Jeremy Laurance: Last goodbyes that keep our loved ones' memories alive

I had never seen human ash until Sunday morning, when my brother-in-law shook a small part of Grandma out of the green plastic urn into the lid and handed it to his sister, my wife. It was much grittier than I expected. My first thought, which I guiltily suppressed, was that it looked like the Growmore I scatter on the roses each spring. Then I thought: could there be a better one-word epitaph for grandparents?

My wife took a pinch between her fingers and tossed it daintily into the air. "I need to check which way the wind is blowing," she said. Satisfied, she swung the lid – but too vigorously and its contents rose into the air, leaving the rest of us to brush Grandma out of our hair.

Then there was Grandpa. We were standing in a magnificent spot overlooking the Mawddach estuary near Barmouth in North Wales, where the family used to take their holidays. Swirls of mist curled over the amber and emerald trees at the head of the valley, the light glittered on the sandbanks as the tide raced out and beyond them rose the dark bulk of Cadair Idris, its peak lost in the clouds.

We had wanted Grandma and Grandpa to have a good view, in their final resting place. Were we mad? It had taken the 10 of us (four members of the family couldn't make it) all weekend to select the spot. We had crossed Barmouth bridge, spotting salmon in the tidal water, climbed another hill beside a gorge and circled a lake, its burnished surface unruffled by a breath of wind.

After lengthy debate we settled on a spot off the beaten track, thick with pink and purple heather (which Grandma loved), by a natural stone seat, where, we felt, they would be undisturbed. All the grandchildren took turns to shake the urns, some sprinkling carefully, others swinging vigorously, all of us shouting encouragement, till all around the heather was coated with a thin layer of white dust.

It was a mix of Roald Dahl and JRR Tolkien. Earlier we had creased up with laughter at a notice displayed in Barmouth harbour: "Any person found dumping ash, dust, clinker ... will be prosecuted". As we emerged from the cars later – "Have you got the grandparents?" someone yelled – the youngest grandchild bore them in a rucksack on his back, as they had borne him nearly two decades ago.

We expend enormous effort preparing for new arrivals into the world, planning pregnancy and birth, hoping for a good experience and a safe delivery – but so little thinking about what makes a good exit.

Some (more distant) members of the family had wondered why we had gone to the trouble and expense of taking a party of 10 to a distant corner of the country – to dispose of two shovelfuls of ash. All of us who were there felt differently. We had celebrated the family Grandpa and Grandma had created – and answered the question where people go when they die. Into the hearts of those who remember them.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

    £14560 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers personalise...

    Recruitment Genius: Key Account Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A really exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Multi Trade Operative

    £22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An established, family owned de...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen for a Customer ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project