The Unusual Stuff We've Done with Our Cremated Loved Ones
What to do with the dead? It's a real problem. You love someone, they die, their essence fizzles off into the ether, and you're left with the husk, the empty vessel: a rapidly decomposing sack of flesh. You can't just dump them in the biohazard bin, but you have to dispose of them somehow.
Solutions across the globe vary. In Tibet, corpses are cut into pieces and left for the vultures to pick apart. The bones are ground up with barley flour and made into beak-sized cakes. In Madagascar, the Malagasy leave their loved ones underground for seven years, then dig up the skeleton and dance with it around the tomb. Here in Britain, we generally exit via the oven.
Around three-quarters of our dead end up in crematoriums. It's an incredible process: a 600°C gas jet is blasted at the torso for two or three hours. The limbs start to flex as the muscles tighten and then all the flesh burns away. The charred bones are scanned by a powerful electromagnet, which picks up fillings and hip replacements, and then whizzed up in a giant coffee grinder and passed on to the bereaved.
While most people say whether or not they want a cremation, very few indicate what they'd like to happen to their ashes, leaving the decision up to those they've left behind. Some simply get forgotten (many funeral directors have a room full of uncollected urns); others get shoved under the kitchen sink. If we're going to avoid the same sad fate, we need to start thinking about death while we're still alive. We called on some bereaved friends for inspiring hints and tips.
Liam Lever, 32, guitarist with LTNT
VICE: Hi Liam, how did your granddad end up inside your guitar?
Liam Lever: He died, obviously, and then he wanted to be cremated. I got handed a bag of ashes. At some point I had to drill out a guitar and I thought it would be the perfect thing to put a bit of him there. The guitar had quite a weird reaction: it kind of smoked up the whole back end of the scratch plate. I don't know what's burnt when someone gets cremated, but it seems like the electromagnet on the pickup is drawing it along because you see bits just come slowly outside the hole. It's weird, because it's completely sealed up.
Do you think he'd like being in there?
He likes the music I make. He's heard a lot of it. He was into it. He'd appreciate being taken on stage various places. It's good for me to have this connection to him. He was always a really good person and I sometimes am not. It's nice to have him there to remind me not to be a prick.
Were you ever tempted to do anything else with the ashes?
The idea came up when there were a few people in the back of the van to just do a line of it. And people have just been doing that since. There's a huge list of people who have done lines from that bag. It's obviously a bit crass and clichéd, but it's really had a bonding effect on people. Quite a few of them knew him. It inspired a friend's band name, Grave Lines. Then I was like, 'Right, this is all going to go soon. It'll be up everybody's noses all around Europe, so I'll put a bit in the guitar before it all disappears.'
Wow. How many people have snorted granddad?
About 40, I guess. It comes out at choice moments in the van. If you crush it up enough it's not too bad. I've snorted worse things at 3PM on a Sunday in Seven Sisters. He was a pretty smooth guy, and I think that comes across with how he goes down.
Alice, 25, fortune teller
Hi Alice, what's your cremation situation?
Alice: My mum's in this quite shit tin on a mezzanine with loads of junk and relegated stuff in my bathroom. Nobody really pays any attention to it.
How'd she end up there?
First, she died of cancer. My mum is from a small, conservative town in France, and that's where she died. She'd been ill for quite a while. We went over and she died that day. By the time we got there, she'd gone. After the ceremony we shoved her in the car and drove her back to London. I think she got stuck on the shelf because dad was a bit overwhelmed. I was ten and my brother was four, and he suddenly had these kids to look after that he'd never been that hands-on with anyway. It was out of sight, out of mind.
It must have been weird having your mum watching over your toilet habits.
She was quite an unstable and overbearing person, so I'm not really sure how she would have dealt with us becoming teenagers. Having her up there and witnessing all these physical things – going through puberty or throwing up after having gone on a bender – in a way I felt like that was the safest relationship we could have had, her being dead. She was there for the most intimate and horrible moments, but powerless to do anything about it.
Jason Shulman, age withheld, sculptor
Hi Jason, how did your dad end up inside this art object?
Jason Schulman: First, he had to die. Then, on the bus back from the funeral parlour, I remembered reading as a kid that there was a number of things you could make out of your body, like you could get 12 pencils, or three horse shoe nails, or this much salt. I thought I'd check if there really was that much iron. I took a giant neodymium magnet, stuffed it in, jumbled it about, and lo and behold tiny fragments of iron had attached to the magnet! I poured the whole lot out onto the table to try to get all the iron I could, for no particular reason, and I noticed that some bits of bone had oxidised in different colours. You've got a yellow and a green and a red. I then spent three months with a pair of goofy magnifying binoculars and a pair of tweezers making tiny piles of all the different colours. I put then in a stratified little tube, with the iron at the top, hung it on a string up to the height of his head, put a whopping great magnet above it attached to the ceiling, and he kind of floated there. It was a lovely, a kind of continuum. It somehow echoes the mantle of the earth, the rings of trees.
Do you think he's happy in there?
He was a man with a huge ego. The idea that he was still being discussed: he'd be absolutely delighted.
Steph Wilson, 25, photographer
Hi Steph, how did your dad end up inside this willow tree?
Steph Wilson: He died of pancreatic cancer three years ago. His nickname was Willow, and our favourite tree in the garden where we used to live was this big willow tree. It got cut down about two years before he died. We thought it would be quite apt to replant a new willow tree where the old one had been, and at his wake my brother poured the ashes into a little hole and we stuck the willow tree in. It grew really well, but since mum was selling the house we took little cuttings from each branch. We've all probably got a toe or a hand's worth of cremated ashes in each of our cuttings. Eventually they'll all root and we'll plant them in our own gardens.
That's sweet. Was he a spiritual man?
He was like the crème de la crème of capitalist businessmen. If he was still alive I don't even know if we'd be speaking. We got on better than anyone in the world, but we were also total enemies. Me being fiercely feminist and a socialist: dad didn't take it very well. He was a very emotional and creative man, but he definitely wasn't in touch with nature. He was a bit of an oddball, really.
What do you want to happen to your body when you die?
I'd probably want to be cremated. But if I was buried, I'd have Tomato – my four-year-old tiny blue parrot, AKA my boyfriend, AKA my firstborn son – as a stone statue perched over the gravestone keeping guard. Otherwise I'm not that arsed.
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