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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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: Client Manager

    £27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

    Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'