I’ve never scattered ashes before or really had anything to do with them. My grandparents are buried in a cemetery in West London. My father’s ashes are buried in a church graveyard in Manchester. I was there when the burials took place but I’ve never been back to visit them. And that’s not because I don’t miss them or because I don’t care. I guess I just don’t feel that I have to visit the burial places to be close to them or to talk to them. I also find these places really quite sad and a little eery.
I knew I didn’t want that sort of place for Andy. I wanted a happy place. A place where we would want to visit anyway and make new memories as well as think of old ones. Within days of his death I knew that the place I wanted his ashes to go was out to sea from our favourite beach in Norfolk, Brancaster.
His parents were happy with the idea and I thought it would be something that the kids would be happy with too. I didn’t feel the need to rush to do it. Then last summer was over and a wintery trip to Norfolk didn’t appeal. The idea of the holiday over the anniversary of his death and scattering the ashes naturally unfolded.
The ashes sat for nearly a year under his desk in the study in a navy blue cardboard box. His favourite colour. The box was given to me in a silver gift bag from by the funeral director. The irony of the packaging was not lost on me but I guess a carrier bag would be less dignified and a ‘bag for life’ even more ironic. The box was very heavy. I guess there is a mix of the coffin in there too. I didn’t really like to linger in that room because it reminded me of him too much but as it stores our coats and lots of general stuff, I would chat to him every so often when I was in there. I felt pretty sad about him being there though in the increasingly dusty, dark room. I also worried if the house burnt down or if we were burgled that I would lose him forever and wouldn’t be able to set him free (yes, pretty irrational).
In the months that elapsed people told their ashes scattering stories. Some had regretted the way this had been done. I thought and thought and thought about whether we were doing the right thing but I kept coming back to the decision that we were.
And it was the right thing – the day was just perfect.
I wasn’t sure at which point to tell the kids about the plan. Days and weeks happen slowly for kids. As the holiday approached I spoke to my contact at the Grief Encounter charity. She advised me to tell them before we went away because if the adults were anxious (and I was, very much so) then the kids would pick up on it. She also sent me a children’s book called What Happened To Daddy’s Body by Alex Barber and Elke Barber, which was helpful.
I told them about the plan that night, with complete honesty about the significance about what we were going to do. I’ve learnt through all of this that honesty and using simple language (e.g. died instead of “passed away”) is best for them. Turns out I had already told them my idea to scatter Andy’s ashes around a sandcastle but I had completely forgotten. It must have been months ago. They were happy and excited about the plans so my worries were unnecessary.
We had a lovely week in Norfolk. The anniversary was on our last full day. We got to Brancaster for late morning, Andy’s parents, the kids and I. We met up with Andy’s brother and his wife and Andy’s childhood best friend and his family. The kids were over the moon to see their buddies and they quickly ran out to sea and set about playing.
It was a grey day. Windy but not too cold and fortunately no rain. We had been hailed on on that beach 4 days earlier!
We set up camp, getting coffee and putting windbreaks for privacy. We then set about building the most magnificent sandcastle. Everyone pitched in with some part. It had a surrounding wall with turrets, a door, a moat, a channel heading out towards the sea and plenty of decorations. Throughout the week we had collected shells to decorate the castle with and had also drawn pictures and written messages on pebbles. We’ve kept some of those to put in our garden.
We will never be able to build another sandcastle so magnificent.
The idea of working the ashes into the moat of sandcastle as the sea came in came about for a couple of reasons. It’s something that reminds me of Andy when I think of our family holidays. He would set about building one with the kids as soon as we got to a beach. I have so many photos of him doing this. It was something that the kids could get involved with too. Something as fun as it could be and not scary or too sad. Also, from a practical perspective it worked too. The ashes were to go in the sea and it’s pretty difficult to stand on the edge of the shore and pour them in. The moat kept them contained until they were fully washed out.
Castle built, we had lunch and kicked a Spurs ball around. But then the tide came in a bit quicker then we thought it would so we had to crack on with the important part.
I took the ashes out of the box for the first time. I immediately felt relief that the name of the bag inside matched the name on the box and reflected that I probably should have checked earlier. But then I realised that I had forgotten scissors. I wanted to snip a hole in the corner of the bag. Turns out that the 5 year old (who is never far from an instrument of destruction) had a pair of pink scissors in her handbag. Of course she did.
She came over to me as I sat with the ashes in my lap. “Why have you got a bag of sand mummy?”. It did look a bit like sand. With larger bits of bone in too. I told her that it wasn’t sand, these were daddy’s ashes.
She bent down, gave the bag a little kiss then ran back off to play. That was the moment I shed a few tears.
We gathered round the castle, I snipped the bag then started to pour the ashes. Some bits are gritty and some a more flyaway and stick to you, but came off with a wash in the sea. I hadn’t planned to actually take the ashes in my hands but others were doing that which suddenly made me want to. To touch him again for the last time.
There’s a lot of ashes so it was good to have lots of us there to pour them in. It didn’t take long really, probably not much longer than 5 minutes. There was a comedy moment when the 7 year old came running up to me as she had got some ash in her eyes. Completely seriously she said “mummy, mummy, I’ve got daddy in my eyes”. It lightened the mood and with a few blinks her eyes were ok.
We moved our camp back, drank some cider and the sea came in and levelled the castle (with some help from the 5 year olds) pretty quickly. I felt a huge rush of relief. And the sun came out! We saw a seal bobbing out in the sea. I went for a walk along the shore and by the time I came back the sea had pretty much gone out again to the place where the castle had been. The sand was all flat, you wouldn’t have known it had been there. Andy’s ashes were all set free and out to sea.
We had ice-creams and flew kites until it was time to leave.
Then we went back to the house we were staying in in Blakeney. I felt calmer than I had in weeks and the day ended with the beautiful sunset.