Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

Over at my new place, I described a bit of my experience a couple of weeks ago in scattering some of my son's ashes in places meaningful to us in North Carolina. I left out most of what I was thinking and some of where we went ~ private property where we received permission along with the words, "We are honored" ~ but private property, nevertheless. So you can get a glimmer, but not much beyond that, from those posts.

Meanwhile, this week one of my blogging friends is attending a workshop in Living with Loss/Grieving and I raised the question, as I guess I have before, of cremation liturgies. I am thinking specifically of situations like ours, common in the United States, where there is a funeral or memorial service in a house of worship with the cremation happening at a separate facility before or after. In most cases in this country, family and friends do not go to the crematorium. I did, with a friend, but in the trauma of that week, it did not occur to me that perhaps a short but intentional service there would have been a good thing.

Diana asked me about my thoughts on cremation liturgies. Perhaps I will write one over the next few days. My very beginning thoughts(which I left in comments to one of her posts) go something like this:

"I think that cremation forces us to confront the end of an embodied existence in a way that burial may not. I think that fire is a very different element than earth and its connotations are quite different. And when all is done, you have not a mound of earth but a container of ash -- no place to visit, but material to deal with, and that's something that people handle in a variety of ways."

I would very much appreciate hearing from others about their thoughts, experiences, and ideas.


Nancy said...

I very much appreciate your blogging on this site and your more public one.

I have no children. But I will face cremation at my mother's death and I will go to the cremation. She is adamant that she wants to be cremated. Several years ago, I let her know I fully understood and would comply with love. I then asked her what she would like me to do with her ashes. Her eyes teared up and she did not respond.

I would welcome a creation liturgy and a chance to talk with her again about her wishes. Very much a loving part of our journey together.

Thank you, as always.

Gannet Girl said...

I'm working on it, Nancy.

karen gerstenberger said...

I tried to think of a liturgy of some sort to accompany the scattering of Katie's ashes, but nothing came. It was a very personal moment, and since Katie wasn't particularly religious, and Gregg is agnostic, it didn't feel right to invite a cleric, and that meant that anything liturgical was up to me. It didn't happen.

We kissed the flowers and tossed them in to the water with her ashes. The ashes themselves are so sacred, and the very act of touching and dispersing them so stunning, that it was appropriate to us to be speechless.

Death by cancer is so awful that her ashes seemed to me to have been cleansed of the illness, and that was beautiful, in a way. Nature is beautiful, Katie's love for Camp is beautiful, so it would be hard to think of words that are sufficient to the moment. If you find any, I'd love to hear.

Gregg asked, "What's that saying about 'Ashes to ashes?'" and I was pretty surprised at that. I couldn't imagine someone saying that as I scattered the precious remnants of my child's body. I think I'd want to slap anyone who said it to me. But I'm menopausal.

Susan said...

Recently at a women's bible study the floor was open to ask "culture questions" of our senior pastor (PCUSA). The question was about if cremation was OK in the context of our eternal life. I was very taken aback because it never ocurred to me that there was even a question. He answered it with some unsurity and made a comment that if anyone could recreate a body from the ashes, God could. It left me feeling very uneasy about the fact that I cremated my son. I wish I had never even heard the question. Did you talk about cremation in your studies? I think liturgy would be most comforting. We were not even given the option of going to the crematory thought I doubt we would have. My husband carried him out of the house and they put him on a gurney and took him away. It was a bright sunny day in July, like today. I think of it when I go out my front door on days like today.

Gannet Girl said...

Susan, your son is so beautiful. I see that he died on my birthday. My deepest condolences to you.

We never studied cremation per se in my PC(USA) seminary, but the subject came up a couple of times. One of my professors mentioned once that his parents had both been cremated. He is from Scotland and I believe that cremation is much more common there than it is here. And when I made a class presentation on pastoral care for survivors of suicide, most of the questions were about cremation. However, no one ever suggested that there was anything problematic about it, including from the standpoint of our eternal life.

I did read that the Catholic church teaches that a person's cremains should be interred all together in one place, as a matter of respect for the body. In the early centuries of the church (and this we did study), there was much debate about what a resurrected body might be -- recognizable? age? gender? features? The remains of martyrs were frequently strewn all over the place with the intention of further tormenting them them and their families, the idea being that the ashes or fragments could not be reconstructed into a resurrected body.

The church believes that we will come to new life as our embodied selves, but we do not claim to know what that means or looks like. I hardly think, however, that God is stymied by human efforts to meet the challenge of caring for the bodies of our loved ones, however we choose to do so.

I believe that it is God's joy to heal and recreate your son into the whole and lovely person he was always intended to be.

Gannet Girl said...

Karen, I'm so sorry if the title of this post caused you pain. (I am now changing the liturgy I am writing!) It comes from the Book of Common Prayer and is based on Genesis 3:19, I believe. I think I have muttered it as something kind of rote, one of those nonthinking phrases. And now instead I will think.

Anonymous said...

My son died in 2008 of cancer. My husband has been a PCUSA pastor until last year. Neither of us gave it another thought. I could not have imagined my son laying in the ground. For me personally, I was terrified that I would go crazy and want to dig him up. There was no way for my body to fathom the separation from his body unless his body was literally not here.

There are some denominations that have trouble with the notion of God "raising" our bodies, if there is no body here to raise. But quite frankly, what is going to be left of a body inside a coffin after hundreds of years? My guess is not much. And if God is who He says He is, putting the ashes back together will be no problem.

We had our another pastor from our church come and do a service with our families at the scattering of his ashes. He read a simple prayer and the rest was in silence - as Karen said, that seemed right. We then gathered later to tells stories and have dinner together.

Just another experience...

karen gerstenberger said...

Dear Robin, please know that the name of your post didn't cause me pain, as I know it's a familiar phrase, often spoken at memorial services. In our situation, I was shocked that Gregg (the anti-churchgoer) would remember it, and it seemed very hurtful in the context of setting Katie's ashes free on the water. It's not offensive, in theory - but it would have hurt me deeply if someone had said it of her, as we let her ashes go. Does this make sense?

Karen said...

Once again, Gannet Girl, bless you for the therapy of your blog and comments section. (And Karen, if you're reading, that totally makes sense to me.) I also cannot handle anything glib when it comes to my son, and so for me, silence was/is the best approach. The people with us in the ocean, as we scattered some ashes, sang a hymn and a Hawaiian chant and prayed, but I was not attuned and most people respectfully kept silent. It was a speechless, somber, deeply sorrowful moment. We chose not to attend the cremation itself--the thought of it horrifies me still. That has to be one of the most emotionally insane days of my life and being there would have made it more so. I truly wished I could have crawled out of my own skin that day, I was so crazy with grief. I do best to not think of it too much. To have a son one day and a box of ashes the next is simply horrific.

Joey's ashes weighed close to his birth weight and I carried him in my arms as I carried him as a baby. Of course, in our ocean ceremony, we only spread a little bit of Joey's ashes. Those waters were his favorite place, so it is fitting, and we feel his presence there powerfully.

We also gave tiny jars of his ashes to his closest friends. I need the rest here with me. They are precious to me. I am very glad we cremated instead of buried. That keeps him present.

I have a friend whose young son is buried in another state, and whose financial resources do not allow her to visit her son's grave. In talking with her, I see that it is a source of deep sorrow to her. She worries about it frequently and wishes she could bring flowers to the place. It has made me thankful that Joey is with me still, wherever I go, and I do not imagine that I will ever scatter the rest of his ashes.