Would you recognise human and pet ashes scattered in the British countryside? What can we learn from observing and recording these traces?

Most visits to heritage sites, beauty spots and country parks now involve encountering burned and crushed human and animal remains. These (c)remains of loved people and pets have been dispersed in public places away from cemeteries and churchyards. This is part of a wider half-century-old trend for British deathscapes, as people increasingly move away their focus from traditional burial grounds and memorial environments. The increasing popularity of natural burial grounds are part of this trend.

The sites chosen presumably hold an affinity for the survivors, presumably also they were places frequented and valued by the deceased.

The situations for ash-scattering are far from arbitrary. Unsurprisingly, few people discard ashes in car parks or in hedgerows beside motorways (although I may simply not notice such instances!). Instead, it seems to be the antiquity and aesthetics of locales in general terms which constitute a ‘draw’ for ash-scattering.

Yet clearly the precise locations where scatterings take place hold significance too. Practical factors affecting decisions on where to scatter include some shelter from the wind, and some form of demarcation from main pedestrian thoroughfares across or around the locale.

From personal observations over many years, I would contend that more specific factors seem to encourage the choice of scattering site: a discrete and memorable location within the microtopography of ruins and rocks, trees and crevices are often selected. They tend to be close to, but set apart from, footpaths. In this way, the careful attention to placement mirrors the precise use of water features, borders and trees in crematoria gardens of remembrance to establish microenvironments of personal memorialisation within public spaces.

Even when not accompanied by floral deposits, wreaths or memorial plaques, the dead are integrated into the locale through ash-scattering and I regularly, sometimes unexpectedly, come across them when walking on my own and with family.

I’ve previously addressed this for Castell Dinas Brân, Llangollen, which is a popular ash-scattering spots amidst the ruins of the 13th-century castle with views over the Vale of Llangollen.

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Ashes at Castell Dinas Brân

On my travels, I take photographs of these remains to help serve as a record of how paths and tracks, natural landmarks and archaeological traces are incorporated into present-day deathscapes. Also, I hope to use these as examples, relatively free from ethical considerations of photographing gravestones, of present-day mortuary practices.

Here are two further examples. First, this one was scattered by individuals facing westwards on the lip of a 19th-century quarry. From the traces, we can estimate where people were standing (presumably facing westwards out over the quarry), and how they used the vertical quarry-edge as a means of demarcating themselves from the area of deposition for their loved one.

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Rendered in high-contrast black-and-white to help indicate the flecks of cremated bone, this quary edge allows the ashes to fall below the survivor(s) present at the ash-scattering

The other, below, is very different. Rather than a personal site, the ashes are scattered in a clear pile at the base of a hawthorn tree that has long been used as a memorial foci by many dozens of people. It is adorned with ribbons, ties, messages and even one memorial plaque, all serving as ephemeral material cultures commemorating the dead. In this sense, the ashes are augmenting a pre-existing memorial focus.

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Here in this posterizing image, the black is a concentration of ashes at the eastern and path-side base of a hawthorn tree on a Welsh hillside which, from its twigs and branches are ribbons and other memorial offerings, so in this case the ashes are joining a pre-existing and popular memorial locale.

 

As well as affecting the natural environment, ash-scattering imposes the dead onto public and leisure spaces, including archaeological sites and monuments. The presence of ‘cremains’, unambiguously the result of gas-fired indoor cremation, yet often ambiguous as to whether it represents a human or pet, prompts questions about how one should interact with them? Should we treat ashes as ‘human remains’ even if not unquestionably the traces of a human? Should one simply ignore it? Perhaps some will pay their respects to the traces, even if they do not know the identity of the loved one? Maybe some use such scatterings as a prompt for discussions of mortality with one’s family and friends? Or perhaps most people don’t even notice these scatterings when they pass them by…

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