Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Blowing in the Wind? Identity, Materiality, and the Destinations of Human ashes./Autant En Emporte le Vent ? Identite, Materialite et Devenirs Des Cendres Humaines

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Blowing in the Wind? Identity, Materiality, and the Destinations of Human ashes./Autant En Emporte le Vent ? Identite, Materialite et Devenirs Des Cendres Humaines

Article excerpt

  No, no. It's not like that. Death isn't romantic ... death is not
  anything ... death is ... not. It's the absence of presence, nothing
  more ... the endless time of never coming back ... a gap you can't
  see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound.
  Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (1968)

Stoppard's evocative stripping away of the cultural meanings through which human beings attempt to come to some kind of 'terms' with their mortality was published in the late 1960s. If his notion of 'the endless time of never coming back' resonated with audiences of that time, the 1970s then saw the beginnings of new and apparently more deliberate meaning-making practices associated with death and dying in the UK. This article takes as its point of departure that moment of both disenchantment with traditional deathways, and initial engagement with new alternatives. Its focus is the post-1970s trend towards removing ashes from crematoria by survivors and it asks whether this spatial re-location constitutes a site of new and innovative ritualization.

The study and its context

The stimulus for the multiple-sited ethnographic study presented here was the shift away from conventional, collective sites of disposal, such as the crematorium grounds, the cemetery, and the churchyard, for the final disposal of ashes in the UK. Whereas only one in ten sets of ashes were removed from a crematorium by bereaved people in 1970, by 2004 over 56 per cent of all cremated remains were being taken away for disposal elsewhere (Kellaher, Prendergast & Hockey 2004). This now means that every year nearly a quarter of a million sets of ashes become a focus for decision-making by survivors of the deceased.

The 'freedoms' and forms of mobility which ashes now seem to represent were described during interviews conducted with professionals such as funeral directors, clergy, humanist officiants, bereavement counsellors, stonemasons, midwives, and council officials; and with bereaved people who have disposed of a relative's ashes. The study was carried out in the four sites chosen for Davies and Shaw's large-scale Reusing old graves survey (1995): the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, Nottingham, Sunderland, and Glasgow. These represent a wide distribution of urban locations throughout England and southern Scotland. In addition it was agreed with the authors of the original study that their primary data would be subjected to secondary analysis which promised to inform our core concern with finding out what people are doing with the ashes they remove, and how they understand and evaluate their choices. Gathered in 1995, Davies and Shaw's data also allow for a historical comparison of changing attitudes to death and disposal over the last decade in all four sites.

In every area, in-depth interviews were followed by focus groups with a minimum sample of seven professionals. This produced a sample of twenty-eight professionals, all of whom provided data on trends and practices within their areas. In addition, fifteen case studies with bereaved people who had chosen to remove ashes were completed in each of the four locations. Work among professionals helped with the recruitment of bereaved people, and preparation for the case study work we undertook with them. Based around an extended interview, case studies included ethnographic fieldnotes which described informants' homes, photographs, and copies of personal memorabilia. The overall sample of sixty bereaved informants encompasses a wide range of ages, social backgrounds, and relationship types. Distributed throughout four UK sites, this sample is not of a size suitable for predictive empirical generalization. What it allows is considerable insight into the cultural repertoires which inform the processes of private introspection and social negotiation that our informants have undertaken--and which result in particular disposal and memorialization strategies. …

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