real life

Scattering your parent's ashes. And other hard decisions

“When I die, I want to be cremated and I want you to scatter my ashes.”

My mother and I had had this conversation every six months or so for as long as I could remember but it never failed to make me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t oblivious to the the fact that she would die one day, I just didn’t particularly want to think about the details.

It was also her gentle way of reminding me not only did she not wish to be buried, she also didn’t want to end up shoved in the linen cupboard like her late father had been, hidden away like a dirty family secret.

Over and over again, I’d assure her I would follow her wishes and that when the time did come, I’d make sure that in death, just as in life, her requests would be respected.

But when that day did finally come, I fell down a bit with my promise.

Maybe I just never believed that my strong, smart and independent mother would be going anywhere anytime soon, and that we'd have plenty of time to discuss the ins and outs of death and the aftermath.

But we didn’t.

Mum was diagnosed with cancer in late August and died in November. It was so quick and so savage that we didn't even get the chance to discuss funeral plans because my mother refused to believe she was dying. Ever positive right up until her last breath, Mum saw her cancer diagnosis as a blip, something she would overcome with a little treatment and some time. The thing is, time is the one thing cancer is hell-bent on destroying.

Bern and her Mum, Betty.

When that unfathomably dark day came in November and I found myself not 4 hours later sitting down with a funeral planner, the only thing I did know for sure was that my mother wished to be cremated. Because who discusses funeral songs and casket selections when they are trying very hard to do nothing but live?

The other thing we hadn’t discussed was what to actually do with the ashes afterwards. Scatter them, yes, she'd made that abundantly clear, but where? Think about it: If you want to be let free somewhere, for all of eternity, the place is going to mean a lot to you, right? We knew where we lived didn’t mean a whole lot to her, and that she’d only stayed because my brother and I were immersed in friends and school, so it wasn’t there. Yet in all of the stories she told us about growing up, how did we know which one meant the most to her?

As it turns out, I really didn’t have to worry too much at that exact moment because I didn’t pick her from the crematorium for a very long time.

This wasn’t a callous or calculated move, it was a reluctance borne out of pure, unadulterated fear. I knew she was there, in an urn, on a shelf, alone and waiting to picked up. I had the phone calls, the text messages and eventually, the typed letter to prove it. Yet I still didn't make a move to go and get her.

Christmas passed, we brought in the New Year and still she remained there instead of with me or my brother. The funeral home was a 10 minute drive for me - it wasn’t a logistics thing. It was a me-avoiding-life thing.

See, I think it comes down to this: my mother was the only one in my life who kicked me up the arse when I needed it. And I mean that fondly. She was the first one to pull me up if I wasn’t doing what I should be doing as a responsible adult. My boss certainly didn’t and my husband and my friends are so lovely that they just let me be flighty and irrational when I had no business doing so at my age. So when Mum died, I lost my anchor and my moral compass. I stopped paying bills, started going out and getting drunk with workmates on a Friday night instead of returning home to my kids, I dropped the ball on so many levels I can’t even count them.

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The fact that I could not find half an hour in my day to go and pick up my mother's ashes was a stunning example of this.

There was no catalyst that made me eventually go do it. I didn’t get a nasty letter from the crematorium or a threat that she’d tossed into the dumpster if I didn’t retrieve her. No, it came on my son Sam’s 8th birthday, almost six months later. I asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he turned to me and said this: “To see Grandma again”.

I cried. Of course I cried but not just because I was sad for Sam, but because I was sad for Mum. That I was not honouring her the way I told her I would. And it was time for me to change that.

The first thing I had to do was clean out my mother’s house, something I had also been dreading and avoiding. Weirdly, the hardest thing to find were my fathers ashes in a box at the top of her pantry. What were they doing there? My mother and father had been separated for 30 years, why on earth would Mum even have these? Well, despite the fact that they were no longer in love, they were still legally married and Mum had become the rightful owner when he had died some years before.

The next thing I had to do was equally as hard but also much more important. I got into my car and journeyed over to the Funeral Home and collected her ashes. I was oddly calm as I addressed the lady at the front counter who without hesitation, took off into a room out the back and brought them to me. Her face showed concern and sympathy, the two things I dreaded more than holding Mum in my hands. She offered me a room, if I needed some time but I'd had enough time, it was time to take Mum home. I signed for her in the way you might sign out your child from school and then gingerly walked to my car, like I might break her.

It was then that I faced a dilemma I hadn't really thought through. Where do I put her? I mean, I didn't want her riding in the back but the front seat was too precarious with my driving. So I came to the decision to strap the urn into the seat, with a seatbelt.

I wish I was making the next bit up but you know what they say about life being stranger than fiction; I was pulled over my the police for a random breath test. As he ducked his head inside the car and spotted the fully secured urn, he simply looked at it, then at me and waved me on my way.

The hard part though, was this: Where do we let Mum free? I rang my brother and I started to tell him about our options (Fireworks into the sky being one, which we both agreed was awesome but probably out of our price range) and he stopped me short. Let's just take her to the place where she was the happiest - the place where she first became a Mum.

So my family and his, gathered in this little seaside town, on a glorious Queensland Autumn day and we walked out along a long pier and found a spot. A spot where the elements were kind (read: wouldn't blow the dust back into our faces because I'm not sure I could've handled that) and a place that looked peaceful and eternal. Then holding onto the urn together, we emptied the contents, signifying Mum being let free into a place we knew she'd always be at peace.

Bern and her brother, Les at the spot.

I'm sorry I took so long to go and get you Mum. I will always feel terrible for leaving you there, alone and feeling unwanted. Because that is the exact opposite of what you always were to us.

Have you ever avoided (and there is no judgement) picking up your relative's (or pets) ashes because you couldn't deal with it at the time? If you did have the courage to do it, what did you do with the ashes? I'd love to hear your story too.

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