Monday, October 31, 2016

In Grief: What to Do With Cremation Ashes?

[Reviewed and updated July 13, 2019]

The kind of "blind obedience" once theologized as the ultimate step to holiness, is itself blind. It blinds a person to the insights and foresight and moral perspective of anyone other than an authority figure.  ~ Sister Joan D. Chittister, OSB

Recently I came upon a Facebook post linking the reader to an article entitled Vatican: No more scattering of cremation ashes. The article describes the Vatican's recently published (but long held) guidelines for Roman Catholics who wish to be cremated, noting that cremation ashes are not to be scattered, divided up among family members or kept at home. Instead, they are to be stored in a place the church approves as a "sacred place."

The angry responses generated by the post reminded me of an exchange I had a while ago with a member of our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups:

A reader writes:
I am asking for some advice. My father passed away a few months ago and every day is a challenge. From the time that I can remember my dad used to say when he died he wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. My mom, sister, husband and I are going to do this for him in a few weeks. We have our plane tickets, rental car and hotel so we are good to go. I am very nervous about this. I feel like it will be very hard and I feel like he is dying all over again when I think about letting go of his ashes. I have heard that the ashes of a loved one can be placed in some kind of small trinket. I think I will probably just put them in some type of small urn for now and look into that later. Some people have given me funny looks when I said we are spreading my dad's ashes, but I am going to keep some. They said that it was strange to "split" him up like that. Can you offer some insight? Is it weird to be doing this??

My response: My dear, it seems to me that as you travel this journey of grief, it’s important to figure out what brings you comfort and do what works for you. This is your journey, and it is for you alone to decide how you will travel the path and what you will need to take with you as you proceed. As one who has listened to countless stories of the many different ways people have chosen to memorialize their loved ones, I can assure you that what you are considering is neither funny nor weird.

I’m reminded of a time when, in one of my grief support groups, a recently widowed woman described the agony she had felt at the thought of leaving her husband’s cremains in a mortuary in New York, now that she had relocated to Arizona. As a devout Catholic, she knew that while cremation is now acceptable in the Catholic Church, it is required that the cremains be put to rest in a “holy place,” such as burial in a grave or placement in a columbarium in a Catholic cemetery. What she really wanted, however, was to keep her husband’s cremains close to her, preferably in a special place of honor somewhere in her bedroom. Despite the immense guilt she felt at doing so, she listened to her heart and brought the urn containing her husband’s cremains with her to her home in Arizona. Earlier that day, just before she came to our support group, she’d finally summoned the courage to discuss this matter with her pastor, and wanted to share with our group his response.

“My dear,” her priest had said, “your home is a holy place.”

I simply cannot describe the look of joy on this woman’s face, the weight that was visibly lifted from her shoulders, and the peace of mind she obviously had obtained from this man's simple but wise and compassionate statement. I wanted to go find that priest and hug him.

When my own father died many years ago in northern Michigan, I did not know enough to take a lock of his hair, or to keep a portion of his cremains after we had his body cremated, according to his wishes. By the time my mother died a few years later in Florida, my sister and I held a private ceremony for ourselves and scattered her cremains among the red rocks in Sedona, at the Chapel of the Holy Cross – which was my way of bringing my mother to a “holy place” in Arizona. But this time my sister and I were brave enough to separate out and save a portion of her cremains, so a part of her would always be close to each of us. I placed my portion in a china sugar bowl that was part of a set that my father had sent home to my mother when he was stationed overseas during World War II. I sealed the container, and it now sits in a place of honor in a cabinet in my bedroom, with a picture of my mother next to it. It gives me comfort, and I feel her presence every time I look at it.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, I now know of many creative ways that people have found to keep a portion of their loved one’s cremains with them – I've placed links to many of them on the Memorials ~ Funerals ~ Rituals page of my Grief Healing website. As I’ve said elsewhere, you are limited only by your own imagination, and you need to do whatever brings you comfort.

I wish for peace and healing to your hurting heart.

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