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Bereavement due to traumatic death

Burial or scattering ashes

People from different cultural backgrounds and with differing beliefs are likely to differ on where a person should be buried or where the remains should be scattered. In medieval 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 believe this, but others don't think it matters.
 
Some people we talked to were still trying to decide what to do with their relative’s ashes, months or even years after they'd died. Some had made plans but were waiting for the right moment to scatter the ashes. A few people had stored the ashes in a box or pot in their own house. Erykah’s family didn’t believe in having gravestones.
 

Erykah thinks that her mother felt better having her brother’s ashes at home. His sudden death...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
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...we had music, and we had hymns and we had readings, people did readings. And at the crematorium, he was cremated he’s not buried, at the crematorium we had one of his favourite songs played.
 
And then are his ashes there? Or did you take them somewhere else?
 
His ashes are at my Mum’s, still, to this day. I think I’d like them buried now, but I think my Mum just wants to keep them there. I think because when somebody’s took so suddenly, there’s no warning and there’s no closure, it’s very difficult to then remove the body and I don’t know how I’d feel. I think my Mum feels better knowing that he’s in her house.
 
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Austen's ashes are in a plastic pot waiting to be taken to Greece when Nina dies. She wants their...

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Age at interview: 84
Sex: Female
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And then, did you bury his ashes or...?
 
No, They’re sitting in a plastic pot waiting to be taken to Greece and scattered with mine.
 
Ah.
 
Over some Greek [cliff]; because we had a house in Greece.
 
How lovely.
 
That was Austen’s dream and so, I thought we might as well have our ashes thrown off the cliff. 
Some people had wanted the ashes put in a definite place. Sally left her mother’s ashes with the funeral director for a year while the family decided what to do with them. After some discussion, the family buried the ashes in the churchyard and paid for a plaque to mark the place. Sally wanted to have a place where her children and grandchildren could take flowers on special occasions to remember her mother.
 
Marcus often visits the London cemetery where his fiancé’s ashes lie. The place is marked with a headstone. Godfrey’s son’s ashes were buried in their garden at home. If ashes are buried in the garden people may be reluctant to move house later. However, ashes in the family’s garden can be dug up and moved.
 

Marcus visits the cemetery at least twice a year and remembers his fiancée. Nearby there is a...

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Male
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And her ashes scattered or were they buried?

No they’re buried and they’re buried in a (place name) cemetery. And I go there at least twice a year. And that’s on the anniversary of her death, on the 29th of April, and I normally go on Christmas Eve every year as well. And other times if I’m in (place name), I normally make the effort to go and stand there for a few minutes and a have a quick chat.

Is there anything to mark the place where she’s buried

There is indeed, yes, she’s got a headstone. She had her own headstone temporary one, because it’s a family plot. She’s now on the list of people who are there as well.

And I go see her and quite often I go… just as a funny enough… the cemetery is, is quite a big one. And on the way out, right on the corner is a tiny pub and I always go in there for a very small glass of wine and raise it to her memory. 

 

Adrian’s ashes were buried in the garden at home, but the exact place isn’t marked. Godfrey and...

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Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
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And then after the funeral was your son buried or cremated?
 
He was cremated, and that was you know okay, and we…
 
What happened to his ashes?
 
His ashes were buried in the garden here, so that’s one reason why we were very keen not to move house. So that was very comforting for us, to do that.
 
Did you have a ceremony for that?
 
We had a ceremony for that, and the, the, the college chaplain who supported us all along came and did that. We don’t have it, a marked place, but it’s in the garden. We have a bench in Wytham Woods which is in memory of him, which is very near to where he did his research because he did in research work in Wytham Woods and the university kindly agreed that we should have a bench and that’s very nice to have that so we have somewhere we can go to and a lot of our friends say how lovely it is to have that, that bench there. And so on, and feel that’s a very useful and practical thing, they can sit on it when they feel tired, and we think that’s very, oh that’s very nice, and it gives us a very good reason to go and see the place that he worked, and one of the people at his funeral said how, you know, whenever they’d seen Adrian in Wytham Woods he always seemed to be on his hands and knees. This was because he was actually doing research which was concerned with counting seeds, his doctorate was related to the affect of sheep grazing on what grows on the herbivory. And it’s very interesting that you know how many sheep you have on a bit of land makes an enormous difference to what grows there, and it’s of particular concern because in some parts of the country, in rural Wales for example, where he’d also done some research where too many sheep can result in growth of lots of thistles and little else. 
 
