Cremation ashes are a surprisingly complex topic about which several intriguing blogs devote much space and a number of interesting books have been recently published. To appreciate the emotional complexity that underlies cremains, one only need imagine themselves in the shoes of workers at California’s Disney Land, where numerous online sources say some the operations of famous rides – such as the Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean – are interrupted almost routinely by episodes in which park visitors are spotted scattering a loved one’s ashes during their ride. The park’s staff has reportedly become so accustomed to these incidents (which apparently happen several times each year and their frequency seems to be increasing) that security staff now have a special radio code that employees are trained to use when they spot a scattering. That code initiates a series of choreographed procedures for closing the ride and moving in with special vacuum equipment (designed specifically to clean up cremation ashes) to clean the ride as quietly and as respectfully as possible. Managers of Disney Land are understandably reluctant to speak publicly about this intriguing problem that has come about at their business in recent years, and therefore no park employee can be found publicly discussing his or her experiences in dealing with this phenomenon. But one cannot help but to imagine the varied emotional responses: many will no doubt feel ill at ease while vacuuming and scrubbing the area of the park in which the cremation ashes have been scattered. Still others may chuckle as they work. And even others may experience anger or impatience toward those who would dare to so boldly violate the playful spirit of the park so inappropriately. And, finally, there are certainly those who will be sure to feel a sense of respect and honor at having been selected – even if randomly – to pay one last dignified tribute to a stranger’s life. This article looks at some of the very intriguing differences in attitudes people have toward the idea of cremation ashes.
The topic of people’s emotional experiences with cremation ashes and how they are dealt with is discussed at length in Canadian writer Tom Jokinen’s book “Curtains.” Jokinen was interviewed for a Los Angeles Times article about the scatterings at Disney Land and said the following about the recent prevalence of unusual disposition of cremation ashes: “When all you had was a body, you had to bury it,” Jokinen said. “Where did you bury it? You buried it in a cemetery. . . . It just never used to be an option.” Now, the options are almost endless, and that has led to problems because of the varied reactions that people have to cremation ashes.
The website for a magazine called Obit, which is devoted exclusively to issues surrounding death and grief, ran an advice column piece recently in which a reader wondered what to do with a relative’s ashes that were stored in a traditional urn on a shelf in a closet. The reader said he had noted that things felt “out of kilter” in the home since the ashes had been brought in, and he wondered if having the ashes may be producing some bad metaphysical “karma” for the family. The columnist’s answer was curiously non-committal. She said, simply, that if the reader felt that having the ashes in the home was unhealthy for his family from a spiritual perspective, then, perhaps, moving them to another location or even scattering them over some special place would be the best idea. She was careful; however, to note that the answer to the reader’s problem was related to how he felt, not to anything inherit in the cremation ashes themselves. The fact is, as the columnist’s response points out, cremation ashes can be whatever the beholder feels they are; they can be equally “pile of meaningless dust” or “the eternal manifestation of a great soul.” And, in fact, the same set of ashes can have opposite meanings even to those who knew the deceased quite intimately in life.
This intriguing phenomenon that allows cremation ashes to inspire vastly different reactions creates a dilemma for businesses beyond Disney Land. The Chicago Cubs baseball team, for example, has the eternal public relations problem of song writer Steve Goodman’s cremation ashes which were scattered (with permission) in the 1980’s at the team’s famous Wrigley Field. Given Goodman’s relative fame across America the team must constantly balance the need for his fans, friends and family members to have a solemn place by which to remember him with the need of the team’s fans to feel comfortable using Wrigley Field for its intended purpose, as a place to cheer on the beloved – but usually lackluster – Cubs. The team must also now deal with what is surely a steady stream of other copy cat requests that surely come from other devoted Cubs fans, and most likely God is the only one who knows how many other cremation ashes of other fans have been scattered (whether authorized or not) at the field. Such knowledge that the stadium may, in fact, be a graveyard for dozens (or even hundreds) of people besides Goodman will surely give plenty of visitors a creepy feeling as they attend a game. But still others will feel proud to know they are in the presence of eternal kindred spirits who share their love of baseball and, particularly, the Cubs.
Such is the intrigue of cremation ashes, and, perhaps, the only important lesson can be taken from this curiosity of human nature is that, well, no matter your initial reaction to the thought of cremation ashes, there is always going to be someone somewhere who has a different attitude toward them. And neither reaction is more valid than the other. So being critical of another’s reaction to cremation ashes is probably not the healthiest route to take.