As we approached the first anniversary of my husband Mick’s death, my four year old daughter was grieving intensely trying to understand where her father had gone. She could remember the hearse driving away from the funeral. She wondered when he would stop resting in the coffin, return from travelling and come home.
It was heart wrenching trying to explain to her again and again that Daddy’s body had been turned to ashes. That his love and spirit was everywhere, within all of us. That he was not coming home.
Her five year old brother listened intently to our deep discussions.
I knew then that I needed to make a plan for where to place to Mick’s ashes and arrange a ceremony to help connect my children to his place of rest.
Choosing a place of rest
Before Mick died we didn’t discuss if he would prefer to be buried or cremated. He hoped that he would beat the odds and be one of the unlikely long term survivors of GBM brain cancer. By the time he reached the last few weeks of his life, he was not able to communicate and discuss such matters. Therefore when he died all the decisions were mine.
When the funeral director asked me “Burial or Cremation?” – I chose cremation. My in-laws and I did not have a cemetery in mind. The last few weeks of Mick’s life had been gruelling as we watched, waited and cared. All we could think about was getting to and through the funeral. When I chose cremation, I didn’t really give it a moments thought. It was too painful and surreal.
I didn’t realise that within a few weeks I would have to collect Mick’s ashes. That there would be more decisions about what to do with them. A close friend drove me to crematorium. They were handed over to me in a gleaming white foam box which seemed incongruous and unfitting to the gravity of the situation. Yet, the storage urns that were for sale at the collection desk did not seem quite right either. I decided that we would find something more appropriate in time. We would see what unfolded.
I placed the heavy box in a wardrobe at home. I felt some comfort knowing that Mick’s ashes were with us. For the time being , they could stay there while I turned my attention to more pressing matters of getting through each day and all the paperwork that follows death.
Months laters, I started to research options and alternatives to the unsuitable white box. My first inclination was that it would be preferable to scatter Mick’s ashes in the sand dunes at the local beach where Mick grew up. He and I both love the outdoors. My in-laws, Mick and I all felt connected to the beach. However there were a few practicalities to consider:
- The beach is at least one and half hours away from where the kids and I live.
- There are rules and regulations about scattering ashes. (Theoretically I would need to get to approval from the local council. In many instances scattering of ashes may contravene the provisions of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 in terms of air or water pollution.)
- Scattering ashes can be messy.
- Once the ashes were scattered there would not be one identifiable place to return to and visit. Sand dunes move and change and recede.
Given the above I was not sure that this would be the best choice to support the kids in their grief.
We considered placing Mick’s ashes to rest in my garden or in the acreage where my in laws lived. Yet what if we decided to sell up and move homes in the future?
I explored further ideas such as a plant pot or a bench at home. They did not resonate. Mick had an extensive and varied collection of friends who dearly missed him. They might want a quiet moment of reflection but not feel comfortable visiting our home.
The more I thought about it the more I thought that Mick would want to be outdoors with the elements, where his friends and family could visit any time – privately and personally.
When I discussed the options with my counsellor she reminded me that children grieve as they reach different milestones in their lives and that a physical place of rest that they can touch or see can be helpful. Something like a headstone can be comforting and relatable. In many movies and stories we see headstones and cemeteries.
I thought of the only cemetery with which I was familiar – an old majestic cemetery on the edge of the coast in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. When we were dating, Mick and I would often run or walk through it, on our regular coastal walks. We would enjoy the ocean views, the cliffs and the sense of history. Perhaps somehow there would be a space for recently cremated ashes? I was amazed and relieved when I discovered that Mick’s ashes could in fact be placed at rest in a new special section in the centre of the cemetery. I had found the place.
It was fitting that Mick’s ashes had been at home with us in our first year of grief. Now it was time to place his ashes to rest in the cemetery on the first anniversary of his death.
Planning The First Anniversary & Our Remembrance Tree
I asked a dear friend to accompany me to the cemetery and help choose the position of the plot and the type of material for the headstone. I couldn’t have done it without her. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
As we surveyed the other memorial cremation headstones, I could see that there were some limitations. How could we include everyone to mark the first anniversary? There was not enough space for a large gathering. Only a tiny vase was permitted on the side of the headstone which is small in itself – about 30cm high by 15cm wide. What if several people wanted to pay their respects by leaving large bunches of flowers?
I decided that just our immediate family and a few of our close friends could be present as we placed Mick’s ashes in the ground. After the ceremony, other friends could visit the memorial and then we could meet everyone in a nearby park and playground.
We created a tree to collect messages of love and memories. Instead of bringing flowers I asked our friends to write on specially made cards in the shape of a leaf/butterfly or flower and attach it to the tree.
It was a colourful visual tactile reminder for my young children and I – we were not alone in our grief.
We had a community of people who loved us and would always help us remember Mick.
We took Mick’s ashes to the cemetery and we returned home with our Remembrance Tree.
Friends who could not join us at the first anniversary completed cards by mail to be added to the tree or they wrote on spare cards when they visited us at home.
The tree has provided us with great comfort in recent years. Sometimes when my daughter feels the need to connect with Mick she will write or draw on a new card and add it to the tree. Now that my children can read they occasionally stop by it and read one or two messages to themselves.
As well as creating the tree of remembrance I felt my children needed something else fun to symbolise their own special connection to the memorial and Mick’s ashes. I presented them with two little statues on the morning of the anniversary – two identical fairies and two identical pirates. My daughter placed one fairy on the headstone and took one home to her bedroom. My son placed one pirate on the headstone and another in his bedroom.
Just after we placed Mick’s ashes under the memorial, a close friend arrived to pay his respects. My children were excited to show him their statues, the memorial and the plaque. It was a poignant moment confirming that my children felt comfortable with such a sad ceremony. I hoped that they felt a little lighter.
After the ceremony and a picnic at the playground we all headed home. Everyone was amazed to see several rainbows on their travels.
They felt like a blessing.