Marni’s sister knew that Marni didn't want to be buried, so her ashes were scattered on common land in the village, but people may not make their wishes clear before they die, especially if they die young and unexpectedly.
 
Some people had already scattered the ashes in a beautiful place, such as on local Downs, on a special hill which brought back memories of climbing expeditions, on a beach, on a local canal or in a woodland area.
 

Jayne collected Jon’s ashes from the crematorium and took them to Italy by plane. She would not...

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Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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Was it difficult arranging to take his ashes to Italy?
 
Well the police were involved with arranging, helping us to arrange [it]. I remember we had to wait to get Jon’s ashes back from the crematorium, and when we went, and one of the things I remember really, really clearly was when we went to get Jon’s ashes you walk into this little room and there’s a shelf, or, this is what I remember, there was a shelf and different boxes on it, and sort of he’s lifted off a shelf and given to you, you know? And it’s almost like, “Oh my God, here’s my husband in a box.” And we had to have Jon’s, because Jon was going over, Jon’s ashes were going overseas, he had to be sealed. The casket had to be sealed at the Italian Consulate, and have a certificate to say he was in there.
 
So my Dad had to take Jon’s ashes with the police, it was New Year’s Day actually, New Year’s Eve? New Year’s Eve he had to go to the Italian Consulate with a police officer, and they brought him back with a red seal on. But even though we had that, it was still; so if you can imagine what I said to you about not wanting to, I wanted to be with Jon, once I’d got his casket back I wouldn’t let it go, so I used to sleep with him and everything, and when we went to the airport to fly out the security, you know the security, going through security they wanted to take Jon’s ashes off me and put him through the X-ray machine, and I wouldn’t let them.
 
So even though we’d gone through the ritual and got all the paperwork that we needed, you know I was still faced with somebody wanting to take him off me and put him through the X-ray machine and I did refuse point blank, and they didn’t in the end. But I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have let them do it. And then when we got on the flight, my Dad had to say to the air hostess, I don’t know what words he used, but I wasn’t going to put Jon in the overhead locker. And I remember eating my dinner off him on the flight. It was New Year’s Day, we flew out New Year’s Day and they were playing Jingle Bells, I had Jon on my lap and I was eating my aeroplane meal off him.
 
I would not let him go basically, you know, until we scattered his ashes.
 
 
Did you have a memorial for him?
 
No. Somebody said to me a while after, well we scattered his, scattered his ashes in Italy by a tree, so I, I, there’s a tree, there’s a big oak tree in the middle of a Tuscan field that’s completely on it’s own, so that’s his memorial I suppose, but nothing with his name on it. 
 
Linda said that she thought it would be harder to ‘move on’ if her son’s ashes were buried in one particular place. She felt that by releasing his ashes ‘he could fly’ and his ‘soul could soar’.
 
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Linda believes that by scattering his ashes Kevin could 'go over to the light'. She has given...

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Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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We chose a cremation rather than a burial because that was personal choice to me. Again with my beliefs...
 
…Kevin wasn’t in that body any more, that was, that was just his vehicle that he used for this particular life and I just thought it was, would be harder to move on if we had a burial site. But again that’s personal choice. Some people need that. Some people need a place to be able to go and talk and grieve and put flowers. But I’ve also known from other people that that can be heartbreaking because people are forever stealing off the graves.
 
So you had a choice of either having him cremated there…
 
Or buried.
 
…or buried at the, could you have had him buried at the crematorium?
 
I don’t know because we didn’t go…
 
No.
 
burial was never an option for me...
 
So as his mother I went for the cremation because I knew that I’d be able to scatter his ashes.
 
Where did you scatter them in the end?
 
[The] Downs. Because it’s somewhere that we’ve always gone as children and I’ve always taken them as children and I’ve found it a beautiful place to go for walks and, and I felt that that was, at the time, where I needed to go and looking down a year later I don’t think I would have taken him anywhere else. It’s a place that’s about 40, 30, 40 minutes in the car away. It’s a nice place to go. And I just felt by releasing his ashes there, that, you know, he could fly.
 
You know. And that it made his soul soar. Because I also believe that they hang around after death and round the funeral. I think they try and hold around and, and try and make contact with you. And I think if you can let them go in a service and with the ashes they can go over.
 
And they, they don’t feel that they have to be around…
 
No.
 
... you know, for us and I think it’s important that they do go over to the light.
 
