Cremation, ashes and all that dust
My dog, Thomas, passed away recently. He had heart failure. My mom passed away a few years back. She had cancer. Both my mom and Thomas left us quite suddenly. I was grateful: no prolonged distress, no lengthy period of waiting for the inevitable. She was independent, feisty and determined. He was energetic, stubborn and dominant. They both made an impression on me in life and they both allowed me to be present as they left– gracefully and peacefully. It was a very gentle exit and there was an honour in it.
My mom requested cremation. My mom’s ashes have a dedicated spot in one of my bedroom cupboards. There is a comfort keeping her there until I can do what I think she’d like or decide otherwise (she wasn’t prescriptive so wouldn’t mind either way). My children and I decided we wanted Thomas to be cremated. We could keep his remains alongside their granny’s ashes. My dog’s ashes have just arrived.
He is in the nicer box. Inside is a name tag with rose petals. They have the same quantity of ash and yet he was a quarter her weight. Funny-haha or funny peculiar?
On first instinct I chuckled. Next I enjoyed a warm fuzzy feeling. Finally, it had me thinking. Does the box reflect anything about who we are and how we lived? I started wondering about our relationships; how we interact with one another as humans and how we respond to our pets. What is the meaning we attach to each? Is this meaning different for people and animals? I understand why we might choose cremation but why do we keep the ashes? And why did my dog seem better packaged than my mom?
I don’t know whether to feel guilty about my mom in a cheap cardboard box with no name or petals, or guilty about having neither a formal announcement of Thomas’ death nor a memorial service in his honour (which possibly justifies the better presentation).
Cremation has existed longer than we’d care to imagine and is said to reflect a form of respect for the deceased. But what of the living? I guess our people and our pets bring us life experiences. We remember this when they die. They shape us, evoke feelings, make us behave in particular ways. They entrench habits and bring us happiness. They also disappoint us and make us angry. Without our people and our pets we could well be far less interesting and even less perplexing. We owe it to those in our lives, then, be they humans or animals, to remember what they brought us. Maybe this is how we respect the deceased when we hold on to their remains.
In my somewhat secular ramble, since I do not ascribe to a specific religious practice that could guide my decisions about what to do with the dead, I think the concept of cremation and keeping the ashes is about maintaining a connection. In the case of my mom, I know there are unresolved issues I wish to lay to rest before I release her ashes. I’ll keep Thomas because his surviving and grieving companion still spends copious hours walking out the kitchen door, around the perimeter of the house and in through the sliding door, no doubt in search of her friend or confirmation that he has left.
The ashes serve as a reminder of feelings of love and loss. Ashes help us appreciate obstacles we have overcome (like a female dog owner training an alpha-male puppy) and growth as a person (like a young adult making multiple life choices outside the so-called recognised social norm). Ashes, in the absence of the living, can keep us connected to those we valued and those who shaped us when they were present. Rather than as a way of remembering what they gave us, keeping the ashes might be about not being ready to let go and holding on to who we are.
I don’t keep the ashes on display. To be honest, I am reminded of my mom and Thomas through memories which evoke laughter and loss. Their pictures are on the wall or in albums. My mom features in dreams, almost regularly. I keep the ashes because it feels like a part of them is still with me. I feel I can offer Thomas’ companion extra support, knowing his ashes are with us. My mom’s ashes maintain a connection I still need, and offer a sense of peace I didn’t have when she was alive. And that’s okay.
It was in the final farewell to each that I found closure on their deaths. It is in keeping the ashes that I deliberately maintain a connection to their lives. But it was our lives lived together that gives me understanding and meaning. Who knows, maybe my mom and Thomas will one day share boxes and rose petals. Maybe they will wait for me. Whatever the case, whether peculiar or humorous, I too will land up in a box – possibly cheaper, possibly prettier – but no doubt more comfortable than any of the countless living boxes people have sought to put me in. I don’t need a name tag and I don’t mind being kept or scattered but I do think the rose petals are a really lovely touch!