A-Z

Bereavement due to suicide

Burying the body or scattering or burying ashes

People from different cultural backgrounds and with differing beliefs are likely to have very different ideas about where a person should be buried or where the remains of a dead person should be scattered. In mediaeval Christian Europe people thought that it was important for the destiny of the soul to bury people in consecrated ground, and as close as possible to the altar of a church. Some people still adhere to this belief, but others do not think it matters. Others choose to mark the death according to a different cultural tradition. Sometimes family members differ on whether the person should be buried or cremated: it helps if the person has expressed a wish, for example in the will.

Burial without cremation
Some of the people we talked to chose to have their relative or friend buried after the funeral without cremation. Felicity’s daughter, for example, was buried in the churchyard. Although the family are not West Indian they drew on the Barbadian tradition for Alice’s funeral. Family and friends filled in the grave to the sound of unaccompanied singing.

 

Alice was buried in the West Indian manner, where everybody stands around the grave and sings....

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Alice was buried in the West Indian manner, where everybody stands around the grave and sings....

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
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The only funeral that my sons had ever been to was that of my sister, who was a priest in Birmingham, and who’d died of cancer. Most of her congregation was from Barbados, and so she was buried in the West Indian manner, where everybody stands around the grave and sings. And so that’s what my boys assumed you always did at a funeral. And so we asked the undertaker and luckily the undertaker had spent some time in Barbados and knew of this tradition, and said it was unusual in England but he was perfectly happy to arrange that, and my brother in law, who’s a priest, and was used to this kind of ceremony, he officiated that part of the service. So when the coffin went out of the church we all followed out into the graveyard, all 400 plus of us, and her cousin, who’s got a beautiful voice, was in charge of the singing. She had got Alice’s old friends from her choir at school too, because Alice sang beautifully, they led this unaccompanied singing and we all sang the hymns round the grave while Alex and the boys filled it in. Then other people, cousins and friends all started picking up the spade filling in the grave while we sang and it was a very moving thing, which people seemed to find quite cathartic, to be able to do this.

Patricia decided to have Graham buried because she wanted to have “somewhere to go”. Brenda gave this reason too. She wanted somewhere to sit and think about her son. People may not have been aware that after a cremation the person’s ashes can be buried in a particular spot so that there can be a marked place to visit (also see ‘The funeral or commemoration’).
 

Patricia decided to have Andrew buried because she wanted to have a place where she and her...

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Patricia decided to have Andrew buried because she wanted to have a place where she and her...

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
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And then, after the funeral, was there a burial or was there cremation?
 
Burial, burial. Yes. 
 
Were you pleased to make that decision for a burial?
 
Yes. I’m not sure that Andrew would be pleased. It’s not a thing we ever discussed.
 
No.
 
His parents were cremated so I have a feeling that might have been what, if we had discussed it, he would have said. But given that he hadn’t said…
 
Hmm.
 
… I wanted there to be a grave because I don’t know whether cremation, there’s nowhere for, for you to go.
 
Hmm.
 
And I wanted him to be there.
 
Yes.
 
Because there were children …
 
Hmm.
 
… I wanted him to be somewhere they knew where he was. I don’t know if that sounds a bit bonkers.
 
No, I understand.

Paula’s husband was buried after his funeral, rather than cremated, because this is an Islamic requirement. Muslims allow only the men of the community to accompany the body to the gravesite.

Stephen had his wife buried in the churchyard, partly because the crematorium was at least 45 minutes away, which would mean a long delay between the church service and the ‘funeral party. He thought that those who attended the funeral might just drift away instead of waiting.
 
Melanie’s husband was buried in their local churchyard. She was warned that the hole for his body would be very deep because she had told the funeral director that she planned to be buried with Simon when she died.
 
Margaret had her daughter buried partly because she could not bear the thought of sudden burning. She also took comfort in the idea that if her daughter were buried some of her physical body would still be there in the ground.
 

Margaret's daughter was buried rather than cremated because it just seemed 'right' at the time...

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Margaret's daughter was buried rather than cremated because it just seemed 'right' at the time...

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
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So was she cremated?


No, no, no.


Oh buried.


Yes. I say oh no, no, no, because somehow I know most people are cremated. No she’s buried.


Hmm.


Yes. To me that is important, that it's a burial and not a cremation. Not because someone has forced that belief on me but because it, it just seems right. And it’s what [my daughter] would have expected, and wanted, because when my father died, her granddad, everyone in the family would have been buried.


Hmm.


Not cremated.


Hmm. Hm. Is that part of your spiritual belief or just …?


I think, well interesting actually having said that, my brother was cremated. But I think it’s, it’s something to do with the suddenness of a burning I think.


