Dust to dust, ashes to ashes... but what do we do with them?

ADAM Heath has been in the family funeral business in Sheffield for 30 years, and in that time has seen the balance in how we British want our bodies disposed of after death tip dramatically in favour of cremation.

Back in 1940, only 3.85 per cent of the population were cremated; in 1968 cremations hit 50 per cent and recently they’ve climbed to over 70 per cent.

Even after cremation started to become popular, people generally left the ashes to be scattered or buried in the grounds of the crematorium or a churchyard. Creative thinking around what to do with Grandma’s ashes has only properly entered into our thinking in the last decade or two.

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Over the years more families (now 66 per cent) have opted to take the ashes home but some simply leave their loved one’s remains at the funeral home or crematorium. Mr Heath says that between his company’s eight branches there are more than 500 containers of ashes safely stored and labelled.

“There’s only a certain amount of chasing you can do,” he says. “After that, you hope the family will collect them when they’re ready.” The containers of ashes go back to 1949, and some families have come to collect 30 or 40 years after the cremation, he says.

“Mostly when you talk to someone in advance about their funeral – because they’re doing a pre-paid funeral plan, for instance – we discuss what they want to happen to the ashes. Or, if it’s the family who are arranging the funeral later, they will often know what their loved one wanted. But there are cases where the deceased’s wishes aren’t known, or maybe the death has been sudden, and it hasn’t been discussed. The family may leave the ashes with us because can’t agree or have simply forgotten.

“We have the space so storing them isn’t an issue, and you never know at what point a family member may turn up. It would be a very hard-hearted funeral director who just got rid of them.” Industry guidelines state that ashes should be kept for five years before being scattered or interred by the funeral company or crematorium.

Cremation was an upper middle class way of disposing of remains until the First World War, says Professor Douglas Davies, director of Durham University’s Centre for Death and Life Studies. When the trend began to become more democratic the change was led by women. “They seemed to be more worried and frightened by the idea of burial and with so many men not returning from war or being brought home for family burial there was no husband to follow into the family plot.

“Cremation is seen as a good solution both for those who believe in an afterlife for the soul but not in resurrection of the body, and non-believers who simply see it as saying “it’s the end”.

When ashes are not collected, perhaps it is because for some families their is a “convenience of forgetfulness” – because they don’t know what to do and may find it awkward to discuss. Some people collect the ashes and hang on to them as a way of feeling close to the deceased.”

Often people have planned in detail what kind of funeral they want and whether to be cremated or buried, but given little thought to the ashes, says Liz Lee of The Fantastic Funeral Company, based in Leeds.

“If the family don’t know what to do or can’t agree, the ashes may be kept in an urn or some other container and stored on the mantelpiece, in a wardrobe or in the garage. Although in recent times people seem to be thinking more creatively about what to do with a loved one’s ashes, there are some who like to have them there at home to get out regularly and chat to, talking about problems and gaining great comfort from that.”

A Co-Operative Funeralcare survey revealed that the ashes of one in three of those who are cremated are scattered at a beauty spot, one in 10 in a church yard or crematorium garden of remembrance, in a woodland or family garden and another one in ten on a lake or river or at sea.

Among the unusual ways of dealing with ashes is the making of a diamond which incorporates a small amount of carbonised ash, which is then made into a piece of jewellery.

A few extroverts have had their ashes shot into the air inside a firework, and a new way of commemorating the deceased that incorporates the ashes but doesn’t make it difficult to move house later (as burying the ashes under a rose bush might) is pouring them into the hollow inside a ceramic bird bath. A permanent stopper is then inserted and the bath placed on top of an oak plinth.