My Turn: The cremation-versus-burial question


Not too long ago, my siblings scattered my mother’s ashes in woods near the family house of more than 50 years. Two years earlier, she had scattered my father’s ashes over the same ground.

A friend aptly put it, “You’ve just advanced to third base.”

The event got me thinking about whether cremation would be what I want when I die. Given my utter rejection of organized religion and faith itself, would it matter?

My mother used to say in her pragmatic way, “Once you are dead, the body is of no significance; let efficiency be your guide.” Both parents had written cremation into their wills. OK, I had thought, that seems reasonable enough. Quick, inexpensive, no real estate involved, etc.


But I never completely settled on the idea. There was something gruesome about ashes.

Some people bring ashes home. I couldn’t imagine pleasant memories coming from an ash-filled urn squatting on my mantle. It would be too much like the medieval Catholic practice of preserving relics, those desiccated fingers and body parts of saints.

Cremation scams made me even more skeptical. How could we really be certain it was my mother in that urn? Perhaps my sibs scattered the ashes of a Democrat! My mother wouldn’t even be able to roll over in her grave.

Then I was reminded of the time my father and two friends flew a single-engine Cessna over Puget Sound to scatter ashes of a dear friend. At 100 miles per hour, when they shook the remains out the window the cough-inducing ashes got sucked back inside the cabin.

Cremation, the age-old custom of Hindus and Buddhists, has been on a steady rise in the Western world for years. In 1963, the Vatican even granted permission to Catholics, and since then, cremation in the U.S. has risen from 9% (1980) to a projected 50% or more by 2025.

Cremation has even gone trendy. Nowadays, a person can have his or her ashes added to an ocean reef to “breed new life,” sent into orbit or converted into artwork and jewelry — even compressed into a diamond.

For several generations, everyone in my extended Protestant family had been cremated. During my marriage, though, I learned about Jewish customs from my wife’s family. The tradition is to have a burial within one or two days after death, followed by a week of mourning — the shiva — during which family, friends and neighbors visit, eat and pray. A year after, loved ones gather at the graveside and unveil the headstone.


I keep memories of my parents close. However, I suspect that actually visiting a grave site would carry more meaning than memories alone. I picture a simple headstone with a succinct epitaph. I picture the site surrounded by trees, rain, songs of birds, even those twitchy squirrels that frustrated them over the years in their garden. I wish I had such a place to visit.

As for my death, I’ve decided it won’t matter whether I am buried or cremated, but I wouldn’t object if, after a year, in the spirit of unveiling, those who cared gathered to remember me one last time. Then they can all go out for lunch.

James Channing Shaw is a dermatologist at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be 500 words or fewer, are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Email Read more at