Hmm.


I can’t bear the thought of it.


Hmm.


And yet it was fine when it was my brother’s.


Hmm.


That was fine.


Hmm.


It’s like recently when the, what’s her name, Benazir Bhutto was killed it, it just seemed … it’s almost like you, you can’t take it in.


Yes.


When it happens so quickly.


Yes.


I, it’s just I know that she is; a part of her physical body is still there.


Yes. Yes, I can understand that.


And I think that is probably just habit rather than a belief. If it was important to somebody else, if somebody said to me, close to me said, I want to be cremated. Then that would be fine because they’d want to be cremated.


Hmm. It’s just what you feel comfortable with.


And also my daughter.


Hmm.


And that was important.

Hmm.


Yeah.

In some religious traditions suicide is considered a sin because it is thought that only God had the prerogative to take a life. In former times those who had died by suicide were not permitted burial in consecrated ground. When Lynne’s mother died by suicide in 1981 she feared that her mother might be excluded from the churchyard.
 

Lynne’s parents had been active in their local church before her mother’s suicide. Lynne was...

Lynne’s parents had been active in their local church before her mother’s suicide. Lynne was...

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I think one of the, one of the sort of strange questions I think that went through, through my head when we were planning what the funeral was, the whole thing about you know, the sort of, if people are devout Christians that whole reaction in that kind of circle to somebody taking their own life and committing suicide, can you know for some people, that that is perceived as a sin. So that’s quite hard and I think I had it in my own mind as well, you know how when you sort of, you know, read back through sort of novels and things, people talk about people who commit suicide not being buried on, say people being buried on the outskirts of cemeteries and things, you know and just sort of questions in my own mind like that about well you know' “Will Mum be able to be buried in the cemetery or will she be tucked up in a little corner because of the way she died, because she took her own life?” And those maybe all illogical things, but those were the kinds of things that you just sort of think of, that I was thinking of in those, those sort of first, you know that first week or so after, after she killed herself.

 

Was your mother buried in the churchyard?


Yes. Yes she was, she was buried in the churchyard, in a little corner, but I think in a little corner because they happened, that was where the plot was rather than my own nightmare of in a little corner tucked behind a fence because she’d committed suicide sort of thing so it was, yes, she was buried in there, in the cemetery.

Cremation followed by a burial or scattering of ashes
Most of the people we talked to had decided to have their relative or friend cremated. Some had a church service first. Jenny, for example, organised a wonderful church funeral for her husband. This was followed by a short service at the crematorium. She had thought a burial in the churchyard might be the most dignified, but decided that it might be too difficult for her husband’s mother. Jenny did not like the idea of the curtains closing round the coffin at the crematorium, so the curtains were left open and they walked away, leaving David’s coffin. Jenny felt this had worked well.

Ann’s friend had left instructions in her will to say that she wished to be cremated. The ashes were scattered at the crematorium.
 

A church funeral was followed by cremation. After the cremation Ann found it very comforting to...

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A church funeral was followed by cremation. After the cremation Ann found it very comforting to...

Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
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You said that there was a funeral, was she then buried locally?


She was cremated because we’d often talked about, you know, if that either of us died … whoever died first what we wanted. We’d actually made wills anyway so, you know it was in the will that she wanted to cremated, so it was a cremation. 


Did you have a headstone made for her?


Because it was a cremation I had a memorial stone, which is just a small, you know, in the form of a book, and I had it placed where I thought she would, a place that she’d have liked to be when she was alive to sit and, in a very natural setting.


Oh, that’s nice.


Yes.


Is that where her ashes are as well?


Yes.


Hmm.


Yes. And I found that very beneficial, having somewhere to go. I’d always, never ever appreciated prior to my friend’s death, the value of crematoriums or cemeteries. And it was a tremendous, tremendous help to me to go back to the crematorium, walk round, just to be there, as being like the last place, the final, where, you know, the relationship in this life has sort of finalised.


Hmm.


I’ve found that a tremendous help. Just other people around who you knew were grieving looking after their graves or their memorials, and I still go regularly. I find it just so peaceful, so comforting, just wonderful.


Is that where she is or it …


Yes. Yes.


In the … at the crematorium?


At the crematorium. Yes.


Right.


Yes.


Well that’s important. Did the staff who worked there, did you have any contact with them and were they helpful as well?


Yes very helpful. Yes at the crematorium. They were lovely.


Did they help you find someone to carve the plaque for the memorial?


Yes you could order everything there, you know, you just, you just ordered it. You know you chose what you wanted. They made the time for you. They walked round, you know look at … because it’s quite a big crematorium. It’s privately owned.


