Ashes to Ashes

On 16th April 1990 the unthinkable happened, my mum passed away in the early hours of the morning. The reality should have been that I was prepared for what was the obvious eventuality of lung cancer but you don’t expect your mum to die do you, not at such a young age – she was 53. My Dad was with her when she died and he took me and my brother down to see her later that day. He also arranged for the funeral director to call that afternoon, even though it was Easter Monday and things were quite understandably quite raw. During the discussion it became obvious that my Dad wanted my Mum to be cremated – this came as quite a shock…..

If we rewind back a few years to when my first wife’s Gran died and my mum came to the funeral with me. I remember her crying and telling me that at funerals she often shed tears for her father who had died when I was only a very young child. She told me that she had been upset that her Dad had been cremated and how she would have liked to be able to go and sit next to his grave and talk to him when she needed comfort. She said that when she died she wanted to be buried, somewhere that just simply said that she had been here.

So on that fateful day I related all of this to my Dad and the Funeral Director but was talked down – I was told how graves get forgotten about as time goes on. In order to pacify me my dad said that once things had returned to normal we would all go somewhere as a family and scatter my mums ashes. Reluctantly I agreed but I wasn’t happy and even went to visit my mum in the chapel of rest, against my father’s wishes, to see her and apologise for what had been decided. The funeral was on the Friday and was a lovely event but I still wasn’t happy about the cremation. As we stood talking in the garden of remembrance after the ceremony there was suddenly a plume of smoke from the chimney which seemed to swirl around us as we got into the cars – it felt as though my Mum was expressing her anger.

Over the next few months I waited for my Dad to get in touch regarding the scattering of her ashes but what happened was that he formed a new relationship with the woman who became his second wife. It all happened very quickly and I began to feel that my mum’s ashes had been forgotten about. As time went on it became more difficult to raise the issue as I felt that he didn’t like my mum to be mentioned in case it upset his new wife. Slowly months passed into years and it got harder and harder to deal with and more difficult to ask the question that I needed to know the answer to.

As both my wives would probably testify the issue caused me much distress over the years. I contemplated asking the question many times, going over and over it in my head but whenever I was there in front of him or talking to him on the phone it just wouldn’t come out. The fact I had no idea what happened to my Mum’s remains was probably a contributing factor to repeated bouts of depression. In 2009 with the 20th anniversary of her death looming I sought counseling and it was one of the issues that I needed to talk about. At the end of the sessions though I was only a little bit closer to asking the question and then something happened.

Just as I was getting up the courage to ask my Dad was diagnosed with cancer and as his illness proceeded it seemed wrong to ask the question. As he approached death I had almost reconciled myself to never knowing what had happened to the ashes. One day in my Dad’s final week I was looking through the notes about his funeral on his computer and I found a document relating to what he wanted to happen to his ashes after his death. This made me quite angry as the issue of Mum’s ashes suddenly came crashing back.

He died on Friday 25th February and two days later I sat with my brother in the Hospice where he died waiting for the death certificate. It was at this point that I decided to ask him if he knew the answer to the question that had been troubling me for so long. He confessed that he didn’t but said he was happy to try and find out. So true to his word during the next week he made some time and eventually tracked them down to the funeral directors where they had sat in a cupboard for almost 21 years.

In the days between my dad’s death and his funeral I ruminated on what had happened and the instructions he had left for his ashes. He wanted them to be scatted in 4 places by 4 different groups of people. He wanted one lot to be scattered on Penshaw monument by members of a walking group he had been part of which was made up of ex Policemen. The second lot he wanted scattering on the Bents at Whitburn by his school chums. The third lot he wanted to be burried on the grave of the parents of one of my mum’s friends in Corbridge and he said he hoped that his second wife’s ashes would one day join him there. The final set he wanted to go to the home of his step-daughter in Spain.

There were two things that annoyed me about the arrangements. The first was that none of the scatterings were for his family – we were off handedly invited to the Penshaw monument scattering and obviously the one in Spain would include one of his Step -children but it didn’t include his actual offspring. the second thing was that he asked for his ashes to be scatter on the grave of one of my Mum’s friend’s parents (her friends ashes were also scattered there) and he wanted his second wife’s ashes to be scattered there. This hurt – what about my Mum’s ashes why didn’t he want to be scattered with them.It was like she’d been forgotten.

I contemplated how to raise these issues with my brother but in the end I didn’t have to because I think he felt the same way. This came up when we discussed my mum’s ashes and what to do with them. The logical thing would have been on the grave of her friend’s parents along with the remains of her friend and my Dad but that didn’t seem right – if he’d wanted that he would have said so. I suggested that we find somewhere near there and the place that sprang to mind was a pub called the Rat where we’d often gone on Boxing Day with Mum, Dad and her friend Maureen and husband Charlie. Then however it didn’t seem right scattering her ashes there without my Dad’s – this was getting complicated! My thought was that we should split my Dad’s ashes into 5 rather than 4 but who to raise that with…..In the end I didn’t have to as my brother had obviously been thinking along the same lines.

Then one day I was re-reading his instructions and his opening lines suddenly jumped out at me. He’d written

After my cremation I wish that my ashes be scattered in specified places. I do not want my ashes stored in some funeral parlour or buried in a plot in a crematorium where I will become one of the forgotten. My wishes are to have my ashes scattered where people will look and say to them selves that’s where Macs ashes lie and hopefully remember the good times

 

I suddenly thought was this a dig at us, had he also been waiting for all that time for us to ask about her ashes? I have resolved not to think about this too much otherwise it could be another 21 years of wondering and that is the last thing I need.

So last weekend I went with my family and my brother and his family to the Rat in Nortumberland where after lunch we walked down a footpath, through a wood and into a field where we scattered their ashes together on a beautiful sunny day high on a hill overlooking the Tyne Valley. So much time had passed that Garry and I were the only people there who actually knew my mum. We had both been married at the time of her death but had both since divorced and remarried. Beth, who would have been her eldest grandchild was only barely in existence at the time of mum’s death – we discovered the pregnancy the night before her funeral!

The whole process almost didn’t happen because when we arrived in the field Garry got the box containing Mum’s ashes out and when he looked at it we discovered that we needed a screwdriver to get it open! However I hadn’t come so far to fall at the last hurdle and after searching our pockets Garry found a key which fitted the screw heads and I sat and slowly unscrewed the six screws fastening the box. Then we looked at each other, wondering what so say, my Dad was always the one who found the right words to say and he was no longer there. In the end there were no words to be said…..

So we all took handfuls of the ashes and without pomp or ceremony scattered them in the field. I think she would have loved the idea of all of her grandchildren participating and laughing and joking as we scattered the ashes. She would have loved them all so much and it’s such a shame that she never lived to see any of them. Even the youngest participated – although Noah was a little too enthusiastic and ended up being covered in ashes when he got too close as Garry tipped the last of the ashes out of the box.

So that was the moment I had waited for 21 years for, not what she wanted and to be honest anything would have come up short. I would have liked her ashes to be scattered somewhere I would be able to go to on a regular basis but if I’d done that it wouldn’t have been somewhere that meant anything to her so this was the best compromise. I’m just glad for the closure that it has given me – the fact I’ve been able to write this shows how far I have come in the past two months.

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