What Now? Cremation Without Tradition examined the experiences of people who planned, and conducted or participated in, ceremonies for someone who was cremated, with special focus on what they did with the ashes and how the experiences benefited the participants. The cases reflected the current trend in which the former authorities—funeral directors or clergy—have diminished roles or no roles at all. “How to create a ceremony from scratch” may become a widespread matter of interest for homegrown funeral planners in the next decade. Customers may still choose traditional ceremonies and burial of the remains. But more often they are going in a different direction. People who created ad hoc rituals for ash disposition can teach us something about different options for ceremonial treatment of ashes, and also about what makes “ritual,” in the generic sense of the word, work.
Subjects: 56 adults, ages 20 to 85, average age = 44.3, “who were actively involved in cremation and ash disposition decisions.” 40 were females and 16 males. They described a total of 87 cremation ritual events—78 humans and 9 dogs. Most were current or former residents of California.
Over 80% of the respondents said the personalized rituals they created were positive experiences, even when things did not go smoothly.
The act of ritualization came naturally to participants who had begun with no idea of what to do, and even though “Americans were quite aware that they were making things up,” the ceremonies were perceived as meaningful.
About 21% of the cases were buried at a cemetery, or were going to be buried, in whole or in part. Most of these were spouses interred to join a spouse who had already died.
Most subjects believed that scattering was what they were supposed to do with the ashes. Those who did not scatter, without prompting, explained why they had not done so.
When someone dies, there are now many options for how to dispose of a loved one’s body, what kind of ceremonies to have, what kind of permanent memorial to have, or whether to have anything at all. Some people will their bodies to “science” and that is the end of it. Some bodies are cremated but no one ever picks up the ashes. For some, there is a funeral with embalming and viewing, and the body is interred at a cemetery after the cremation. In most cases, the only real requirement is that the body be removed from the space of the living, for which there are a limited number of allowed choices, and beyond that anything goes.
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