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She wanted her ashes scattered on the south coast of England. I was offered the job, and I accepted. This would be the last trip my mother and I would take together. I wasn’t sure I was ready.
Travelling has been a long-time passion for me. Mum had travelled quite a bit too, and in her younger days we sometimes went together. She was not an adventurous traveller, but enjoyed seeing other places as long as there was someone else leading the way. This time, Mum was the leader and I was the one who was, in a sense, following her.
I thought back to my trip to India, in particular to Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. At Manikarnika, the main cremation ground, fires burn 24 hours a day on the steps leading down to the river. There, cremation is a ritual believed to do much more than simply dispose of a body – it releases the soul from its earthly existence. I had watched as the chief mourner at one cremation (usually the eldest son) immersed the ashes in the water. When the ceremony was finished, the mourners turned and walked away, never looking back. I was told that not looking back is a practice that helps the family to move on with their lives.
According to the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, water helps to break the remaining attachment of the spiritual body to the physical body, washing away negative energies from demons and devils that might gain control through a person’s ashes. Sea water is apparently best.
I was beginning to think that Mum knew what she was doing when she picked her spot.
I spoke to some friends about this job of mine, and many of them believed that scattering cremated remains was illegal in Canada. However, a quick Google search explained that it is permitted to scatter on unoccupied Crown land or on water. Scattering on private property, of course, requires the owner’s consent.
The rules in England are very similar. But if your loved one has asked to be scattered on a mountaintop, such as Ben Nevis, you are politely asked to “choose an area away from the summit cairn, and also away from the north face, on which a number of alpine plants struggle to survive.”
If you are thinking of one of the royal parks, the regulations start with: “We would prefer that you don’t.” No need to say more.
However, if you are a football fan, some clubs have opened special memorial gardens for the ashes of their followers to stop the pitch from being used.
If you want, it is possible to get a loved one’s remains made into a diamond or a vase.
I found many stories of offbeat requests: The ashes of journalist Hunter S. Thompson were combined with fireworks and launched from a 45-metre tower in Colorado. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has had portions of his ashes launched into space.
And there are tales of various scattering mishaps from families. One scatterer, stealthily following a loved one’s wishes to be strewn over a golf course, found himself covered in ashes and water in the middle of the night when the automatic sprinklers turned on before he had finished the ceremony.
Another family crept down to their town’s harbour wall at dusk to cast their father’s ashes into the sea. This was in order to avoid the costly licence required – an ironic choice, since the deceased was a former police officer. As they performed the deed, the sea breezes turned and blew much of Dad all over them.
Keith Richards confessed to snorting a few of his father’s cremated ashes when the wind blew them onto a table during his scattering around an oak tree – but then that’s Keith Richards.
My task was pretty straightforward. There would be five of us on scattering day, which would have been my mother’s 90th birthday. Group 1 was travelling from the west, and Group 2 from the North. We were to converge in a town on the south coast. We had cellphones, and whoever arrived first was to spot a meeting place and call the other group. Group 1 got there first and found a pub (fittingly) where Group 2 could join them for lunch. Sounded simple.
But Group 2 couldn’t find the pub, and drove for 11/2 hours up and down the same piece of coastline trying to find it. When we finally met, Group 1 was well ahead of Group 2 in the beer and celebration-of-life factor. So, after a very late lunch (or very early dinner, depending upon which group view you held), we started out in one big group to find a suitable scattering place.
For another 1 1/2 hours we drove up and down the same piece of coastline trying to find a secluded spot with no wind or people. When we finally found the perfect place, a family of four with their bicycles invaded it before we could all get across the road. We returned to the car to settle down and wait until they left. I now had my own scattering story to tell.
Eventually, Mum’s wishes were honoured. She now lies in peace on the south coast of England, in a sheltered spot where she can hear the waves lap the shore, smell the salt air and bask in the gentle breeze.
I took a quick photo. Then I turned, and didn’t look back.
Chris Holdham lives in Toronto.