Karen has been writing about scattering her daughter's ashes this past week, and we have plans to scatter more of Josh's later this week, since we will be in North Carolina in places deeply inhabited by his memory.
When I did a presentation on the grief of suicide survivors for a seminary class this past spring, cremation and ashes were the subjects that generated the most questions. In our culture, cremation is becoming more common, but we have not yet developed much in the way of ritual to accompany the task, and many of its realities are, like so much related to the practicalities of death, seldom discussed. We learned about cremation mostly from friends sitting around our kitchen table in the days immediately following Josh's death. The funeral director offered other help; I discussed it a bit more with a priest friend but, as Catholics do not believe in scattering ashes in various locales, he wasn't able to offer much there. We never discussed it with our own pastors. A few months ago, I was the one to provide the explanations and possibilities to a friend whose husband was dying.
One of the reasons I raised the whole topic in my presentation at school was that I believe that pastors should know to inform families that they can accompany the bodies of their loved ones to the crematorium, that they should be prepared to offer the possibility of prayer and other ritual at the time of cremation, and that that they should be aware that families are dealing with precious cremains on their own, finding their own ways to handle the shock and devising their own rituals.
A friend who lost a daughter in her twenties to a sudden accident asked me if I had looked inside the urn when we picked it up. "Oh, yes, immediately," I said. I had gone back to the funeral home with Josh's twin brother, and we opened the urn there. "I looked at those flecks of bone and thought, 'They grew in my body,' " I said. "That's exactly what I thought," she said. " 'Bone of my bone.' "
"How do you transport small amounts of ashes?" I asked a friend whose son had died by suicide, and who has scattered ashes in many parts of the world. "Film canisters," she said. "I had to ask my other children to transfer them from the urn the first time. I couldn't bear it."
My husband doesn't do ashes. He goes with me, usually (not this week). But I don't think that he has ever looked closely at them.
I find that the ashes, scattered in places that mean something to us, create new bonds among those of us who find ways to make something of this yet another unwanted experience. Karen's photographs and words this week present a powerful argument for fighting back against childhood cancer. I feel much the same about ashes as a symbol in opposition to suicide. Ours were once the body of a vibrant, creative, and joyful young man, who was stolen from us by illness as surely and completely as Katie was from those who loved her.
They float in the sea, they settle into the earth.
They represent dashed dreams, crushed hopes, bodily brokenness beyond repair.
They represent love too powerful to be dashed or crushed or broken.
We scatter what little we have left, honoring final requests and