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 Alice,  for example, was buried in the churchyard. Although the family are not West Indian they drew on the Barbadian tradition for her 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…

Age at interview 61

Gender Female

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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…

Age at interview 58

Gender Female

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Paula’s husband was buried after his funeral, rather than cremated, because this is an Islamic requirement. In Muslim custom only the men of the community 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 Simon 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 him 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…

Age at interview 62

Gender Female

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In some religious traditions taking one’s own life is considered a sin because it is thought that only God has 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.

Lynnes parents had been active in their local church before her mothers suicide. Lynne was…

Age at interview 47

Gender Female

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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…

Age at interview 60

Gender Female

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Lucreta’s daughter had also left a note to say that she wanted her body cremated. 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…

Age at interview 57

Gender Female

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Barbara and Colin decided to have their son Matt 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 his 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 Matts ashes in the crematorium garden was made too…

Age at interview 68

Gender Female

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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 his 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 daughters ashes at the undertakers. After four…

Age at interview 53

Gender Female

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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 several 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 Steves sisters ashes were scattered round a tree in a local beauty spot. He…

Age at interview 37

Gender Male

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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 daughters birthday- the first one after her death- Susan scattered some of Roses ashes…

Age at interview 54

Gender Female

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Kavita’s family wanted to scatter her brother’s ashes as quickly as possible after his cremation because Hindus believe that this is important. Hindus 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;…

Age at interview 41

Gender Female

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(See also The Funeral or commemoration and The headstone or other memorial.)

The funeral or commemoration

Funerals or other meetings to commemorate a person's life may be very sad occasions, but they often help those who are grieving. Planning can be cathartic...

The headstone or other memorial

The people we talked to wanted to have one or more ways of remembering the person who had died (also see Coping with grief and...