Touching on the taboo subject of burials, urns and shrouds

Alice Outwater

Dealing with death and burials can be a touchy topic and is often postponed. People feel skittish talking about it.

One friend mentioned, “I have boxes of ashes of my dead mother, father, aunt, etc., in my closet and don’t know what to do with them. It’s more and more on my mind and beginning to spook me out. How do I go about . . . and what are my choices? In fact I got some of the labels mixed up and don’t know which ashes belong to whom. One box tipped over, the top flew off, and the ashes spilled all over the floor.”

It’s best to discuss with family members how you want your remains handled. Do you wish to be cremated or placed in a casket? You may decide to visit a funeral home about the details. If you choose an open casket, you might desire cosmetic work and to specify how you will be dressed. What sort of casket do you prefer: a simple wooden box or something more elaborate, fashioned of a special wood? Or a brass casket? Do you plan to wear your wedding ring or perhaps include a favorite object?

Through the ages rituals surround death, various cultures specifying their own protocols. Now, in ours, when everything has become more informal, a laissez-faire attitude is more acceptable.

Mary, an avid environmentalist, mentioned she was sewing a linen bag with a drawstring in which her body will be placed. This will be lowered into a grave dug six inches down, with a sapling planted on top. Her body will meld naturally with nature.

None suggested a King-Tut type tomb.

Emotions at this sensitive time can create animosity in a family: Two sisters were at odds with each other: “My mother never missed church Sundays, and she wished a formal church ceremony, then to be buried in the family plot. My sister was adamant about throwing the ashes from a mountain top to represent our mother’s free spirit and love of nature.” Unfortunately, this argument continued for months. One sister surreptitiously grabbed the box of ashes and hid it. They finally agreed to divide the ashes, but neither would reveal what she had done with her half. Last I heard, the silence still remains between them.

What type of container should you use for ashes? A young friend suggested putting her elderly aunt in a shoe box, as she’d done with her kitty cat. Another said, “My aunt loved Little Red Riding Hood and I found her treasured antique glass cookie jar in her kitchen, so why not use that? The urns for sale in the funeral home are ugly and too expensive.”

When John died I had a favorite sculptor fashion a container made of clay, with an opening at the top, for his ashes. She gathered sticks while canoeing on Otter Creek and placed them in the hole. The result was dignified and charming. I asked her to sculpt a similar one for my ashes. She added a tiny bird among the sticks. It is on a shelf in a bedroom where it fits in with other carved items there. My choice means our children will have one less detail to attend to after I die. I find it oddly comforting to know where my ashes will be.

One acquaintance was instructed by her spouse to sprinkle his ashes in four locations: one on the Maine coast, another on Camel’s Hump, then in Colorado where her husband spent time as a child on a ranch, and the last on the tip of Hawaii near the grave of Lindberg, whom he admired.

Some of these instructions may seem over the top, but people can be quirky in their end-of-life wishes. As you muse over what you want and become comfortable with the topic, it becomes a matter-of-fact decision. Best of all your expression and preparation will help your children realize you won’t be here forever.

Brace yourself for my next article: burial plots and gravestones.