Monday, June 28, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust (Warning: Explicit Entry)

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


  1. I am grateful to know that I, and or family members if they desire, can accompany the bodies of their loved one to the crematorium. I have often been the one to go to the funeral home, which housed the crematorium in AZ, to pick up the cremains. And I have even divided the cremains up for families who did not want to do that themselves, so they could inter some in the church columbarium and some at a favorite summer home or another church or wherever...I am grateful to have any number of ways I can offer solace to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. As I sit here this morning I am holding prayer vigil for a young boy, 16, from my former congregation, who has brain cancer. He is having and MRI and several biopsies ths morning because the doctors fear it is spreading even as he is in the middle of heavy chemo treatments. The mom has already made some decisions about his funeral, should it come to that. He's not my child but I was his priest for 8 years, he played with my son, he was a child of mine.

    bone. to. bone. I get that. totally. much love as you spread those precious ashes and envelop one more place in memories of love.

  2. Thank you for this, dear one. Your willingness to be so open and transparent in sharing your hard, unwanted experience is-- well, it's nothing short of heroic. It is also deeply appreciated.

    Love goes with you to North Carolina this week.

  3. (((((A hug for you)))))

    Sitting there, just beyond my outstretched arm's reach, is a photo of the small bay into which I placed the ashes of my dear son's body. I can still taste the salt air of that day - or perhaps I am only remembering the scalding tears, tears that did not fall from my eyes but burned my heart until it, too, poured out into the sea.

    Waiting, as are so many, for sorrow to end.

  4. This is so powerful and lovely, Robin....Thank you so much for sharing each step of this painful journey with us. Prayers for the next phase of releasing part of his precious body to a holy place.

  5. Thank you, Robin, for another beautifully written powerful piece that teaches as it touches my most inner core. Surely this writing is a ministry in and of itself. Wishing you safe travels this week.

  6. I can only echo what Mags said so well.

    Travel well, dear sister.

  7. Yes, thank you so much. I feel that you're here with me, across the miles. Please know that I will be there with you, when you scatter your beloved son's precious ashes this week.

    You are going to be a fabulous minister. Apparently, our words and actions are needed in this world. Who would have guessed that such horrible events as the death of our children could inspire, and light the way, and help to provide comfort for others? The ways of this life are strange indeed, but I am thanking God that His LOVE is greater than death - and includes, embraces, infuses and envelops ALL.
    Much, much love to you. XOXOXOXO

  8. Traveling mercies to you on this journey with Josh. Thinking of you and praying with you.

  9. I wish, I wish I had accompanied my sons to the crematorium or somehow had had the chance. It was such a visceral ripping, them torn from me, leaving my body far too soon due to terrible events of biology gone wrong, then holding them briefly and then having to let them go, and having them come back in the little box. Pouring them back into the earth in our church's cloister garden helped. Thank you for this very powerful post. Bone from bone, flesh from flesh. Indeed.

  10. Robin,
    I'm in a bit of a slump right now. Sorry I haven't been a good blog friend when you are going thru so much. I caught up today and just want you to know that you all will be in my thoughts and prayers. Ashes are another difficult part of the whole difficult thing.
    Much love, Karen

  11. {{{Karen}}}

    Sometimes I think our blogs are one giant hug for people who would rather be getting hugs from someone no longer available to offer them.