The Ashes of the Deceased

6 Jul 2017 Karina S. Henkel

“Oh, my mother in law is in our basement for more than five years now,” said my colleague, Jenny, in the most casual tone. I had just entered the room and didn’t know what she and Kathy were talking about, but I was sure that Jenny and her husband lived alone in their house. “You mother has lived in your basement for more than five years?”I asked. “How is it possible that I didn’t know about that? You never talked about her ever before! What did I miss?” Jenny laughed. “No, no”, she said. “She doesn’t live with us. Her ashes are in our basement. My husband has never buried the urn. And you have to keep the ashes somewhere.” She chuckled at my astonished face.

Honestly, I always knew that laws are different in the US. And they are also different concerning the treatment of burying and cremating bodies. And, of course, each state also treats this topic  differently. Some allow a burial of a body in a private backyard, some only allow a burial on a registered cemetery (but it is interesting to look at their definition of a cemetery), some allow private family cemeteries, some don’t. But what seems to be similar in all US states is that people can take the ashes of their deceased beloved ones at home following cremation.

And here I had my little culture shock again: knowing about this fact and actually seeing it, is a different story.

It appears to be very normal for Americans to keep the ashes of their deceased. Of course, usually the urns finally find their final resting place in a cemetery, but sometimes it takes a while before that happens. And the ashes of the family members stay with their families before the interment.

It’s just something I am not used to. In Germany institutions make sure that private citizens never get their hands on their deceased. The only exception is when you live abroad. When my father died I would have been allowed, after a lot of bureaucratic formalities, to take my father’s ashes with me in order to bury him in the US. But within Germany there would have been no way to touch his urn without the company that I had to hire  organizing everything.