Monday, July 20, 2009


Oswald and Marion picked me up early this morning, to drive to Porthcawl and rendezvous with others on the greensward opposite the Atlantic Hotel for a brief ceremony to scatter Peggy's ashes, in the place where she had met the love of her life, a sea captain who disappeared on active service at the end of the World War Two. She often returned there, to sit in the shelter where she'd sat with her mother before and after their brief encounter.

There were eleven of us altogether. Some hadn't met before, but all were joined by her friendship. Father Paul Bigmore had intended to be with us but was incapacitated by a foot injury. We stood on the grass, close to where the rocky foreshore begins. Oswald brought the ashes in a plastic bag, enclosed in a discreet green cardboard cube, and handed them over to me. I reflected briefly about what her life had meant to us all, and prayed extempore, before making my way gingerly down over the rocks to a point where I could tell the incoming see would later meet the land, and where the constant wind would not blow them on to the assembled group.

I then had to tear the bag open, lift it out of the box carefully, and hold it by the bottom before finally swinging it in a great arc, to allow the ashes to spill out and be carried on the wind across the rocks - a satisfying moment of release in discharging Peggy's wishes. We concluded with the Lord's Prayer and blessing. It seemed that those present found it as moving as I did, a moment of closure for those who had accompanied her in her long years of illness, borne with such dignity in the serenity of faith.

Mother Church enjoins us to bury cremated remains in consecrated ground, yet the scattering of ashes one way or another is a common practice, even among believers. They decline the Church's advice. No doubt the practice is fraught with problems in popular places like football grounds, golf courses etc. One way or another, having a place where mourning for a person can be focussed, where they can be remembered, is important for the healing of the bereaved. But in the end it's not pastorally healthy to insist on a 'one size fits all' solution.

The world is full of graves from many centuries of human existence and they help to chart our history. Yet not all the great or the holy can be linked to a last resting place. Just think of the multitudes lost at sea down the ages. Mozart and Calvin disappeared into their local pauper's common grave, the former because he had been reduced to poverty, the latter because he was determined that no pious soul should succeed in making a cult of relics with his bones.

For all that remembering those we love but see no longer is important to living a fulfilled life, memories fade as generations pass. No monument or sacred place can capture the true value of a person. All we know is how much of life and how many lives ultimately vanish with the passage of time and the dissipation of memory. The something that we are becomes nothing. We are all in transit to no-thing, the ultimate reality beyond all things.

One day, the sea that claimed Peggy's ashes from Porthcawl's foreshore today will itself no longer be there to surrender its dead, as the earth is incinerated by the death of the sun. But as scripture says : "Heaven and earth will pass away but my Word will never pass away." That Word in which we trust, the word of love holding us in being in this life and beyond when change itself ends, in the end that was there before everything existed - the eternity of God.

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