Hmm.


Well privately run. And you just look round and you know you can chose where you want to place you memorial which I think is very personal.

Lucreta’s daughter had also left a note to say that she wanted her body burned. Lucreta would have preferred a burial because in West Indian culture people are usually buried. The finality and speed of the cremation upset her.
 

After the funeral Dominique was cremated and her ashes scattered. Lucreta used to visit the...

After the funeral Dominique was cremated and her ashes scattered. Lucreta used to visit the...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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You said you had a Caribbean funeral?


Well, what happened, yes, you know, we had to have the, yeah it was at my church and a lot of my friends came to the church.


Do you mind saying a little bit about her funeral?


The funeral was awful. It was really hard because, because she was battered there was this thing, not to have her face showing.


Would you, would you normally have an open coffin?


Yes, in some cases, but on a young girl, fashion Caribbean, if you see what I mean, and I, I, I didn’t have time really to think of all those things because I’m struggling in the midst of all of this, but it was advised to leave it sealed and so on the, what happened, everything, that took a while and it was at my church and I think, at my Church it was a service, and I was really in a mess I remember, but the worst bit was when we left the church and went to the crematorium, and we had a second service, oh, oh that was really hard because that’s when I realised she had, she had really, really gone for good because one minute the coffin was there, and the next minute I looked away and then the next minute it wasn’t there. It just went and that’s when it hit me that everything had gone and she was going to be cremated, and so it just hit, and they have a way of it disappearing in, there’s no warning, I was just like, No, …. and then I got up, I heard them and I saw it going under.


Oh.


She just went, she just went in so quick, so quick and then I had to scatter ashes and I…


Where are, where are her ashes?


Her ashes, at the church, at another church she used to go to when obviously, you know there still, at a Sunday school at this church in in another area, and so I gave some money for shrubs and they had like a memorial thing, and they have a plaque of her on the wall so, for many years when I wanted to, you know I had to go even if I was somewhere and I wanted to go, I had to go there, but now I don’t have to go, you know I don’t have to go to the memorial gardens, so it just shows you how I’ve moved on.

Barbara and Colin decided to have their son cremated. His ashes were scattered in the rose garden at the crematorium. Barbara wishes that they had had more time to think about their decision to do this. They planted a tree in Matt’s memory at an arboretum, but she wishes that his ashes had been buried in a specific place, perhaps with the tree that they planted.
 

Barbara feels that the decision to scatter Matt’s ashes in the crematorium garden was made too...

Barbara feels that the decision to scatter Matt’s ashes in the crematorium garden was made too...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
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Was, was the funeral as you hoped it would be. Was it what you wanted?


…I’d never really thought about it, a funeral for one of my children.


No. No.


I have a very strict Methodist upbringing, huh, so it wasn’t really,] it was just at the crematorium, I think it was all, it’s all too quick, you really, you really don’t function properly. The music was as we wished it to be, and, but I I think, sounds a ridiculous thing to say, I don’t know. One wouldn’t want to prolong the agony and have it… sort of months later, perhaps we; but a memorial service is, is a bit over the top for so young a person who you know, it probably was the only thing we could’ve done but …


You felt it was a bit rushed?


It was rushed, yes. I felt we had to do everything too, too quickly, yes, yes. And, and it was a place that really didn’t have a lot of meaning for us, that was one of the problems I suppose of having moved from where the children had been, we had lived in Scotland for far more years, so in a way it was unfortunate that way but, I don’t suppose there was anything we could’ve changed really in that respect.


And were, were his ashes scattered there?


Yes, now that is something I regret, that was again far too sudden a, far too quick a decision, I can’t remember which of us made that decision, and I wish perhaps we’d had them and thought of somewhere that meant something to Matt and perhaps [er] put them with the tree that we tried to plant in his, in his memory. That was too rushed yes. I don’t, perhaps advice on that would’ve been helpful, I don’t know but…


So looking back now, you’d rather have a place where you know his ashes are, is that what you’re saying?


Yes, I think I would. I don’t know whether Colin would but I think I would, we didn’t really want and I don’t think the family, I don’t think our other children wanted a, a grave as such.


So are they scattered amongst the rose bushes or something?


Yes, amongst the rose bushes, which, which I suppose is, it is nice, I can tell myself that you know, living things grow from, you know, just the elements of the soil, so, but I think I would’ve liked, I did keep a, going back to when we, saw his body, when we identified him, I did ask for some of his hair, which I, I planted a, I put a tiny bit of his hair with the tree that we planted, and I still have a little bit, so that, that was just something.


That was nice.