And that they complete that transition of birth and death. Although I don’t actually believe it’s death as such. And most definitely we meet again. But also I, I have this belief that we all belong to the same soul cluster group. So whereas we incarnated this time as mother and son in future lives and in past lives we’ve been connected in other ways. And that you change from male to female as well.
 
And, and that this, this relationship has gone on for thousands of years.
 
But you forget. Because that’s what happens when you incarnate, you know, it’s wiped from your memory and it’s up to you to be of that place to remember.
 
I can see why that’s comforting.
 
Yes. And it’s what keeps me going really.
 

And then do they give you the ashes wheneveryou want them?

 
Yes. Yeah, then that was up to us. And just to be aware that, you know, that can be a shock in itself because they’re quite heavy. They come in a box, a very crude box with his details written on the side so that you know you’ve got his ashes. You can purchase [boxes] if you wanted them for extra costs to place, you know, to, to put the ashes in or, as, as we did, we went to John Lewis.
 
Just to find something that they could be put in. And that’s what his girlfriend chose to do and she still has his ashes at this moment. But I couldn’t hold onto them, I couldn’t have them in the house.
 
So…
 
So I scattered them…
 
…some are scattered and some are…
 
Some are kept. Yeah. But they were divided. That was the most bizarre thing because I had to open up the box of the ashes and I had to divide them for my, for my children. They, they didn’t want him to be scattered. So I had to respect their wishes so they said they wanted them in little boxes but, that could be tied up
Some felt bad about cremations and burials. They hated throwing earth onto the coffin and making final farewells. Martin accepted that he would have to cope with seeing his wife’s coffin lowered into the ground.
 
Others said it had been a sad occasion but that the sun had been shining and that there had been moments of humour during the ceremony. Alison had a special chest made so that her children could be buried together. She made the coffin look like a treasure chest because her son liked pirates, and she scattered paper stars onto the coffin instead of earth.
 
In some families opinions differ about where a person should be buried or the ashes scattered. Susanna commented that traumatic bereavement does not always bring out the best in people.
 
After Dorothy’s son died his ashes were divided. Some were put into two caskets, one for his wife and one for his daughter. Some of the ashes were also mixed with his grandmother’s ashes and scattered along the bay.
 
Burials may be in a churchyard or cemetery or on private land. Jocelyn’s son’s body was shipped back to Ireland after the Bali bomb, for burial in the family graveyard.
 

Ed's body was brought back from Bali so that he could be buried with his family. The gravestone is inscribed, 'There was a smile that brings us roses in December.'

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Age at interview: 65
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We arranged for his body to be shipped back to Ireland, and we buried him in the family graveyard which was, all of that was a positive, having been through a lot of negatives, you know, we had him back. He could be buried amongst his family, I think his Grandfather said that he was the, something like the seventh or eighth in a line, who were buried in that graveyard from the middle of the nineteenth century, and we have a very, we now have a very nice granite tombstone I guess you call it, which was contributed by his Godfather who is from County Cork, and it has a lovely inscription on it which he actually stated at the memorial service was, “There was a smile that brings us roses in December,” well they’re quite common now, roses in December, but it, it it’s the kind, it’s a lovely phrase, and that is on his, that is on his gravestone, and we attend the grave. And every time I go to Ireland which is probably every two or three months, I wouldn’t go without going to see, to go to visit the gravestone. And actually there’s a, a, in a little village nearby there’s a most wonderful a little pub, that’s a sort of hole in the wall, just the sort of place that Ed would like, and one sort of feels that he might slip out every now and again and go and have a pint.
Josefine’s husband was buried on their own land (see Josefine’s account in ‘The funeral or commemoration’).
 
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Josefine explains that usually people can be buried on private land as long as relatives do not...

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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Are there any rules about where you can bury people in this country, or how you can bury them?
 
The Natural Death Centre collected  information and is providing information in the Natural Death Handbook so yes you can be buried on your own land and  provided that you don’t erect a gravestone and turn it into a graveyard, you don’t change the use of the land. But nowadays, there are so many green burial grounds up and down the country [over 250 of them]. Some are more like park land, some are more like meadows and some are like woodland. There are different types. For people who want to find out about natural burial grounds in their area, they should contact the Natural Death Centre www.naturaldeath.org.uk.
 
So anybody who wishes to bury somebody they love in their own garden, that’s fine?
 
Yes, you can do that. And people have done that but, you know, your neighbours might object if it’s a little, tiny little garden there are not many rules around, there are a few about not too close to a spring and so forth, you know, and... 

Last reviewed October 2015.
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