashes were placed somewhere.  I volunteered to be with her when she decided it was time to place them.  She thought her garden would be a good place.  She didn’t know whether she needed me or not.  She would call.  She never called and I don’t know whether the ashes were placed.  I hope they were.

        My suspicion is that there are more containers of ashes around people’s homes than we ever know.  At first people are reluctant to make such a final move.  Later, I believe, it ceases to be so important.  It just never gets done.

        Some people think a minister or some other kind of official should be present for a proper ceremony.  I don’t usually do any ceremony.  Maybe a reading of the burial words from The Book of Common Prayer, maybe a prayer.  Often times it seems better for no words to be spoken at all.  It is a sacred moment of wonder and mystery that defies words.  I often encourage families or individuals to make a private distribution.  It is a personal event.

        In June we went to Orcas Island to be present for the distribution of friend Judy’s ashes.  It turned out that their daughter could not be present, so the event was postponed.  It had been more than a year since her death and was past time when some disposition should have occurred.  We were also to do a house blessing, involving a new relationship.  The lovely urn was present in the home when I first visited.  My counsel was that moving forward, “turning a corner,” could not be done appropriately until Judy was released.  The presence of the urn with her ashes was a clear indication that the release had not taken place.  I spoke my piece, then left the matter for consideration.  When I returned to do the house blessing the urn was gone.

        The grieving process is complex, with a natural urge to hold on to the past.  Release of the dead to a grave or scattering of ashes on the sea is terribly final.  There is guilt attached to leaving a body in a grave or sending ashes out on the sea.  As long as there is physical connection of some sort, full release has not occurred.  Some claim comfort in the sense of presence represented by an urn with a loved one’s ashes.  I have known of people who kept the urn in the house.  More than one new spouse has declared discomfort with a widow keeping her husband’s urn in the bedroom!

        There are many ideas about the body.  The Book of Common Prayer talks of commending the soul of the departed to God and “the body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life.” This gives rise to the thought that maybe the remnants of the body ought to be in some collectible state in preparation for the Resurrection.  All the various ideas about future beyond life come into play along with the emotions of loss.

        For several weeks the ashes of my parents had been on a shelf above my computer.  One was in a plastic box which required a screwdriver to open.  The other was in a plain paper wrapper.  A cardboard box was inside.  Inside both boxes the ashes were in plastic bags.  Words on the outside of the box said:

This container holds cremated remains.  Cremated remains are NOT ashes.
They are recognizable bone fragments and opening this container may be an
unpleasant emotional task for someone of close relationship.

        The instructions tell of the laws of the State of Washington regarding disposal of human ashes and strongly suggest placement in a cemetery columbarium.  The suggestion offers the comfort of an identifiable resting-place which can be visited.  It also represents a commercial interest of the funeral industry.  The bottom line is that one may dispose of cremated remains almost anywhere that does not intrude on the space or sensitivities of others.

        My experience has been that the distribution of ashes in the ground or in the water has not proven to be “an unpleasant emotional task.”  While there may be occasional pieces one could call bone fragments, ashes are for the most part more like kitty litter.  The scattering or placing ashes has proven to be the completion of one of the acts in the performance of grief responsibilities.

        I had no sense of feeling that these ashes are my parents.  I don’t have any way of knowing about soul survival or the mysteries of life beyond life.  That their presence abides among us I am certain.  They come to mind often.  Signs of their life appear in artwork and the inherited traits and ideals passed on.

        I am equally as certain that their life essence is merged again with that which gave them life.  What they were cannot be erased from eternity.  They are where their loved ones who have gone before them are, wherever that may be.  As Jesus is quoted as saying: “Where I am you will be also.”  Of course that could be in heaven or in the dark void of eternal nothingness.  In whichever destiny, they are not alone. And in either case, it’s OK.  It’s the way things are.  All our lives are part of something wondrous and magnificent.  The mystery is that there is life at all and that we have been privileged to be a part of it.  What is to be is not in our hands nor is it our worry.  Whatever is beyond life is part of the package.  We accept it as part of the unknown wisdom of existence.

        There is a touch of romance in the re-merging of their physical remains on the anniversary of their marriage.  In life they were a blended pair.  Neither was complete without the other.  It is pleasing to think of what remains of their earthly presence as together in the ebb and flow of the tides beneath the sunrises and sunsets, the cry of the loon and the wings of the eagle.

        As eldest son I have cared for my father’s estate and my mother’s business.  I have seen to the distribution of what was left of their life accumulations to my brothers, the various grandchildren and great grandchildren.  This was the final act of responsibility. Ironically, on the morning of our event a letter from the IRS came for me to do a final signature on a document related to my mother’s estate.

        Despite the warnings on the box we undid the twisty closers.  I poured my father’s ashes, my brother David, my mother’s.  Dad’s were heavier and about 1/3 more in volume.  As they poured into the water the heavier elements spiraled downward and the dust spread a filmy cloud.  We scattered roses and a bouquet of flowers over the spot as we circled.  The plastic bag inside my dad’s container slipped out before the ashes were completely poured.  It plunked into the water, caught a bubble of air, refusing to sink.  We eventually boathooked the bag and completed the emptying.

        “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”   Sunlight reflected on their spiraling descent into the blue waters bringing thoughts of stars and the likelihood that life emerged from star-dust.  We took photos of the flowers on the water.  We had our own thoughts.  The wind was building and we were drifting.  Time to head back home for food and an afternoon of family talk.  We could hear mom saying as she always did, It’s so nice you could all be together.

        The next morning as I wrote this I looked out over the calm waters.   Trees from the island beyond reflected as the mountains rose clear against the sky.  I wondered where the roses were.  They drift back and forth with the tides.  On other occasions I’ve come upon such memorial roses while fishing several days later.  Our cabin and decks and campfire look out over these waters.  I sail on them often.  They are memory laden.  Someday my ashes will be there too.

- Art Morgan