Yes, just something. That was just the only thing I could think of at the time.

Maurice and Jane had a funeral service and then a cremation for their son, Tom. They took Tom’s ashes to where other members of the family had been buried and then had another family service there for the interment of his ashes. A small stone set in the ground marks the grave.
 
People’s ashes are not always buried or scattered in consecrated ground. One woman buried her father’s ashes under a cherry tree in the garden at home.
 
After the cremation some people keep the ashes at home for a while, or leave them at the funeral director’s for a few weeks, until they decide what to do with them.
 

After the funeral and cremation Helen left her daughter’s ashes at the undertaker’s. After four...

After the funeral and cremation Helen left her daughter’s ashes at the undertaker’s. After four...

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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She was, Charlotte was cremated, and I left her ashes to begin with, you can leave them at the undertakers, and so I left them there for a while, for about four or five weeks I think until, and I hadn’t decided where I wanted to put them, but after I’d thought about it a lot I wanted to put them in the parks under a, under a tree. And Charlotte was quite free spirited and didn’t like graveyards very much, and so I, I spoke to the person who runs the parks and he said that he could order a tree, and I could pay for the tree, and they would plant it and they would be there when we put the ashes underneath. And he said, what sort of tree would I like, and I said I want something English and I want something beautiful, and so he said, “How about a Wild Cherry?” So I said, “Yes, that sounds just right.” So when, when we, when we planted the tree her, her father and her step mum and her sister and Charlotte’s little son, and a previous boyfriend and two members, two members of her psychiatric team came. And they’d already, the parks men had already dug the hole for the tree and we all put the ashes in to, underneath, not in the casket, ‘cos I wanted her ashes to become the tree, and it was lovely actually. And I’m very pleased I did that, and it’s not far from where I live, so I go every, but to begin with I went every day, and I talk to it, and I tell her all about her son.

Marion was told that she could not leave her husband’s ashes at the funeral director’s any longer. She could not decide where to bury them so she kept them in her bedroom for months. On the second anniversary of his death she took them to a Woodland Burial Park. These parks welcome people of all beliefs and denominations, and host meaningful services, religious or secular. Only wooden memorials are permitted - over the years these return to the soil. The ground it not consecrated but the grave or ashes may be blessed (see Woodland Burial Park and Natural Death Centre).
 
Steve took his sister’s ashes to a local beauty spot. His sister had left a note to say that this is what she wanted. Her ashes were scattered round a tree.
 

After the funeral Steve’s sister’s ashes were scattered round a tree in a local beauty spot. He...

After the funeral Steve’s sister’s ashes were scattered round a tree in a local beauty spot. He...

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
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…She’d even specified where she wanted her ashes scattered and she wanted them scattered in a local beauty spot I’d suppose you’d call it. And I had to write to the council, the local council and get permission from them to do it and it took quite a long time to actually get them to say, yes you can do it. It went all the way up to the Chief Executive Officer of the, of the Borough Council to make a decision because nobody had ever asked such a question before. And we were able to scatter her ashes exactly where she wanted them to be scattered.


Who said that you had to ask permission?


It’s a public property. It’s council property rather. It’s a public area and we had to ask permission to be able to do it officially. The council said that we had to.


Do you sometimes go and visit that place?


Regularly yeah when it’s nice. It, it’s odd because there is no grave to go and visit. But I go to this tree where she’s scattered around the base of the tree and I go. And there’s a bench there already. It was always there because it is a public area. And I go and sit there and, and meditate a little bit really I suppose. But it is quite comforting to go there.


Would you have liked a particular place or plaque or gravestone?


I don’t know. I think perhaps not because I think we had to abide by what she wanted and that was more important than me, us having to decide a place for her ashes to go to. I think it would be quite selfish of us to say, no we’re not going to do what you wanted to do. I think we had to do what she wanted to do. And although it feels; it perhaps would be nice to have a focal point to go to but we’ve got, we’ve got the tree where she’s scattered so it doesn’t really matter. And I think for me personally I believe in spirit life anyway so to me it doesn’t matter where her bodily remains are, her spirit is probably around me anyway.

Susan, who lost her daughter to suicide, decided to scatter Rose’s ashes in her own favourite places. She does not enjoy scattering Rose’s ashes, nor does she find it healing or heartening. She still has most of Rose’s ashes at home.
 

On her daughter’s birthday- the first one after her death- Susan scattered some of Rose’s ashes...

On her daughter’s birthday- the first one after her death- Susan scattered some of Rose’s ashes...

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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Are certain times particularly difficult for you like anniversaries …?


