What better farewell for a free spirit?
Cremation is becoming more common in Ireland, and can facilitate the release of a loved one back to nature
Family and friends of the Brian MacGill at Muiríoch beach, Ballydavid, Co Kerry, at the scattering of his ashes. Photographs: RM Hudson
Billy MacGill scatters Brian’s ashes to the winds. Photographs: RM Hudson
It was fitting that some of the ashes of 45-year-old Brian MacGill were scattered into the air and sea at Muiríoch beach in Co Kerry, says his father, Billy MacGill. The beach was the place to which Brian used to bring his horse and his dog. Brian died of brain cancer in June and “was absolute in his desire to be cremated”. He was the eldest of Billy and Gillian Magner’s four children.
“Brian was a free spirit. He would have regarded himself as a Buddhist. He was convinced that when he died, his energy was going back into nature. In the last few years, and particularly in the latter months, Brian was meditating for up to a few hours a day. He’d go out into the garden in the morning where he’d hear the birdsong, see the mountains and the sun coming up. He told me that he had learned he was surrounded by love including the love of his daughter Robyn and of his partner, Sarah.”
Brian, who was at different times a chef, a tattoo artist, a martial arts student, a musician, a painter and a keen ocean diver, was told that he wouldn’t have long to live when he was diagnosed. “There was no calling out for God and no looking for confession or priests. Brian made his amends with anyone he thought he had fallen out with.”
Music and cakesAfter his death, Brian’s remains were brought to his mother’s house in Co Cork for the first night. After reposing at a funeral home, where Billy delivered a homily, he went back to his mother’s house. “The following morning, he went down to Kerry with Robyn and Sarah and was laid out in the house for neighbours and friends to visit. There was music, and people brought cakes with them. He was back up in Cork the next day for the crematorium [in Ringaskiddy].”
Billy was happy with the ceremony. “There was a Catholic priest there because Robyn is Catholic. After the crematorium, I discussed with Sarah the dividing up of the ashes. I felt that if Brian wanted to mix with the breath of the earth and float in the wind and the sea, then fair enough.”
At the beach, a bonfire was built. Billy spoke and recited a poem, as did Sarah. There was more music from the musicians Brian had played with over the years. The ashes were in a cardboard box.
“People lined up to take some of the ashes in little cups provided. Those who wanted to sprinkled ashes into the wind. Others walked down to the beach and said their final few words before releasing the ashes. What could be more fitting for someone who loved nature?”
Billy has an antique oriental urn into which he plans to put his portion of his son’s ashes, which he will keep in his front room. Remembering his son’s many ventures, he quotes Einstein. “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
FinalityAnnie Bowen’s octogenarian father, Tom Linehan, was buried at the Island crematorium in Ringaskiddy, after a funeral Mass, three years ago. “It was Dad’s wish to be cremated. I’m a firm believer in it,” says Bowen. “I prefer the immediacy of a crematorium and also the finality of it. I think it’s awful to see people keening over gravestones years after a death. When you have the ashes of someone, you know they belong to someone you loved and still do.”
Married to an Englishman, Bowen has attended several cremations in the UK which, in her experience, “were awful and very clinical. There’s a 20-minute slot, and you go out through the back door [as another family is coming in the front door]. The crematoriums that I was in, in England, were very utilitarian.”
The Island crematorium, a former magazine for storing gunpowder, is an attractive building, says Bowen, with its stained glass and welcoming courtyard. “We had a wicker casket for Dad, for environmental reasons. I liked the idea of going from a wicker cradle to a wicker casket; it’s the full journey. I think everyone liked the ceremony. I came out on a high as opposed to feeling depressed.”
A remembrance book at the crematorium can be seen every anniversary, opened on the relevant page. “The family can sit in front of the book. That sort of permanence is offered. It’s a substitute for the graveyard.”
Scattered ashesBowen says that when her mother’s time comes, her ashes will be scattered along with her husband’s over the Cork and Kerry coastline. “We buried some of Dad’s ashes in his parents’ grave. I wish we had been able to do something like that for my parents-in-law. Their wish was for their ashes to be put in the rose garden in the crematorium.”
There are four crematoriums in the Republic with a fifth one due to open in Cavan later this year. As well as the Co Cork crematorium, there are three in Dublin: Glasnevin, Newland’s Cross and Mount Jerome in Harold’s Cross. To open a crematorium, planning permission has to be granted by the relevant local authority. The number of cremations is increasing in Ireland but is well below rates in many other countries. There is no legislation in place here with regard to cremation and crematoriums, but work on drafting a cremation act is to start this year.
In 2007, just under 9 per cent of people who died in Ireland were cremated, and just under 13 per cent were cremated in 2012, according to the Cremation Society of Great Britain which records the numbers cremated around the world. In 2010, three-quarters of people who died in Britain were cremated.
Online funeral serviceJohn Kennedy, who runs Legacy Funerals, legacy.ie, an online service that plans funerals, says 95 per cent of his business is in organising cremations.
“We’re going for three years and a very high percentage of our funerals have always been cremations.
“We set up as a low-cost alternative to the traditional funeral without sacrificing any of the dignity and respect that goes with them. We have people who want the deceased person to be collected from their place of death and taken directly to the crematorium where there may be a service. Ashes can be repatriated to another country and carried in a person’s luggage once the coroner signs papers. Sometimes, ashes are interred in an existing grave.”
Cremations, says Kennedy, cost under €700, while burial in an established plot can start at about €850. The cost of a new plot can run into five figures. “In some cemeteries, space is at a premium and cremation is a much cheaper option. People say, ‘I’m using your service because I don’t have the money [for a traditional funeral].’ We also have a lot of families who want to repatriate ashes to the deceased’s homeland.”
Cremation is environmentally friendly only insofar as it saves on land space. But the process releases greenhouse gas emissions and consumes energy. In the absence of specific legislation relating to cremation in the Republic of Ireland, the crematoriums here have developed a code of ethics with the assistance of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM) in the UK.
This code minimises the impact of bereavement on the environment, encouraging the greater use of earth-friendly materials and environmentally friendly practices. This includes encouraging the use of suitable coffins and containers for cremation based on UK legislation. The use of plastics should be minimised with natural materials encouraged wherever possible.
EcoLation is the latest eco-friendly non-flame technology that provides a sustainable alternative to burial or cremation, according to Jennifer Muldowney of Farewell Funeral Planners. The method is being developed by an Irish company, ecolegacy.com. Through a process of freezing, the body is reduced to ashes, which are made sterile and clean. They can be “safely returned to the earth to [grow] a tree or a shrub,” says Muldowney.
It sounds like a holistic way of acknowledging the life cycle.