The Mysteries of Cremains

Before my husband died, I knew what cremation was and that when my husband and I died, we wanted to be cremated, but that was about as far as my thinking on the topic went. After he died and was cremated, I learned a lot more about the ashes that remain after cremation.

The first thing I learned is that the cremated remains of a person are officially called cremains. It’s a weird, goofy word, and if you don’t like it, it’s perfectly acceptable to call the cremains “ashes.” I use both terms.

One of the biggest surprises for me was that cremains are really heavy. I was shocked when I received the box of my husband’s cremains—I needed both hands to carry it. The ridiculous scene in the Sex and the City spinoff, And Just Like That, in which Carrie Bradshaw puts her late husband’s cremains in a little beaded Eiffel Tower-shaped purse is ludicrous. The cremains of a 200 pound person will weigh about 7 pounds and that little purse would have been overflowing, plus the strap would have been digging unfashionably into Carrie’s shoulder.

In terms of volume, a website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, uses this helpful comparison to describe how to understand the amount of ashes you’ll have: “The typical volume of cremation ashes is 200 cubic inches. If you’re wondering what that volume of ashes looks like, picture a common grocery store bag of sugar.”

What to do with the cremains is another question. I learned that many people have strong opinions on what the proper thing to do with cremains is when people started saying things to me like, “You don’t have the cremains on your bedside table, do you?” and “Don’t be one of those morbid people who puts the ashes on the mantle.” In my opinion, if you are bereaved, you can put the cremains wherever you damn well please.

I did, in fact, keep the box of ashes the funeral home gave me on my bedside table for a while, and how I have some of the cremains on my mantle. When I first brought that heavy box home, I put it on the bedside table in part because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Every night for months, I put my hand on the box and said good night to my husband. I knew I would eventually do something else with the cremains, but I didn’t know what, and it was comforting to have the bedtime ritual of saying good night to him.

I knew I wanted to scatter some of the ashes in a few places with meaning to my husband, and once I understood the sheer volume of cremains, I realized I had enough to share. I gave some to my late husband’s rafting buddies to scatter on the river. That seemed important because Tom loved rafting and some of his happiest days were spent floating down a river after having tackled a fearsome rapid. I also gave good quantities to his brother, his mother, his son, and my daughter. I kept a large amount for myself to scatter in a few strategic spots, and I put some in a beautiful urn specifically made for cremains that I found on Etsy, and which is now on my living room mantle.

Additionally, I had a teaspoon of the cremains incorporated into a memorial ring that I wear. Soon after my husband died, another widow told me about memorial jewelry, and I loved the idea of having part of my husband with me always. A quick search on Etsy helped me find hundreds of artists who create jewelry and other keepsakes using small amounts of cremains.

I have so far scattered some of the remaining ashes in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast, one of his favorite places, and some in the forest outside Ushuaia, Argentina, a place he never got to go to but very much wanted to.

Dividing up the cremains means coming up with containers for the stuff. The funeral home would have happily sold me very expensive cardboard containers, but I chose disposable food containers that I got at Target. Mason jars would work, and I only decided against them because I knew I’d be traveling with some of the cremains and thought the glass was too fragile. Ziplock bags seemed like a poor choice because squeezing the air out of them would cause some of the cremains to poof out into the room and that seemed problematic.

Before I ever dealt with cremains, I might have felt strange about putting human remains into Tupperware, but after receiving the ashes from the funeral home in a heavy-duty plastic bag inside a heavy-duty cardboard box, Tupperware seemed just fine.

It took me a while to figure out how to open the fancy cardboard box, but luckily there are quite a few videos on YouTube made by others who had similar struggles and detailed their tips.

One last word to the wise: If you divide up the ashes and stash them somewhere “safe,” make a note of that safe place. I learned the hard way that it’s very awkward to explain to others that you misplaced the Tupperware full of cremains.  

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