Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

The Whole Ash-Sprinkling Cremation Thing

By Cam Mather

My mom, Joan Mather (nee Micklethwaite) was a contradiction. She was a traditionalist in many facets of her life and a rebel in others. Since she seemed to delight in finding Michelle and me our counter-culture off-grid place in the woods, I think she leaned to the anti-establishment side. She was the family genealogist on the Micklethwaite side of the family and she assisted John Denison, the publisher of the book “Micklethwaite’s Muskoka,” as he sorted out the family tree of my great great grandfather, Frank Micklethwaite. She was always very good about explaining the various members of our family and the connections between us. She worked as an elementary school teacher and she was a natural in that role. As a teenager I remember going to her school and even if I’d never been there before I could always find her classroom by following the sound of her big booming voice that managed to rise above the cacophony of a primary grade classroom.

The Micklethwaite family has a burial plot in a cemetery in Toronto and when she died I guess I assumed she would have wanted to be buried with the clan, but she surprised me and wanted to be cremated. I wish I knew her rationale for this, but it’s not something we ever discussed and it seems a bit of an enigma to me. But she was cremated and Dad eventually sprinkled her ashes at the cottage that she loved so much.

One of the disadvantages of cremation is that it doesn’t provide any sort of memorial to the deceased. Sure, my mother left her legacy in numerous ways in all of our lives, but there’s no granite and marble monument that we can go to. There’s no place to lay flowers. As a self-employed home schooling, vegetarian, off-grid dwelling misanthrope (well, quasi-misanthrope) I’m not into doing things the way everyone else does, but I’m still having trouble with this lack of a monument. Is this weird?

The summer after she died I invited my family up to our place and we had a tree planting ceremony in her honor. We chose an area of our property that was a field (scraped by the earth-movers when they put the new road through several decades ago) and we planted trees. I know what you’re thinking – what a brilliant idea! Get the family to do your tree planting for you! As devious as I am, I’m not sure if having my then 89-year-old (now 99-year-old) grandmother plant trees was any great brainstorm. She is healthy and active, but probably wouldn’t prosper as a professional tree planter. I seem to recall that we planted the memorial trees in June and it was brutally humid day and the deer flies quite vicious! Once we had finished planting on were back in the house sharing a meal when the skies opened up and a torrential rain managed to water our seedlings!

Tree Planting Day

 

What they look like now....

 

In the decade since Mom’s been gone the trees have done surprisingly well. Considering they are basically growing in sand and have experienced a number of summers with brutal droughts I’m amazed any of them lived. Coniferous trees like pines and spruce love this soil, and deciduous ones like oak and maple seedlings do not thrive here.

So in fact I do have a memorial to my mom, but it’s not like a cemetery. You know, like in the movies where you can go and converse with the dead. Or (spoiler alert) like in the movie “Carrie” where cold dead hands can reach up through the soil and pull you in and make you scream like a girl when you see the movie for the first time when you’re 17 (not that that happened to me).

I’m trying to come to grips with this concept because I’ve picked my spot where I want my ashes sprinkled. From an environmental standpoint I’d actually prefer that my body be tossed into a hole in the ground and composted. If you think about how much natural gas is required to turn a human body into ash, the mind boggles. Of course none of these places are using co-generation, which they should be. I’ve made my wishes known that I do not want any virgin materials used in the box to transport me. I’d prefer a cardboard box, preferably a re-used fridge box from the nearest furniture store. There’s no way I’m having any pine used on a one-way trip to the crematorium.

The Cathedral of the Pines

 

I think if you have a horse or cow die on your farm, you can bury them. So why can’t you just bury a person on your property? I realize this could get a little dicey in urban areas, but I’ve got 150 acres. Who’d know? I’ll bet humans have been doing it for eons. There’s probably all these bureaucratic steps that you have to follow now to make sure your body doesn’t end up on the back forty. I’m sure this is a good thing from a crime fighting perspective, but from a personal liberties standpoint I kind of resent it.

I call the spot that I’ve picked out for my ashes the cathedral of the pines. It’s a group of huge white pines growing out of our minimal topsoil and it’s an amazing spot. The light filters through the trees on to a massive bed of moss and pine needles that is marvelous place to lie down on a dry day (not so much on a wet day).

I’m still wrestling with that stone marker though. Am I vain to want to leave something behind, rather than my legacy of constant whining about the state of our electricity grid? And if I had a stone marker, what would it say? There are some great epitaphs … Johnny Carson wanted “I’ll be right back” on his. Or there’s the “I told you I was sick” one. Or this lady with a parking meter beside her headstone with “Time Expired” on it.

Or how about this epitaph for me? “Here lie the ashes of Cam Mather, who has left this mortal coil, and now hopes his organic diet will help enhance the soil.” No, that won’t work. My Friday night indulgence in Dr. Pepper and Mars bars will nullify the use of “organic” in this instance.

PS. In a coincidence my Dad was here recently and mentioned that he’d just read about the environmental cost of cremation. It takes 2 to 4 hours at 760°C to 1,150°C (1,400°F to 2,100°F) to cremate a body which is like driving 7,700 kilometers (4,800 miles). Who knew that even dying has so many environmental consequences?

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6 Comments

  1. Larry

    The one I saw that made me laugh was….You’re blocking the view. 🙂

  2. You could bury the ashes and have a memorial stone there, that’s what our family did for my father-in-law. If buried in a biodegradable container your ashes would “compost” eventually.

    Cremation does use up a lot of energy, however there are other positives as well. For example, many people who want to be cremated skip the “open casket” thing so you don’t need all the materials that make up a casket. You could also skip the embalming which prevents a lot of chemicals from leaching into the ground. Lastly it takes up a lot less space. If I’m not mistaken you can bury up to 8 cremations in one regular sized burial plot.

  3. Lorna

    Hey Cam, I was just thinking these same thoughts as you- wonder if it is because it is the fall of the year? Wayne and I always wanted our ashes to be scattered off the rocks at East Point, Saturna Island, a place I consider to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world, but then I had the same concern as you- where would my loved ones go to remember me?

    I just the other day solved my dilemma by buying a plot in our local cemetary. For $5.00 minimum, or any other higher amount I chose, Wayne and I will now share space under a beautiful maple tree. It was important to Wayne to have high ground, while I wanted dappled sunlight-weird eh? We will be cremated and have a rock placed at our heads. Still not sure what we will write on it- may leave that to our kids, but I feel better with having made the decision.

  4. Paul Mather

    I don’t think having a plot in a cemetery is nessasary, Cause I find no mater where you look among the trees, bushes and the flowers, You would see Moms handy work in the beauty of the aragement. Mom loved to plant frowers, Sometimes in the strangest places. Just so you could be walking and just notice the nice little aragement along a path or the drive way. The trees that we have planted so long ago, Mom is probibly sitting in front of them, Paniting as she did manny times in Kingston where we once lived. I say this, Becauce the picture on this page with Cam standing, It looks like one of moms paintings. She always saw the beauty in nature, No matter where you looked.
    So I ask, With a picture like this one on this page, Do we really want to remember mom in a cemetery or in the natural setting as we see here?
    PS, I see Mom standing in and around the trees in this picture.
    And that’s how I would love to remember her….always. Love Paul

  5. Right on Paul! No question about it. Dad gave us some of Mom’s gladiola bulbs which multiply ever year. With the one’s we’ve added over the years, Michelle planted about 500 of them last year. I made a huge new garden out my office window where I’ll plant them next year. Who needs a cemetery! Cam.

  6. Katie

    “I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.”
    — Mikhail Gorbachev

    This reminded me of your group of pine trees…

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