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Solace in finding somewhere meaningful for ashes

Some of my grandparents' ashes sit in adjoining recesses in a columbarium wall.

My Nanna would have turned 91, this Sunday. She died last year. While some of her ashes were placed in a crematorium wall alongside my Pa’s, they didn’t all fit in the small space that was allocated. The rest are sitting in my mother’s linen press.

I have a feeling she would like it in there. It is a meticulously ordered environment that smells as sweet as sunshine. Fitted and flat sheets are all folded with military precision, quite unlike the crumpled balls in my equivalent stash-and-dash cupboard. (It was a given; we could never store her ashes there…)

My mother’s exacting domestic standards would please my Nanna, but clearly the linen press is not an ideal long-term resting place.

The plan is for me, or one of my sisters, to sprinkle her ashes over the property where she, and we, all grew up, next time we visit. The original homestead has long gone, but each spring iris bulbs mark what used to be the garden. Planted to mark the resting places of family working dogs, they offer an unexpected show of frilly purple and yellow in our middle paddock.

Finding a meaningful and appropriate place to scatter cremated ashes is something that is relevant to most friends and families left behind, with recent research showing that 55% of Australians prefer cremation over burial when planning their own funeral and 14% have no preference, either way.

Knowing what to do with the ashes, however, is typically not clear. The research, commissioned by the Australian Funeral Directors Association, found that 86% of Australians over the age of 50 “are not thinking about their funeral or making pre-arrangements with a funeral director”. While 8% have general thoughts and ideas, only 6% have made detailed arrangements.

That fits with the experience of Zenith Virago from the Natural Death Care Centre in Byron Bay, NSW, who has supported many bereaved families and friends. She says it is common for people not to cover off their wishes, like what they would like done with their ashes.

“If someone you love is dying, it is generally much easier for families who are able to have those conversations. If they say sprinkle me in the ocean, or spread me under a tree, or you can all have some of my ashes, then following those wishes into action can be very helpful and healing for families.”

It can be distressing when wishes are not made clear, but she finds loved ones are consoled if she asks them whether the deceased person would really mind what happens.

“They generally say no, I don’t think so, because their main concern was that we would be alright.”

Ms Virago has practical insights into what to expect when a loved one is cremated, starting with correct terminology.

·         Ashes are more accurately called cremains.

·         Cremains are crushed bone, and so heavier than you might imagine.

·         Cremains are sterile and inert, so are safe and comply with all health regulations.

·         Cremains can be carried on planes in checked or hand luggage.

Ms Virago says crematoriums generally issue cremains in an oblong plastic container, a bit larger than a tissue box, with a label that identifies the deceased person. This can seem sterile and inappropriate, particularly if the container is to be part of a ceremony.

Instead, she suggests supplying something more comforting or familiar, such as a timber, ceramic or glass container. “or maybe even a favourite tin that someone has always kept their cakes in”.

Another potential problem with the standard plastic boxes is that crematoriums sometimes heat seal them, unless they are asked not to. Ms Virago knows people who have taken off in a plane, ready to scatter cremains over their farm or the ocean, but were unable to get the heat sealed stopper out and had to return to remedy that situation.

“It can be distressing and messy to have to use a screwdriver or make a hole in it, so that you can them out, much better to avoid that situation.”

Families sometimes opt to divide the cremains so that loved ones all have the opportunity to place a portion of them somewhere meaningful to each person.

“Especially if people are overseas or all over Australia, it can be great to let everybody have some.

“Often people take them home and put them in their garden or land, they can have a cup of tea and talk to the person when they’re missing them.

“If people are putting the cremains into the ground and planting something, they can also put in written messages of love, so that the tree or shrub will grow through those messages and blossom and fruit.

“Often people will pick a plant that will flower at the time of the death, so they are reminded of that annual event. When the tree or the bush is flowering it is very hard to be sad; people look forward to it.”

Ms Virago says when people do specify what they’d like done with their cremains, often their desire is to be left closer to home or in their favourite spot, maybe on the golf course, in a rainforest or park.

“Sometimes it is somewhere where they grew up. They want to return to that happy place in that childhood, so they feel they have come full circle.”

She has also heard of people who have asked their families to make up for experiences they never had. Someone who wanted to go to Uluru, or overseas but didn’t make it, asked their family to take their ashes there, or to release them while skydiving.

There is value in using imagination when contemplating what might be meaningful, and to remember that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how it makes you feel that is important.

It’s hard to feel sad, reading the story about how and where Andy – a keen fly fisherman – wanted his cremains scattered. In the ‘End of Life at home’ report, launched last year by Palliative Care Australia, a loved-one says Andy’s ashes were scattered in the Murrumbidgee River, at an isolated place where Andy and his brother Mike used to fish.

“Andy’s brother died in May of 2005, and Andy died in July.

“Mike was cremated as well so we decided that their ashes could both be scattered in the same place on the same day, and that’s what happened, with the proviso from Andy that Mike went first, so ‘I can jump on him’.”


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