Torch vs. Spade


Cremation vs. burial goes back further than one may think. While modern crematories did not start popping up till the early 1950’s, it was a large part of the ancient world. In 1885, J.A. Tanner M.D. in The Sanitarian, made the argument that cremation has its benefits in regards to health and safety of the public due to the still rampant disease during this time period. In the early 1900’s cremation was partially used as a tool for controlling disease-ridden towns.

While we no longer advocate for cremation based on the necessity of sanitation, cremation has become a popular choice for reasons other than sanitation. The decision to be cremated is more likely to be based on reasons such as, “I’m afraid to be buried,” “I don’t want to leave a carbon footprint,” “I’m afraid of the dark,” “I didn’t want to be a burden to my family,” “It’s just easier this way,” “My faith requires it,” and of course, the ever popular answer of lower price.

While cremation has been around for centuries, there is a growing and relatively overlooked issue, what comes after the cremation? What becomes of the cremated remains?

With burial, the end is inevitable. After the funeral, we know the drill; we are going to bury the remains in a cemetery. Cremation is different; it leaves limitless options. All the same traditional options still exist: burial, entombment, ossuaries, etc., there are a multiple number of new options such as tattooing cremated remains, fireworks, a diamond created out of cremated remains (I suppose carbon is carbon), artwork with painted cremated remains in them, hand blown jewelry with specks of cremated remains in them, and the list keeps going. Google it, I even become surprised sometimes at the things that I am unaware of and this is what I do for a living.

The options that exist are an amazing testament at our attempt to memorialize people. There is, however, another option, one that is sad and disheartening. Nothing.

Cremation is different than burial in that it allows people to do nothing to memorialize their deceased. Did you ever see the movie Meet the Fockers? There is an infamous scene where the urn is knocked off the mantle and the cat proceeds to use the cremated remains as a litter box. It’s funny in the movie, and there isn’t anything wrong with taking an urn home. But, what happens when you pass away and you had four sets of cremated remains on your mantle or in your house? And your kids inherited them, or worse you didn’t have anyone to inherit them? What happens to the four sets of cremated remains on your mantle?

Rick Montgomery with the Kansas City Star published an article on November 3, 2015 that states: “‘Only about 40 percent of the nation’s cremated remains wind up buried at gravesites or placed into formal columbaria at churches and cemeteries,’ said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.” So what happens to the remaining 60 percent, the remnants of perhaps 700,000 Americans each year? Kemmis said there is no way of accounting for it. “People take them home, and that’s perfectly legal,” Kemmis stated. “But there’s a lot of urns in closets and on mantels, with no plan for them.”

This is becoming an issue. For instance, last month I was contacted by a local woman who buys storage units at auction. She found cremated remains in one and was kind enough to see if I could help find the owner. We never did. She dropped them off at a church to have them entombed in a niche. Landlords find cremated remains in abandoned apartments. Pawnshops have called us that found grandpa in a box with an assortment of other items that had long since been forgotten.  This is so much of a problem that there is something actually called the international scattering society where they take care of unclaimed cremated remains as well as remains that need to be scattered in various locations around the globe.

For all of the trendy conveniences that come with cremation, there are the obvious drawbacks. My concern, and that of many funeral directors I know, is the

psychological impact that cremation is having on an entire generation. “Some experts say that cremation has made death and loss seem more fleeting than forever.” That sentence was hard to swallow when I first read it, to grasp the depth of its meaning. To lose perspective and reverence of forever is something that we should be hesitating to simply swallow.

Continued from Montgomery’s article:

“The key to avoiding the pitfalls of a cremation culture, experts say, is to discuss   the disposition of remains with family members before death strikes and quick decisions have to be made amid grief. That’s especially important given the many options that nobody considered a half century ago. Area grief counselors and hospice workers say many family members come to regret scattering remains at a faraway site, leaving survivors feeling distanced from their loved ones. Others may wish years after a close death that they’d been able to attend a funeral to view somebody one last time.”

It’s not just grief counselors who see that many families regret scattering ashes.

Funeral directors see it too. Mrs. Jett’s husband, Jim, was only 62 when he died. She insisted that all Jim wanted was direct cremation and she refused to go against his wishes. We of course complied. Mrs. Jett scattered his cremated remains on some wayward trail in the middle of nowhere that apparently they frequented when he was living. Mrs. Jett came to the funeral home and just sat in the back of the chapel at least once a month for as long as I can remember before she passed away herself. She said nearly nothing other than acknowledging us when she walked in. Sometimes she would talk, sometimes she would cry. She had nowhere to grieve. No place to go to memorialize Jim.

Fast forward to the children of Mr. and Mrs. Jett, they came to see me after their mother passed. I should tell you they were both devout. Some people of faith have said the placement of the body or cremated remains does not matter; your family knows where you are. However, these devout children saw the torment that their mother endured in trying to grieve over the loss of her husband of forty years and regretting scattering him. So they chose to inurn their mother’s cremated remains in a mausoleum.

Let’s pose this question though, what if the children’s system of belief differs from their parents? We know this is possible. What if those children do not believe in any type of afterlife? Assuming they scattered the cremated remains of their parents, their parents, based on their own assuming belief, are simply gone. Nowhere. What type of psychological impact does that have on the next generation and the perception of death?

There are literally endless options for cremation and burial. Most people make up their mind before ever asking what their options are or possibly considering the long term ramifications of their actions made in grief, for themselves or their children.

Why are the cremated remains of a loved one treated with less reverence than an actual body just because the form of disposition is different? One of the most prevalent quotes I’ve heard over and over is from Sir William Gladstone, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”

I wonder what Sir Gladstone would say about forgotten loved ones in a storage unit. It is not a matter of the disposition, it’s a matter of the dignity and the memorialization that each life has earned that really matters.

Torches and Spades is simply how it ends. The decision we are making now is about our grief, for those who survive us. The choices we make are about service and or memorialization of any and every kind. The decision is about celebrating a life, or grieving for it, not about the final disposition.
Excepts from the Montgomery article can be read in full at: the