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Cremation and Relationships With the Dead

Photo by Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

A vessel of cremated remains is a precious item in the homes of people who decide not to bury or scatter the ashes of their loved one. They can’t be sold for any monetary amount, yet they are viewed as personally valuable. It’s interesting to hear the amazing details of a person’s life, prepare a ceremony in remembrance of them, then hold and handle 3-5 pounds of ash which now encompasses the physical manifestation of their existence. 

When transferring cremated remains I find myself thinking, “This is a weird way to be a person.” Sometimes I get a little existential and wonder, how is this still a person? We treat those remains like delicate artifacts and call them by name. When families pick up the ashes, they handle them with the utmost care. They are the tangible remnants of that person, the bones still holding DNA, but in such a different form than a human body. 

The physical change from body to ash is difficult for some people to comprehend, especially when its someone you know. For many of us, death does not seem real until we want to pick up the phone and call that person. There is a powerless feeling when that is no longer an option. A cliché I hate is “letting go.” It perpetuates a belief that things are finite and tells people that the relationship is over. 

Cremation is an amazing way to explain how a friendship doesn’t have to end once death has occurred. When someone is cremated, they are not brought back to the funeral home in their human form. They are ashes. The energy created from incinnerating human remains, has not been created or destroyed, just transferred. 

The relationship we have with someone who has died doesn’t end because they are no longer a living, breathing form. Even as ashes the relationship can continue as much or as little as we choose to pursue it. You’re probably thinking, “That’s crazy,” so let me explain. 

People come into our lives and we develop a perceived connection to them. Every relationship is based on how that person makes us feel, not their physical presence. The amount of time we spend with someone is irrelevant. How we feel about the other person is what makes our relationship. Many of my friends live far away. We might talk once a month for a few minutes. We just pick up where we left off, as though no time has passed. I feel these relationships are deeper and stronger than those I hold with my colleagues whom I see daily. 

If long distance friendships can continue and grow regardless of time and distance, then the relationship we have with people who have died doesn’t have to be past tense. It actually never has to end. That person can still make us feel the same way today, in death, as they did at any point of our lives together. 

You might be saying, “I can’t have the same relationship with someone who’s dead as I did when they were alive, because I no longer have the option to interact in the same way.” Humans like things that are tangible. A two sided conversation with voice inflection and body language makes us believe that person is present and gives us feelings of validation. This is just perception. I have met people who have said they felt connected to me and I felt completely neutral towards them. 

How many people felt devastated when Princess Diana, or Elvis died? These people never even had a conversation with them yet we mourn. The grief in that circumstance is about how they impacted and continue to impact us. This grieving is just as valid as a friend passing away. I know it’s difficult to comprehend, but every relationship that we will ever have is not actually about the other person. It is about how we feel about them. 

The amount of time we spend with someone doesn’t determine the depth or quality of our relationship. If how I feel about my friend in Australia, who I haven’t seen in 8 years and may never see again in person, is just as strong as my relationships with people I see weekly or daily; then I can have a strong ongoing relationship with people who have died. That relationship doesn’t have to be past tense. 

When someone dies, we think to ourselves, “If only I could tell them one last time how much I love them.” We tell the people we care about, these things, because it makes us feel amazing. The best thing about loving someone is that you get to feel it whenever you want and it actually has nothing to do with that person being physically present. 

So why have a relationship with someone who’s died? I think the better question is, why not? Why not give yourself permission to continue to currently love someone who isn’t in a physical body? There is nothing wrong with knowing and feeling love for someone who isn’t right in front of you. There is nothing wrong with thinking of that person and saying aloud, I love you. This does not make you crazy. 

This doesn’t mean that you’re denying that person has died. If cremated remains can still be somebody (which they are), then the relationships we have with friends and family- those who have gone before us, are just as valid and real as the relationships with people who are living today.

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