Ashes to ashes

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My son Joey throws rose petals into the air at Tricia’s memorial service at Sutton Bank
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My sister Janet watches rose petals floating in the air at Tricia’s memorial service at Sutton Bank

I had some interesting feedback from a number of readers following my column about epitaphs a couple of weeks ago.

Clare Proctor said that the issue of what to put on her father’s gravestone hasn’t cropped up because, “My father’s ashes have been in my sister’s cupboard for 34 years, so not only have we not written an appropriate epitaph, we haven’t actually decided where to bury them!” She goes on to explain that her mother-in-law’s ashes lie under a flower in a pot in the garden, and her husband has a wee chat with her whenever he’s doing the weeding.

When my close friend lost his mother, her ashes were divided up and some given to each of her four children who were then able to decide what they wanted to do with them. It meant they could each choose a special place to scatter them that held personal significance to them.

I don’t have a strong opinion as to what should happen to me after my death because I’ll be, well, dead. What matters more is that my children lay me to rest somewhere that would be meaningful to them. Having said that, I do know that it helps when you tell your family what you’d like to be done following your demise. When Dad died, because he was a devoted Catholic, there was no question about what he wanted and he was buried at the local Catholic church following a traditional funeral mass.

The sudden onset and rapid progression of my sister’s illness meant that she was forced to think about what would happen far earlier, and with far more urgency, than she had expected. She was diagnosed with cancer just five weeks before she passed away, and it was only a week before she died that she finally wrote down her wishes. Her choices couldn’t have been further away from my dad’s.

She asked to be cremated, and her ashes scattered in a number of places important to her. There are some in the North Yorkshire village where she grew up, some at a Buddhist Monastery in Northumberland, some from Sutton Bank, and some near Boscombe Beach in Bournemouth. Tricia had a lot of friends, but her actual cremation in York was a fairly small affair. Her instructions about the ashes meant that her wider circle of friends and loved ones could attend the various informal memorial services and, subsequently, had somewhere special to remember her whenever they wished without having to come all the way to North Yorkshire to do so.

Although it was an incredibly difficult thing for Tricia to have to plan her own memorials, we were so grateful she did. If you have no idea what your dear departed would have wanted, then you are left with a dilemma because you fear doing the wrong thing, or disappointing them, while at the same time coping with the grief of their loss. If you find it awkward to discuss it with family, then I suggest you at least write something down, and put it somewhere where it will be found once you’re gone. Your loved ones will be very grateful. So although I’m not especially bothered about what happens to me, I have told my boys that I’d like to be cremated, and that they are welcome to divide the ashes and place them somewhere that matters to them. If they don’t have a particular place, then they are welcome to just chuck me off Sutton Bank too.

Going back to epitaphs, Les Myers contacted me through my web page, countrymansdaughter.com, and said that he would love to have the popular poem ‘Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep’, attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye. It is absolutely beautiful and worth looking up if you don’t know it. And Neil McBride mentioned Spike Milligan’s ‘I told them I was ill’, but stated that he would want ‘McBride was a legend in his own tea break’. And Lynn Catena noticed her late neighbour’s gravestone had the words ‘This wasn’t my idea’ on his headstone. Another friend would have ‘Tinkety Tonk and Toodle Pip’.

And you might remember the misspelled epitaph I mentioned last time that ended ‘E god she was thin’. Lucien Smith’s family friend would tell the same tale, but always added, “I wouldn’t care, but she wasn’t.”

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 18th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 16th March 2022.

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