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Profound beauty in perpetual cycle of life and death

By Gail Walker

Published 01/09/2015

The events that engulfed the Auld family may not be uncommon; it's just they rarely reach the High Court
The events that engulfed the Auld family may not be uncommon; it's just they rarely reach the High Court

It is easy to express incredulity at the case about the remains of Shankill Road man Neal Auld, who died of a suspected heart attack at just 36. His father, Samuel, insisted his son wanted to be cremated while Neil's mother, Maureen - Samuel's ex-wife - was adamant her son wished to be buried.

Of course, the worldly wise will mutter: "What does it matter anyway? When you're gone, you're gone."

But then, Neil Auld wasn't their son.

Some may raise an eyebrow, but it is an all-too-human need for relatives to want to put the life of deceased loved one into some kind of context, to say something about the person who has gone.

Those of faith will say they know exactly where their relative has gone, others will say death is the end, and then there are those - among them some churchgoers - who will admit they simply don't know, well, if there is anything after ...

But what everyone can be certain about is the fact the person was until very recently here among us and that very fact in itself deserves proper commemoration.

The problem is that both the rituals and customs surrounding burial and cremation have deep and profound symbolism.

By definition in Northern Ireland the more traditional burial carries the idea of communal continuity, a seemingly permanent marker that our loved one was here. In most cases, the deceased goes into a family plot, snug with the remains of other loved ones.

Illogical though it may seem, many draw comfort from that idea. And the grave, with its headstone bearing names and dates, is somewhere to visit, somewhere to go and "talk"; and if not to talk exactly, then to reflect, to hear again their voice as we lay out our latest problem and, in some abstract way, try to reconstruct what we think they would say.

No wonder it means a lot to some in grief.

But cremation has its own kind of beauty, too. While it often follows a religious service, it also offers a farewell devoid of those trappings; cremation, perhaps, sometimes affords a more individualistic approach. Loved ones may come up with music from their CD collection, determined to have the funeral "say something", be "meaningful" in their own way. Perhaps a family friend with a gift for public speaking will do the honours.

From the universal "ashes to ashes", the loved one's death normally ends in a journey to a special and significant spot. The actual scattering isn't into the void. No, rather like an old-fashioned farmer, the scattering is more like the scattering of seeds. A loving letting-go back to the primal elements of wind, rain, sun, water and rock, a letting-go, in a sense, of the social guises.

He, or she, wasn't a clerk in a big company, a loss adjuster, a plumber, a home-maker, a solicitor. No, they were more than that, part of the cycle of life and death. That idea is beautiful and profound, too.

We can see our collective uncertainty in the changes to the rituals surrounding death. For some of us, it remains relatively straightforward. When someone dies, relatives and friends gather at the house with endless trays of sandwiches and tray bakes. These are respectful but - yes, at heart - convivial affairs, a kind of shoring up to get the bereaved through it. And then there are the other rituals - putting the death notice in the paper, seeing the clergyman, making the phone calls to far-flung friends and half-forgotten relatives.

It's both an intensely private, yet communal event. Of course, there are nuances depending on whether the family are Catholic or Protestant, but essentially these affairs are similar. Grief has no denomination.

Burial and cremation can be seen as saying different things. Which is why so many of us were struck by the predicament Neal Auld's family found themselves in, standing in the High Court in Belfast last week, unable to reach a solution themselves.

Mrs Auld had claimed she may not be treated with respect if the arrangements were left to her ex-husband, though there'd been assurances that other family members would give her time to spend alone with her son's body, an important part of the grieving process, too. She was also to be given half of the ashes.

In the end, she withdrew her claim to her son's body, though she said that she still believed cremation was against her son's wishes.

The events that engulfed the Auld family may not be uncommon; it's just they rarely reach the High Court, where there were upsetting scenes after the judge made his ruling to release Mr Auld's body to his father. "We don't want ashes because he didn't want cremated," sobbed a sister of the dead man in the public gallery.

It's clear that, as churchyards and civic cemeteries fill up, cremation will increasingly be the alternative to tying up acres of valuable land, especially in urban areas. It would be prudent to sort out the disposal of our own remains in advance.

It's another area, along with pensions and wills, where the sooner we overcome our squeamishness the better.

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