Richard Smith: Burnt or buried?

Richard SmithSome things divide us fundamentally. Are you male or female, gay or straight, right wing or left wing? Another fundamental division, I suggest, is whether we want to be burnt or buried.

It’s important to get this clear with your loved ones. John Lanchester begins his memoir about his parents with the realisation just after his mother’s cremation that she wanted to be buried.

Somebody who is very close to me but doesn’t like to be written about is adamant that she wants to be cremated. She hates the idea that she might be buried when still alive. That fear was common among Victorians, who developed strategies like phones in coffins. (On reflection, I’m not sure why she is more relaxed about being burnt alive rather than buried alive. I suppose that the discomfort would be shorter, and there’s more chance that your knocking will be heard.)

Whether we want to be burnt or buried may be something to do with what we feel about the status of the corpse. Is your corpse you or not you?

I was prompted to reflect on this by two conversations I had recently. One was with a friend who had travelled back to her home town and visited the tree under which her mother’s ashes were scattered. She was disappointed because she felt that her mother “wasn’t there.” But why would she be there I wondered?

My father was cremated after a funeral that was 30 minutes of non-stop laughter. We didn’t collect “his” ashes. He hadn’t asked for his ashes to be scattered anywhere, and why would he? Another friend felt it dreadful that we hadn’t collected our father’s ashes. We had left “him” in the crematorium. This was neglect. But then it emerged that her husband had left his mother’s ashes in the crematorium.

In contrast, she and her brother were engaged in a complicated debate about what to do with their father’s ashes. They live at opposite ends of the country, and the worry is that if his ashes are scattered in two different places then his “arms and legs will be separated.” His body will be dismembered, a gross abuse.

This makes no sense to me. I couldn’t feel that my father’s ashes were in any meaningful sense him. He was a wonderfully empathetic, funny, and warm man. How could a handful of ashes be him? And to think that some of the ashes were his eyes and some other bits his legs or heart is for me just ludicrous. But I recognise that for others it is very different.

I like the thought that because my father was cremated he is in some sense everywhere. If he had a grave in some beautiful churchyard in Dorset it might be lovely to visit the grave and think of him. Perhaps he’d have something witty on his gravestone. But if “he” or at least his bones were there, despite my seeming  rationality, he might not be on the train with me now.

I much prefer to a grave to have his memoirs typed out by my son which I can email to anybody anywhere who is interested. (Mind you he left 10 000 very readable words. I’m leaving my children an unmanageable 10 million. It might be best to burn them with me.)

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.