Yes appalling. They’re appalling. So I made a decision to … in a sense to honour them and do something as opposed to sitting at home crying. So her first, her first birthday … her … what would have been her twenty ninth birthday, we went with my … this sister, who’s been marvellous, and her and a sister-in-law of mine who, who was very close to her and my sister’s partner, we went out Scolt Head [an island of sand dunes and salt marsh], you know and scattered her ashes … well, some of her ashes. Her ashes are in all the places where we go, there’s a bit of her there. They’re not her favourite places, they’re mine. And then blow it, in those gales in March the dune on Scolt Head where she is, collapsed.


Ohh.


And I went there on Easter Monday to see her, because on Boxing Day it was still there. And the whole dune had turned upside down and all her ashes were underneath the top.


No.


So this year we went to Orkney for her birthday just to walk in Orkney and it rained a lot. And we’re going to Venice on her anniversary.


Oh.


That’s how … that’s the only way to cope with it, is not to be in the normal stream of things.


Hmm.


But to actually get out and in a sense celebrate her birthday, you know.


When you scatter her ashes do you make a … Do you go as a family or just you and your husband or … what’s best have you found?


Ashes are very particular … do you … I was told this incredible fact that your ashes weigh to within a half an ounce or something of your birth weight.


Oh.


Well don’t … I can’t. Anyway it was right in her case. I’ve been with the boys, out in the hills in Spain where we have … we grow avocados. And up there where you see the sea and the snow and up in the hills and almond blossoms, they, the boys came and her favourite cousins came.


Hmm.


And we did it. And it … not always alone, no not alone, I’ve never been alone and done it. It’s too … it is so awful. It’s so awful. There is nothing healing or heartening for me anyway because it’s just that. And I’ve still got most of her ashes.


Hmm.


And anyone who says, oh come … and I was so upset about the dune. And everybody said, “Oh come on that’s just nature.” And I said, “No she’s underneath the top, the whole point is that she should’ve been out there.” Anyway no one understands. And then you think well are you just being too sentimental for words. It is not … I do not enjoy scattering her ashes … no.

Kavita’s family wanted to scatter her brother’s ashes as quickly as possible after his cremation because Hindus believe that this is important. Hindu’s living in India believe that that if the ashes of their dead are deposited in the river Ganges, they will have a smooth transition to the next life, or be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. Kavita and her family scattered her brother’s ashes in the Thames, she said because he loved London.
 

Kavita and her family hired a boat so that they could scatter her brother's ashes in the Thames;...

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Kavita and her family hired a boat so that they could scatter her brother's ashes in the Thames;...

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
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What happened to your brother’s ashes?


Ah yeah. That’s actually quite a nice day, well almost. I can’t remember how long after the funeral, it wasn’t too long after the funeral, we, we were given his ashes. And I think quite soon after that my mum was quite anxious to get the ashes scattered because culturally I think you’re supposed to as I said, do everything almost …


Hmm.


… the same day or next day. Although this couldn’t happen here. But she didn’t want to hang on the ashes. And we all went. My dad, my mum, me and my [younger brother], had the ashes with us and went … we decided to scatter them on the Thames because my brother had a huge love for London. He loved London.


Hm.

 

Or you know passionately. So I thought it was appropriate for the ashes to be put in the Thames really.

 

Hmm.

 

So we went near Bermondsey I think, somewhere like that, where you can actually get a boat. They do, they cater for Hindu or any, all different cultures.  So we asked for this boat anyway. And we went on this boat and then scattered these ashes.

 

Was it a special boat designed to help people who were going to scatter ashes?

 

Yes it was.

 

Oh.

 

So that was very; I was quite amazed there was such a thing actually, you know. I suppose maybe living in London perhaps is one of a sort of ….


How did you find about that?


I don’t know. My mum must have done it.


Yes.


She must have done some research. I think she’s got so many friends and people, people who know much more than she does actually about the Hindu culture. I think there was … it might be the funeral people who actually suggested, recommended this company or this, these people who do this.


Hm. So you had the boat just to yourselves …


Yes.


… at the time?

 

Yes … which was amazing. It wasn’t long time, we weren’t on there, the boat only went out a short way.


Hmm.


And stopped and we scattered … it was a windy day, some of the ash came back.

 

Hmm.

 

You know.

 

Did you have a Hindu priest with you?

 

Yes, I think we did. Again I’m, I, I’m trying to remember, I can’t fully remember.

 

No.

 

But I think we did have Hindu priest.

 

Hmm.

 

Because I think some prayers are, are said.

 

Hmm.

 

Uttered you know when, when that happens.

(See also ‘The Funeral or commemoration’ and ‘The headstone or other memorial’)
 
Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated October 2012.
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