I don’t tend to write about spiritual matters very often, mainly because I don’t feel qualified. However, a phone call from a customer the other day got me thinking, the conversation went something like this:
- Are you still operating boats for scattering through COVID-19?
- Yes, but with reduced number of attendees.
- Is it true the boat can only take six people at the minute?
- Yes, sorry.
- That is such a shame, there are a lot of people that want to say goodbye to my mum, but can’t if we use the boat, yet if I hang to her, I feel like I am keeping her soul capacitive and that isn’t fair either.
- Yes, that is a dilemma, sorry I am not sure what to advise…
And I wasn’t, what do you say in such circumstances? Narr there is nothing to worry about hang on… or, free your mum right NOW you spiritual despot! I felt genuinely sorry her, I couldn’t help.
It got me thinking, scattering ashes in Hindu and Sikh traditions is this act setting the soul free, well to be fair that is my interpretation of what the rite achieves and therefore may be wildly inaccurate. However, that is a specific cultural action, so why do most bereaved families in the UK choose to also to scatter: as most people don’t follow a doctrine or a tradition that dictates this? As a nation we have adopted the practise of scattering ashes, why? And where has it come from?
In this blog I often discuss where, what, how and when, but very rarely why. I suppose because there is no one definitive reason, most explanations and relational are subjective depending on your belief system. You only need to look at the comments under my post entitled: Ashes kept in the house is a ghost more likely to be present? to see a variety of strongly held beliefs concerning the unknown.
The British particularly, but also other parts of the English-speaking diaspora are now moving to this as the new normal. There was no religious edict to do it this. In fact, quite the opposite, the C of E frowns upon the practise and the Catholic Church specifically prohibits it, yet we still do it.
The academics have said that the act creates and environment of memory – a place special for reflecting and memorialising that person. That I agree with, but is that what we are setting out to do, or is that is that a bioproduct or a tangible consequence? There are other ways of creating a special place for memorialisation: a shrine would fit the bill nicely. I don’t mean some gaudy gold effigy or such like, but a plaque; or a tree; or a rose bush; or typically a bench – all of these create that environment of memory. However, scattering ashes is similar to a holiday, the memory is what you treasure but it is not the reason you went. No one goes on holiday because for the joy of looking back on them… Memories are created because of things you did in the present. The ashes ceremony is informal an ad hoc ritual if you wish, if you compare it with other ceremonies like weddings or christenings or graduations – all are done in the present and create a strong memory, but I doubt very few people would go to such trouble stating hindsight as a driving force.
With the act of scattering the ashes I think there is something more. I would argue that what we create is not the reason we did it in the first place. After ten years of writing on this subject the options chosen fall into a number of camps, there are many exceptions but broadly:
- Burial or interment often for religious or family continuity reasons.
- Keeping the ashes either in the house or in the garden, this tends to be for two motives: inability to release due grief or other factors that mean they don’t wish to part from the person. Holding onto them until the remaining partner dies, so they can ‘go’ together. These are temporary, okay it might be for many years, but temporary nonetheless.
- Scattering the ashes, eighty percent of us in the UK that cremate will choose this route. And the phrases that I hear time and time again: back to earth, return to nature. Yet equally as strong if not more so are slightly more intangible concepts – releasing or setting free.
But What do people who say this imagine is happening? What are people actually setting free? the physical ashes don’t roam around visiting places. Some get caught on the wind or in the current. Yet most will stay where they were put and either integrate into the soil or the sea/river bed and thus will return to nature. You would not put these phrases on any other similar material. I don’t set a bag of compost free when digging it in – okay I’m being slightly trite here, but the point I making is that the person when holding the ashes imagines the deceased in some way. They attach a spiritual dimension to the ashes.
No one told us to this act in this way yet most choose to. People do it even if they think they are doing something wrong, even breaking the law, citizens who have never had a parking fine will do this, why? What does it tell us, is there a primeval urge to do this which is stronger than any other societal expectation?
Is what we are doing freeing the soul, is that what is happening? When you ask people who have scattered, they talk with a dual sense. One that appears to be quite contradictory: term for stasis and freedom such ‘return to nature and set free’. They will return to the spot they have scattered to connect with the person, yet that is the place they set them free – so why would they still be there? And people feel better when they have done it, they feel more able to ‘move on’ whereas most who have ashes stored somewhere they becomes source of concern, something left unfinished or incomplete.
Maybe calling it the release of the soul is too strong, maybe many would object to this unworldly term, but whether it is an internal feeling related to grief or a spiritual feeling, is a moot point. I suppose as long as it helps to bring some peace, then it is right. Now I did say I was unqualified – didn’t I!