By Dana G. Gable Ph.D.
Psychologists have long recognized the importance and value in viewing the body after a death. As a psychologist and grief therapist, I frequently encounter bereaved individuals who did not have or take an opportunity to see the deceased for the last time and say their final goodbye. Their grief is compounded by this lack of closure, and it sometimes takes considerable time to recover and move on in their lives.
In a similar way, the means of body disposal may have a significant impact on the grief process for survivors. Cemeteries provide many bereaved with a place to go and recall the deceased in a structured way. They generally provide an appropriate tone and setting that makes it more comfortable for the bereaved to find some sense of solace and peace in the midst of their pain.
Over the years, cemeteries and funeral homes have made major strides in providing important psychological tools for the bereaved as they attempt to work through their tremendous sense of pain and loss. However, some choices made by families today actually may cause complications for the bereaved.
Today, many people choose cremation as their preferred means of body disposition. In some cases, cremation is performed immediately after death with virtually no ritual. In others, the traditional rituals and services are held with cremation occurring afterward. Often this is done at the request of the deceased, but it may not be the choice of the survivors.
The reasons for choosing cremation are diverse and very personal. Some see it as a less expensive alternative to traditional disposition and select it as a response to their own attitudes toward funerals as being too costly. For others, it represents a more rapid return to nature. For some, it represents simplicity and convenience. This is particularly true in today’s world when people frequently move away from family roots.
Some would argue that cremation represents an environmental philosophy. They believe, in effect, that land shouldn’t be taken for the dead and that burial represents a waste of land and material resources. Some bereaved individuals may have a need to feel they can control death and that with cremation they can avoid the pain of loss. Still others see it as a way of symbolically returning the deceased to a special place, as they believe they can do when they scatter ashes. This latter alterative is understandable, but psychologically it may produce problems for the survivor later on.
Following cremation, various options exist for the disposition of the ashes. Some people choose to retain them in their homes, some decide to bury the urn or place it in a columbarium at the cemetery, and still others elect to scatter the ashes in a place that holds special meaning for the deceased and the bereaved.
Cremation can have psychological value for the bereaved. It symbolizes the end of the active relationship one has had with the deceased. It makes one more aware than ever that he or she must go on without that person on their day-to-day lives. Yet it also can represent an attempt on the part of the bereaved to avoid the pain of the rituals of death. In some cases, it may even be a type of unconscious aggression toward the deceased.
Recently, with the increase in the number of cremations, I have encountered a reaction in those who have scattered the ashes of their loved one. Though doing so may represent symbolic act – one that often is desired and requested by the deceased – the bereaved are left with the sense that something is missing. Unlike traditional burial, they find they have no where to go to reflect and think of the person and to “communicate” with him or her.
They hear others speak of going to the cemetery on Memorial Day and other occasions to place flowers, and they realize they have nowhere to do that. They know other grieving individuals who find comfort in periodically being able to go to the gravesite and reflect on the person and the lost relationship. Because they have chosen to scatter the ashes, they no longer feel there is a physical place that represents their loved one.
Perhaps they have scattered the ashes in a place they can no longer easily visit. Scattering is permanent and irreversible. Now that they recognize their need, it is too late. Sometimes they have chosen to scatter the ashes on their own property. This seemingly provides a sense of closure and closeness to the deceased; however, they fail to consider the possibility that they may move one day or the land may be developed. This causes them to have significant regret, which in turn produces tremendous guilt and anxiety.
The reality is that most survivors need a place to focus their grief – a place for memorialization. This need can be met by ground burial or entombment of the ashes in a columbarium.
We often fail to recognize that grief is a lifelong process. Though the most difficult aspects of grief subside after a year or two, there are occasions when grief recurs throughout the survivor’s lifetime. On such occasions, the bereaved often have a need for some additional and personal rituals. These can be carried out very well when there is a place for them to go to remember and feel close to the deceased. However, if the remains have been scattered, they be left with a renewed sense of loss and feeling of incompleteness.
In such cases, the bereaved typically are at a loss to understand what it is they need. Through counseling, they begin to work the real issue, discovering that they are missing that element of memorialization that would be so meaningful to them now. In therapy, efforts must be made to find substitutes and to help the bereaved deal with the decision they made in the past.
At the time of death bereaved individuals are focused only on their present pain and tend to look for solutions that will ease the pain for them now. They fail to think ahead to what needs they may have in the future. Because many families do not talk about death-related issues in advance, they have to make many decisions very quickly at the time of death. They may regret these decisions later.
Dana Gable Ph.d., is a psychology professor at Hood College in Maryland, and maintains a private practice as a grief counsellor.