When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


In 1874, Sir Henry Thompson, Bart., FRCS, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, founded the Cremation Society of Great Britain, having written, "it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied". Municipal cemeteries were filling fast, and cremation was introduced to deal with the problem of disposal. It wasn't popular with the church to begin with, maybe because it associated the fire of the furnace with the fires of hell, but as the practice gained popularity with the general public, the clergy changed its tune.

I believe that we British cremated more of our dead than any other nation apart from the Japanese, who don't have a lot of space for internments. This is probably still true. I think most people prefer cremation to burial because it's all done behind closed doors and they don't have to deal with the messy aspects of disposal, like mud and earth. But as the population's increased, funerals have become more elaborate, and a majority of families choose to remove cremains (which are bone fragments, ground up) from crematoria, instead of leaving them to be buried or scattered in the "gardens of rest", the country's being liberally dusted with bone meal. It might do some plants good (though blood and bone meal used to attract our dogs' attention), but it's not the sort of stuff you want to scatter everywhere, willy-nilly.

When a close relative died the other year, her ashes were divided up between several people and places. I'm not sure how many portions there were, but one lot was scattered in Cornwall, another in Norfolk, and there's a little pot sitting on a shelf at home because I haven't done anything with it. It was suggested that because she enjoyed sitting in my garden, I could scatter my portion there. I don't know how the ashes were divided; whether they were weighed in equal portions or if it was a guestimate. It's irrational, I know, but I don't like the idea of dividing people up like this. It doesn't matter to her, of course, but why spread her about like that? I didn't ask for a share but hadn't the heart to refuse. Once upon a time, people dreaded being cut up or otherwise divided, for fear of being denied access to heaven without all their parts. That's not how I feel, but it still seems unnecessarily fussy to mess about with people's ashes.

Like most people, I never used to give the matter much thought. It's become popular to scatter ashes, whether all at once or in portions, in places associated with the dead person. I suppose it's quite romantic, to imagine that he or she will become a part of a place that he or she liked, or where something special happened. But it's irrational, as most of our reactions to death are, and so many people are doing it that it's causing a pollution problem, and is being restricted. I can imagine some bereaved people, determined to ignore restrictions, shuffling around beauty spots with ashes dribbling from the bottom of their trousers, like the men in The Great Escape who had to get rid of the earth from their tunnels without the guards seeing them.

A retired RAF officer I know told me about an airman who requested that his ashes be scattered from the cockpit of a plane. Apparently they blew straight in again and had to swept up with a dustpan and brush when the plane landed.

The lover of a woman who died years ago had to keep his loss a secret, as he was a married Catholic and his family knew nothing about the affair. For almost a year after the woman died, he used to write to me about her, as he had no one else he could talk to. He showed me photos of a secluded place in the Suffolk countryside where they used to meet, and where he scattered her ashes, so he could "feel close to her". After a year, he wrote that he thought he could manage, and I never heard from him again. I wonder how often he visited the spot where he'd left her, and whether it stayed as he remembered it, or if it had been sold to a developer and was covered with semi-detached houses - or, worse still, industrial units.

As an increasing proportion of the population becomes obese, cremators that can cope with big bodies are in demand. Fat people from our area have had to be taken miles away for cremation because none of the local cremators are big enough. Then there's the problem of mercury pollution, from tooth fillings. A new building to house equipment that will deal with such pollutants is being planned for our local crematorium where it will take up a hefty proportion of the car park, which is already too small.

One way or another, the disposal of cremated remains is becoming a problem as serious as the one that cremation was designed to solve. It'll be a long time before it's sorted, mainly because there's a general aversion to discussing anything to do with death. Try applying for planning permission for a green burial site, and you'll see what I mean.

If they'll have it, my body's going to the anatomists, who'll bury what's left when they've finished with me. As for my relative's ashes; I'm going to fork her into the flower border in the spring, safe in the knowledge that, since the dog died last summer, she's less likely to be dug up again. As for the dog; her ashes are in a little box, next to her photo and her collar. You see, I said we're irrational about death.

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