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BBC Magazine article: What happens to uncollected ashes?

This article appeared in the BBC magazine website to accompany the Radio 4 documentary ‘Feed Me To The Wind’. It is worth a read and concerns itself with wider issues ashes and attitudes; if I may, I will pull out the salient comments from the public and the funeral trade on the issue.

‘Adam Heath, a funeral director from Sheffield, has noticed a shift in how the bereaved treat ashes during his 30-year career.

“It used to be that everyone was scattered at the garden of remembrance [at] the crematorium,” he says. Now, as fictional depictions of ash-scattering are more common, they prefer to take the ashes to a location with personal significance for the deceased. “They would like to be able to do their own thing, too.” – this is interesting as in the opinion Mr Heath, it is fiction that has dictated desire and practice, I hadn’t really considered this to be the driving force of the trend, perhaps it is? I think it fair to assume it has made it more socially acceptable.

A lady from Bristol makes the following point. “One minute he’s your dad, then the next you’ve got this urn – plastic and disappointing,” says Sally, of Bristol. “You want to do it poetically, like in the movies, but there’s always more of it. And, in the end, you’re like ‘Oh, just tip him out.'” – Yes, the cremation industry for what ever reason (cost I presume) cheapens the process through the continued use of ugly utilitarian plastic cremation urns. And she makes the point that no one warns you of the amount, I think her last comment is slightly sad.

Kevin Browne, bereavement services manager for Broxtowe Borough Council, says it is part of our national psyche to be surprised by ashes.  “We’re so British, we don’t talk about death, do we? People aren’t aware of the options they’ll have – they haven’t given it any thought at all.

“On TV you just see a token gesture [amount] being scattered – a couple of eggcupfuls. The quantity and weight seem to catch people off guard.” – Absolutely right!

The second part of the article relates to when the ashes are not collected. All over the country there are literally thousands of cremation urns lining the wall of funeral directors, where relatives have not wanted or not been able to bring themselves to collected the ashes. Every funeral director will have a room of unclaimed ashes – what should they do?

As we point out in our post entitle who owns cremation ashes, that you can only possess the ashes and that like a living person you can’t own them. The article is correct – Ashes will be returned to whoever made the funeral arrangements, not necessarily the next of kin.

One of the reasons the funeral directors hold onto them is pointed out in the article:

Nor do funeral directors press the issue with the recently bereaved, says Heath.

“It’s important, to arrange someone’s funeral, to get some insight into their psyche, to get what’s right for them at the time. But what they want to do with the ashes, collecting them or not, I don’t want to take sides or pick a fight.”

One part of the piece I found fascinating was a brief quote from Douglas Davies, of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, says even Britons who are not religious want to mark a loved one’s passing in a way that reflects that person’s values and preferences.

“In the Christian idea, people thought you would gain a new identity in heaven. But with a decrease in this idea, this ‘looking back’ [at a person’s past] came on – and there were the cremated remains as a symbol.”  – I would love to know why this reflective trend has developed. Perhaps there isn’t a why, maybe it is just logic if a person doesn’t have a ‘future’, certainly no present, it becomes appropriate to look at their past…?

Anyway well done to Caleb Parkin for this well written article – here is


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