How to honour someone’s wishes, after they are gone

Courtesy of The | By Ken Gallinger | Originally Posted 05.31.2014 | Posted 11.12.2017

Ashes could be scattered in the lake at a family cottage, instead of being buried there.

My dad’s body was cremated earlier this winter. Before he died, he asked that, when spring came, we bury his ashes at the cottage. This was just a verbal request; it’s not in his will. We want to honour his wishes — but with the high taxes in Muskoka these days, we’re not sure we’ll be able to keep the cottage in the family. It doesn’t seem right to put his ashes there if we’re going to sell in a year or two. Ethically, how obligated are we to honour dad’s wishes?

Sometimes aging parents (a category for which I feel qualified to speak) forget that their kids are capable of competent decisions; they therefore can’t stop issuing orders – even from beyond the grave. But there’s a statute of limitations even on parental authority – and death ought to define that limit. Honouring the memory of a loved one is a family’s prerogative, privilege and responsibility – and the deceased has no business telling them how to do it.

Then, too, remember that cremation defines the end of “the body,” per se. You’ve already honoured dad’s wishes about how his body should be disposed, and the ashes are merely the residue after the flesh is gone. So you’re free to do as you see fit.

Having said all that, your dad’s request is a perfectly reasonable one – and so is your concern. So here are a couple of solutions.

One possibility would be to scatter (rather than bury) the ashes over the ground at the cottage, or even into the lake out front. Yes, it is legal, and you can do it yourself; you don’t need a funeral director or clergy-type to help. There’s nothing yucky about this; ashes are easy to handle, and frankly, no different from ashes you take out of the cottage woodstove whenever you’re there.

There is something different about scattering ashes rather than burying them under the old oak tree. If you bury them, urn and all, you immediately create a defined “gravesite” or shrine, and when you sell the cottage, that’s going to be a real emotional tug – and potentially a problem for the new owner, as well. But when you scatter ashes, they are literally “gone with the wind”. They aren’t “here” or “there” – they are everywhere, and that’s how it should be.

Another suggestion: if you are concerned about having a lasting place where you can go to pay respects, how about dividing the ashes? I know it sounds weird, but when you think a bit, it makes sense. You could sprinkle half at the cottage, thus honouring your dad’s wishes. And bury the rest at the cemetery closest to the cottage, perhaps with a small marker. That site will always be there for you to visit, even after the cottage is sold.

If your dad’s request had been ridiculous, you’d be within your rights to ignore it. But he didn’t ask to be exposed to vultures on Mount Everest; he merely asked for the ashes to return to the place where his happiest memories were formed. Even if you sell the cottage, the memories will remain — so why not honour his intentions?


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