Not all advice need be professional. Sometimes your problems merit a bit of unvarnished honesty from a dude equipped with nothing more than a computer and a conscience. Luckily for you, I’m that guy. Welcome back to Tough Love.
Today we’re discussing a peculiar dilemma most people will (probably) never face: What to do with the ashen remains of someone — or something — that have mysteriously come into your possession. How do you pay tribute? Should you?
Note: I’m a columnist, not a therapist or certified healthcare professional. My advice should be taken with that in mind. If you have a problem with anything I say, file a complaint here. Now, onto today’s letter.
I have an ethical dilemma and maybe you can help resolve it.
My husband and I recently moved. In unpacking and sorting through our household possessions, I discovered a plastic bag full of “cremains.” The problem is that I don’t know whose they are. Many items were stored away as we didn’t have room for them in our old house. This move has disinterred a number of things we’d forgotten, including these ashes. There are no identifying markers or tags among the ashes, so we can’t identify them, but there are three possibilities:
We had a beloved canine cremated many years ago, and my kids and I scattered the ashes on a hilltop where we used to go for family walks, but maybe not all of them were scattered. I dimly recall promising to save some for my ex-husband to scatter. But I remember not wanting him to have any part of the memorial for the dog, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be left over from him.
A dear friend of mine also game me some of her husband’s ashes for safekeeping while her housing situation was unstable following a fire and she lived with me, so they could also be his. I thought I had returned them all to her at one point, but I do remember there were two bags of ashes as she was planning on scattering them at various locations. I’d be embarrassed to tell her, but she’s pretty chill and would probably just find it humorous and welcome the opportunity to remember her husband again.
Finally, my husband thinks they could be his ex-MIL’s. His ex wife brought them home with her, but they haven’t spoken in about 20 years.
So what’s the moral/ethical thing to do? Do I go to the trouble of having them tested (is that even possible?) to determine if they’re animal or human? Given that we supposedly share 60% of our DNA with bananas, I don’t want to pursue what might be a completely fruitless (excuse me) exercise. Or do we keep this discovery to ourselves and just scatter them in our wooded property and spend a quiet moment reflecting on the transient nature of human and animal life and any of the three beings they might have been?
You can probably tell we’re not skeeved out about having unknown ashes in a teapot in our kitchen, but we do want to do something about them, now that we’ve found them. But what?!
Ashes to ashes
Dear Ashes to Ashes,
Wow, what a predicament you’ve got, uh, brewing. Usually people in possession of ashes know where they came from. You, however, are in the unenviable position of having mystery ashes: all that remains of someone (or something’s) brief time on Earth — but whose? That’s heavy. Our loved ones really can haunt us after they’re gone, or at least cause us to fret over bizarre ethical dilemmas.
This situation is funny in a way that recalls the cast of Monty Python knocking over an urn that supposedly contained the ashes of their co-conspirator Graham Chapman in front of a live audience (though that’s exactly what you don’t want to do). In a way, what you’ve stumbled upon is kind of beautiful: You hold in your possession a symbol of a life completed — a life that has passed into a realm truly unknowable to humans. And from what I gather, whether human or animal, all of the lives that could potentially belong to this pile of ash really meant something to you and your husband.
You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “the transient nature of human and animal life,” and you’re arguably lucky, in the sense that you have in your possession a capsule symbolic of life’s universal mystery. Regardless of who/what is inside this vessel, it represents both the impermanence of life and the unknowable enigma of death, your own Tomb of The Unknown Soldier (in a teapot).
The first thing to consider is whether you need to do anything at all. No one death is more or less important than another, even if the deceased is anonymous. The possibility you are holding onto a physical representation of one of the lives you mentioned undoubtedly evokes memories of those beings. Maybe those memories are painful, or maybe they’re nostalgic, or make you laugh. Keeping the remains in a receptacle somewhere in your home, then, could be an ever-present reminder of life’s fragility, and the importance of savouring our experiences with others before (and after) they’re gone. We all only have so much time until we too are ashes in an urn (metaphorically or literally).
You could, theoretically, pay for a DNA test, but the results might be unclear, as sequencing ashes is nowhere as easy as performing a DNA test on an exhumed body, not to mention a living person. (Online opinion on DNA testing for cremated remains is divided, so do your research if you really want to go down this road). Another option might be asking your friend or your husband’s ex-wife if they have more specific memories of these ashes, but that also might be fruitless.
Scattering them somewhere beautiful is always a good option, though in this instance, it might serve more as an act of housekeeping than a tribute paid to an anonymous being’s life and legacy. Either way, think it over, and do what will give you peace of mind.