Under “normal” circumstances, the death of a loved one generates a final conversation about what to do with the worldly body. The decisions come down to things like:

• Burial/cremation,
• Casket/urn,
• Cemetery plot or ashes in a special place.
• Head stone/marker,

Burial or Cremation?

Like so many other things, COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of this conversation. Sadly, due to COVID-19, the overwhelming number of deaths in some countries has resulted in some bodies unable to be picked up. They have had to be stored temporarily in refrigerated trucks, and then, out of necessity, placed in mass graves. Thankfully, this has not been the case of anyone I know, and this blog speaks to those of us who have been able to make the decision to bury or cremate the remains of our loved ones.

Two years ago, “pre-virus”, my wife suffering from terminal cancer, decided that upon her death, she wanted to be cremated. She was never one for confined spaces, so her claustrophobic fears made her shy away from a traditional burial. Being a good Roman Catholic, all her life, she made sure that the Roman Catholic church condones cremation. We found out that this was a recent decision on the part of the church however there are some caveats. The church wants you to keep ALL your ashes in a single container (no lockets or mementos filled with small samples) and they request that you bury the ashes in a Catholic cemetery with a proper funeral ceremony. In our case, the decision to cremate was the limit to what Mary could decide, so I was given the final “ok” to do with the ashes as I thought best.

Recently relatives of mine were called by the funeral parlor and told that the ashes of their mother who had died of Covid-19, had to be picked up by October 15th. I am not sure what the funeral parlor would do if a person could not pick them up by the deadline however my relatives thoughts, in a time of grief, turned to how to comply with the request rather than fight the messenger. You have to know my family sense of humour to understand and laugh at the discussions that surrounded who would pick up the ashes and where they were going to be placed. More on that later.

Casket or Urn?

Its easier to pick out a casket if the decision has been made to cremate. No need to burn an expensive casket. They are now making inexpensive caskets for that purpose. For those who do choose a casket and burial, I read recently that there are now even biodegradable caskets that hasten the decomposition process from multiple years to multiple months.

Just like caskets, urns are now coming in a variety of choices including a container that has a tree planted in the ashes, creating over time, a living legacy.

In my case, my kids picked out a beautiful aqua bottle to carry Mary’s ashes. Actually, they first picked out a beautiful small box only to find out it would not be big enough. I suggest you determine the size and weight of the “container” needed to carry the ashes of your loved one – before you look for the solution. In the end, they went from a more traditional wooden box to a large beautiful bottle. It was a great choice. I have to warn you that this choice might not be for everyone. Some people might be uncomfortable with actually seeing the askes through a glass container. That was not the case for me. You might also consider that, a bottle is not “lockable” like a box. It was suggested that with a bottle it would be wise to glue the stopper on to make sure it is firmly attached to the top to the avoid spilling the ashes if it got accidently tipped. over. At the time this seemed like great advice.

Cemetery plot or distribution/placement of ashes in a special place?

If, like us, you do not choose a casket burial, you will also be faced with where to put the urn. This part of the decision process is in two parts. For some, the “urn” will sit in a temporary location until a service is held, while others may choose to keep the remains in the “container” in their home or office. If the remains are going to be held forever in a special place in the home, I suggest the urn should be chosen as carefully as any other piece of furniture. In my case, I knew the ashes were going to eventually be placed in a final resting place yet to be determined. The ashes were first, as in so many cases, placed on the mantle in the living room. It became a daily ritual for me to go over to the bottle and saying something to Mary while placing my hand on the bottle. I have heard of people keeping the box or bottle on the mantle for a number of years and can understand the comfort it brings. On the other hand, I have heard of people who look at the container and get a bit freaked out about the remains of a dead person, (however close they might have been), being in the living room. Often, they are not the spouse of the deceased but the child or grandchild of the person. Back to my relatives who tell the story that none of the 5 children in the family were really comfortable with their mother’s ashes being in their house. It was made even more complicated by the issue that 2 of the children who might have been comfortable, lived in a different Province and due to COVID restrictions were not allowed to go to the Province where their mother had died, to pick them up. A comical string of emails about who would/could pick up the ashes and where the ashes would be located ensued. In the end they decided that she would not temporarily abide in any of their homes but their mom would be placed in the corner nook of her favorite pub until her ashes could be properly disposed of in a celebration of life ceremony to be held later.

The sudden sale of our old house and a yet undetermined new location for me to live, meant that I had to choose between sending Mary’s bottle to a moving company storage facility with the rest of my “furniture” or making a quick decision on the final resting place for her ashes. I had been told that it is illegal to distribute the ashes of a body in locations such the ocean or a river. I also know it is done all the time. But here is the thing, Mary got seasick. She loved to look at the water but preferred to do it from shore on a beach. I did not feel that she would want to be forever bouncing green with motion sickness on the eternal ocean. I had also heard of many horror/funny stories of people in choosing to place their loved ones on the ocean, did not take into account the way the wind was blowing. Sadly the ashes of their loved not only got on the ocean but also on the deck of the boat and on their clothes. I decided I would place Mary’s ashes on the side of one of her favorite local mountain tops under a big shady fir tree. On a cold calm November afternoon, I hiked to the top of the mountain with two bottles. One contained Mary’s ashes and the other contained her favorite Pinot Grigio. After a few quiet moments, a couple of glasses of wine and what I thought was a final “discussion” with Mary, I decided it was time to spread her ashes and say goodbye. It was then that the advice to glue the top of the bottle came back and haunt me. The top was firmly glued on and I could not get it off to spread the ashes. As this was THE day and there was no turning back, my only choice was to break the neck of the bottle on a nearby rock. I must confess that this is not an easy thing to do. Most of her ashes are under the tree but a small amount of her ashes are, unfortunately, by the rock. So much for keeping her and myself together. For the next twenty minutes, I was picking small chards of aqua colored glass out of the ashes to protect an unsuspecting animal from cutting its paw. Here on a mountain top on a calm day, I had committed my own version of the wind on the water ashes catastrophe! My angst and ineptitude (Mary said I was never very good with my hands) turned from a small anger at myself, to a grin, and then a smile, as I felt Mary looking down at me. I suspected at that moment that she would be having a big laugh at our final earthly adventure together. I felt her close and decided that we laughed one last laugh together like old times. That wonderful afternoon on a mountain we said a great, but sad, goodbye.

Headstone or marker?

The good part about a conventional burial is that it almost always means a headstone or a marker of some kind. It gives someone a place to go and see a physical reminder of their loved one. It provides a place for flowers and mementos. Often it is in a place where other family members are also placed. While I know this is all true, I thought back to the last time I visited my parent’s grave. I realized it is not part of my lifestyle and that I was unlikely to visit Mary if she was buried in a cemetery.

I also do not believe that people want to be kept on a shelf as a reminder of their earthly body. I believe that in releasing the ashes, however clumsy you may be, you actually release the person and your grief in a way that begins the releasing of a relationship that will never be felt again. Their remains are not so much in a specific place, but a place in your heart that is forever marked. To all of you facing a decision to choose cremation and an urn, I suggest you get the correct size, do NOT glue on the top, and find a still day in a special place to say goodbye.

In the Fall, for some reason, – perhaps it is Thanksgiving, – perhaps it is the colder darker days, – or perhaps it’s the leaves turning, my memories at this time of year, bring back a rush of emotions. In the end, we all want to look back at these difficult choices and say to ourselves that we made the right decisions.

I visited Mary on our peaceful pleasant mountain the other day and decided that I’m good with my decisions. RIP Mary Mac!