Helen Martin: Dealing with remains needn’t be grave issue

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IN my childhood, when someone asked what they should do with the ashes, it was reasonable to assume they were clearing out and re-making the coal fire. Nowadays we have central heating.

So, as a charity shop in Bonnyrigg discovered last week, when someone hands in a huge vase full of ashes there are only two possibilities. Either a very heavy smoker decided ash-trays were for sissies; or the contents are the remains of a person, one who has been cremated and whose relatives just never got round to scattering them in a beauty spot favoured by the deceased.

It’s not as uncommon as you think. My father still “resides”, after a fashion, in my sister’s garage, even though he’s been dead for nearly 20 years. Astrologically speaking, she’s a Libra, and if you’re into that sort of thing you will know their hallmark traits include the inability to make a decision, and a desire for perfection.

Admittedly, choosing the perfect spot and time to set him free on his final journey has been her longest and most celebrated dither yet. One comforting thought is that she was born on his birthday so if anyone is going to understand indecision, it’s him. And at least it’s peaceful in the garage.

The famous Royle Family Christmas episode in which the urns of two old friends were placed side by side “for company” before one was knocked over to spill on the carpet, should be a warning against displaying ashes openly, especially at a party when drink has been taken.

At some level, I can understand the unwillingness to “say goodbye”. I had our last cat cremated – after he died of course – and we got together with the neighbours who had adjoining gardens to scatter him with great ceremony in all his favourite places. But I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of his little urn which bore his name on a pretend gold plaque; so I put it in a display cabinet with other treasures.

It was a few years before I realised the Young Master was upset because he thought the cat was still in there when he should be “happy in the garden”.

And that’s the point really . . . is it better for us to accept that cremated remains are just ashes, or do we get some therapeutic benefit out of thinking of the ashes as holding some essence of the person – or cat? (In which case my old Dad should really be placed at a jaunty angle on the gantry of his favourite hostelry and must be pretty hacked off to be stuck in the garage.)

No dithering for my better half, otherwise known in this column as “Himself”. His mother was a little fiesty; a doting mother and grandmother who had a wicked sense of humour. In her final years when she had dementia, he took her out for a familiar drive in his middle-aged crisis sports car. When they stopped at a major junction he was keen to assess if memories were coming back, so he asked if she knew where she was. “Outside an undertakers – put your foot down son!” she commanded.

After her funeral he took receipt of her ashes and decided that since she had no particularly beloved outdoor location, he would scatter her in a quiet part of his favourite golf course. It’s not quite the done thing (though everybody does it) so he went on the course at dead of night, found the spot in the pitch darkness, and paused for a few moments’ reflection and to gather courage, before removing the lid and tipping the urn in the breeze. He was already slightly spooked by the whole business but to make matters worse, a piece of white paper or card unexpectedly flew out of the urn, whereupon he panicked, threw the whole thing in the air and legged it.

Early next morning when it was light, he went back to retrieve the urn, only to discover it had rained during the night and Mother’s ashes had been transformed into something that most closely resembled, well . . . a mud pie. Some days later, things got worse – or better – as a stray golf ball was perched on top like a cherry.

Finally, after a few months, a nearby pond was extended, allowing him to declare his mother was “buried at sea”.

She would undoubtedly have seen the funny side. In fact if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought she orchestrated the whole thing!

I hope the Bonnyrigg ashes, which were kept by someone in that distinctive, tall vase and are now in the care of a funeral service, are identified soon and scattered in an appropriate site.

Dad may have to wait a bit longer.