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Ashes to Ashes

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Cremation is a delicate subject among a country congregation. It is seen as undignified and disrespectful by many among the older generation. For my Danish congregations, it evoked old world memories, of pagan funeral legends and witch persecutions.

Rarely, someone from the community would die at a distance, and the only practical way to inter the remains was cremation, the ashes transported by a family member or friend. The funeral for a cremation seemed hollow to the local people, a party without the guest of honour. It lacked drama. An Anglican funeral of the old Book of Common Prayer is dignified, spare drama. It is one of the better scenes from a Shakespearean tragedy.  It evokes Act 3 of Richard II, the telling of sad stories of the deaths of kings, while ending in triumph, knowing that the Redeemer lives and at the last day, shall stand upon the earth. It needs its silent central character.

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Instead of the entrance into the church of the coffin, preceded by the priest reciting scripture, the urn was placed on a small table at the front, outside the chancel. I would have it in the place where the casket would usually be, at the foot of the chancel steps, covered with plain white linen,  as a substitute for the pall. The pall is important in old Anglican funerals. It symbolizes the grave clothes, and since it is the property of the church, it dignifies the poor and humbles the rich. It covers both an expensive casket and the poorest coffin. The pall goes on the casket at the church door, before the entry into the nave. Traditionally, nothing is placed on the pall, no insignia, no personal item, no flowers. In death, all are equal.

I had decided on draping cremation urns for the same reason. Some families chose to use nothing but the box in which the ashes were returned to them, and others had chosen expensive, ornate containers. Most old Anglican churches still had the white paraments of a previous generation, and the Altar Guild would choose something suitable in size as a substitute for a pall.

Before the funeral, as I made my parish rounds, I would hear the local tisking and clucking over the choice of cremation. “Oh, jah, but you know that her mother would not have wanted this, she didn’t hold with these modern things…” The lack of suitable visiting before the funeral was lamented. I could patiently explain that the wake was for the living, not the dead, but I was not convincing. Of course they wanted to see the deceased one last time. A bank of photos was not adequate. There was an unspoken belief – unspoken to me, at least – that we were rushing things, burning the body. What if the soul was not ready? What if the soul needed to know the body was properly buried? I did not dismiss their concerns as superstition.

At my first parish, on that bleak north shore, I had suggested a columbarium, a structure built like a wall, with sealed niches for cremated remains. Many had moved away after the war, and providing for a resting place for those who wanted their ashes returned to their ancestral home made sense. The horrible Sand Hill cemetery was running out of viable burial space, and the Clifton cemetery was washing slowly into the Bay. But my Irish-Canadian co-patriots would have none of that. They had corporate memories of the Famine, and the horrifying quick disposal of the many victims, the survivors too weak to dig proper graves.

I had a call one summer’s evening from a neighbour who was not a parishioner. He belonged to the Lutheran congregation, which was without a pastor at that time. I presided over their funerals, weddings and baptisms, while a congregant read their Sunday services. there was a certain amount of sneaking across the road – literally, as the churches faced each other at the top of the mountain. “I need to hear a real minister,” said one Lutheran escapee. I could remind that we are all ministers of the church, but she preferred the signature of the bishop on an actual license, thank you. I was not needed officially for Lutheran funerals; this though, was a delicate matter.

The deceased had not lived in the community since he departed for military service. He had been a bit of a wild young man, and he hadn’t held with regular church attendance. His dying request, though, was that his ashes be transported back to the hills of his immigrant ancestors, to be mingled with the native soil. And here was the really delicate part: He wanted to have his ashes scattered on the family farm.

This I could not do. Human remains could not be simply strewn on agricultural land. Neither the government nor the church would allow this.

The old friend and I met to work out details. “I can place some of the ashes in an unused area of the farm, ” I suggested, “but not as scattered to the winds. They must be buried. But the bishop will insist that there is a burial in sacred ground, so most of the ashes need to go into the cemetery.”

“Ah, well, we can do that much,” the old friend said. “The family has a plot. I will ask them.”

So this was the plan. A small amount of the ashes would be transferred to a wooden box, and would be buried in the farm hedgerow among the roots of a suitable tree, with prayers for the deceased and the hallowing of that place. The remainder of the ashes would be interred next to the family headstone at the Anglican cemetery.

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It was a beautiful late summer day. A few weary maple and birch leaves were in red and yellow dress. The sky was the pure, astounding blue of the north, with white clouds like the sails of Viking ships. We walked down along the verge of a potato field soon to be harvested, and stopped under a tall, old birch. I climbed through the russet branches of a hazelnut copse, and stood on the wide root of the tree. The old friend dug a suitable hole with a garden spade, and I said a few words as the little carved box was planted. The wind sighed in the branches above us, and the leaves pattered as if feet were climbing quickly up a stairway we could not see.

The rest of the family and close friends met us at the cemetery. The words were the usual ones from the Book of Common Prayer, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” in the sure hope of the resurrection.

“That’s finished,” said the old friend as we left the grave.

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About Julie

Bishop of the church and religious order ICCO in The YOKE, based in Iowa City. Former Anglican parish priest, shepherd for ten years, artist, and writer.

2 responses to “Ashes to Ashes

  1. jane smith ⋅

    Another beautiful blog post. Indeed, the expression “blog post” seems crude.

    I do hope you put all this together one day and find a publisher.

  2. tom

    I am so glad to read this post. Hope that you are well and will bewriting more in the future.

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