Ashes to Ashes, Fun to Funky

I have been waiting for a good opportunity to publish a set of related stories about our attitudes towards the cremated as this is such an interesting aspect of human behaviour. Back in August, during “Operation Amen” (I kid you not), Italian police arrested workers at a Tuscan crematorium who had disposed of 10-20 bodies at a time rather than individually to save money leaving grieving relatives to mourn the ashes of strangers.  They were charged with fraud, conspiracy and “offending the piety of the dead.” So everyone was pissed off because all the ashes were mixed but then in what sense are the ashes of the individual?

Konrad described this in an earlier comment and there was a very funny article printed this weekend in “The Guardian” about people who keep the ashes in very peculiar places including the glove compartment of their car. The fact that people revere the last mortal remains of a loved one is not particularly surprising even if they are reduced to carbon. I don’t have problem with that. But in many instances the fact that Granny is beginning to leak from the box or has been shared by several relatives really starts to challenge the way that we think about individuals and a unique collection of matter.

And what about the story of Keith Richards snorting his father’s ashes? I know it was said in jest, but even if it was true, I don’t think it is particularly sacrilegious. Maybe some of us want to absorb and imbibe those that we feel connected too.

Give me your thoughts on this. I would be really interested to know. After all, if you are in your middle age, then most of the cells in your body are 10 years old or less…. In other words, your cells are continually replenishing themselves. There is no material you!

Now isn’t that a comforting notion?


Filed under In the News, Newspaper, Weird Story of the Week

10 responses to “Ashes to Ashes, Fun to Funky

  1. I don’t personally feel that my connection to a person’s body survives after they die – but then I haven’t had anyone who is either very young or in my immediate family die. I can’t psychologically conceive of any of them (in-laws as well as my own family) dying, but I probably would react very superstitiously. What would you classify ‘closure’ as, Bruce? Is there anything rational about it?

    I used to house-sit at a place where one of the owners kept her brother’s ashes near the doorway so she could remember him every time she walked in or left. I also remember the wife of an office-worked in the WTC who lived very close to the towers, and said that she ran out onto the balcony grabbing at ash in case some of it was him.

    I can kind of see myself doing this sort of thing – almost because it would be treating what seemed to me an irrational event like that person’s death (particularly if it were so horrific) with an irrational response. Makes no sense, but I’m being honest!

  2. brucehood

    Take a look at this link to a blog that was automatically generated…. I love the story of the widow putting her husband’s ashes into shot-gun cartridges and then having a shoot !


  3. Arno

    Those are some pretty awesome things to do with the bodies of the deceased. The shooting… hmmm… does any of the gunpowder stick to the animals once dead? If so, could this be a potential form of cannibalism? 😉

    I love the thought of being turned into part of a reef though. Though in practice, it ain’t much more different than becoming worm food.

  4. “Pencils made from the carbon of human cremains. 240 pencils can be made from an average body of ash – a lifetime supply of pencils for those left behind.”

    Wow, what a legacy. ‘Feeling sad now I’m dead? Write a book about it…with my carbon remains!’

  5. >>So everyone was pissed off because all the ashes were mixed but then in what sense are the ashes of the individual?>>

    “His/Her dead body” could just as easily become “His/Her ashes”. The human mind associates objects with individuals, whether it’s a tombstone, memorial statue, painting, his/her favorite writing pen, etc.

    The crematorium violated this common mental association of a person to the object associated with him/her. This is how the mixing of ashes easily became the mixing of persons, and therefore, socially ‘taboo’.

    The death of a loved one doesn’t necessarily end their individuality, since they remain present, real, and unique in my mind. It’s not just: ‘I think, therefore I am.” It’s more like: ‘I think, therefore I am, and so are you.’

    But I’m just expressing my thoughts…hopefully it won’t come across as dogmatic rubbish.

  6. Susan

    I don’t think dogmatic rubbish but definitely “magical thinking”. What is amazing at all in the ashes story is that people think they are only getting their own relatives ashes at any time at all! It is impossible to completely clean the receptacle of other bits of DNA or ash prior to the next body being cremated. In addition there is the ash, DNA and other stuff of the coffin the person is cremated in and all the cells that have dropped off the skin of the mortuary attendants and any little insects that have begun to inhabit the body before it is cremated or happen to get into the coffin etc at the time. Therefore at no time are the ashes you receive at the end of the process only those originating from the deceased person! I got the following from a site explaining the cremation process (
    “The casket or container is placed in the cremation chamber, where the temperature is raised to approximately 1600 degrees to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. After approximately, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, all organic matter is consumed by heat or evaporation. The residue which is left is bone fragments, known as cremated remains. The cremated remains are then carefully removed from the cremation chamber. Any metal is removed with a magnet and later disposed of in cemetery grounds. The cremated remains are then processed into fine particles and are placed in the container provided by the crematorium or placed in an urn purchased by the family. The entire process takes approximately three hours. Throughout the cremation process, a carefully controlled labelling system ensures correct identification.” So you can see that unless the cremation process takes place in a “fresh” chamber that has never been used before, it must be impossible to remove absolutely every tiny speck of ash or DNA after each cremation. Therefore they are ALWAYS mixed, unless of course you are the first to be cremated in a brand new chamber!

  7. I was thinking about this more today while at work. It occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t the mere mental association with the deceased that created the outrage…it may have been outrage over a violation of expectations…much like people feel when they have been swindled by a confidence man.

  8. brucehood

    Yes Hardesty, one expects to get what one pays for but the moral outrage is not only a financial one. I think your comment aptly captures the way that we initially respond to sacred transgressions with outrage at first and then we look for reasons that make sense of that emotional response. Trampling on graves would also elicit non-financial outrage. Wearing a killer’s cardigan is another. When we can’t find a good reason then we are “morally dumbfounded” as Jonathan Haidt says.

  9. Kerry

    In agreement with Susan, I have a family member who used to repair cremators in the 70’s (so the processes, I am sure, are out of date now).
    He was more often than not called out because part of the mechanism would be ‘clogged’ up with different material, including ashes.
    I have 2 questions therefore: what happens to those extra tiny specks of ash that accumulate to be, potentially, a substantial amount of ash?

    And ….. what size is an association and physical memory of a person supposed to be? Do we have an expectation of the amount of ash that a child would constitute as opposed to a morbidly obese grown man, for example, and therefore be satisfied that we have the essence of our loved one when we are presented with the urn?

  10. J.

    I like the story of the stone worker at the National Cathedral in Wash. D.C. — From one of the bishops he asked permission to put her remains in a wall of the cathedral after cremation. The bishop was sorry but declared that only clergy and those making large donations could be put into the cathedral walls. Months later the bishop encountered the stone worker and asked him where his wife had been interred. The stone worker said, “She is in the mortar that I used to build the east wall. She is buried all over this cathedral!” — Great story.

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