Daniel Ruth, a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote an interesting piece last month. A few years ago, his wife’s Aunt Mary asked her, when the time came, to travel to Mount Olympus in Greece to spread her ashes. When the time came, Ruth and his wife faced an intense challenge.
First they needed to deal with all of the paperwork involved in carrying cremated remains out of our country and into another. Mountains of bureaucratic red tape needed to be climbed and processed in order to obtain the appropriate permission from both governments.
Then there was the tiny detail of climbing the mountain, an activity not exactly in their daily exercise regime. Getting to the top of the mountain is no mean feat for anyone. It is frequently dangerous. In fact, just days after they made the trek, another climber died in a 600-foot fall.
And, upon their arrival at Litohoro, a final surprising challenge met them. The weather changed their plans. There would be no rest. If they wanted to hike the mountain, it would need to be immediately. Ultimately, they were able to scale the mountain and spread Mary’s ashes over a ridge. In Ruth’s words: “A gentle breeze carried Aunt Mary into eternity, into the embrace of the Greek gods.” You can read more of their adventure in Aunt Mary Joines the Greek Gods for Eternity.
Stories like Aunt Mary’s are becoming more and more common. For a variety of reasons, people are no longer going the traditional route for their post mortem plans. And it will change the way genealogists in the future research.
I’m not referring to cremation. That has been common for a century at this point. It is what happens to those cremains that has changed. In days past, cremains would be buried in cemeteries. Sometimes they are buried in family graves alongside coffins. Many cemeteries have a special area for cremated remains called a columbarium, or they might have an urn garden.
But today, many people are opting to have their ashes spread elsewhere, in places that have some sort of significance to them. The remains of John F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, were spread at sea. The ashes of comedian Robin Williams who died this summer were scattered in San Francisco Bay.
Many eco-conscious people are now opting to have a “green burial” or “natural burial.” The remains are not embalmed, and buried in biodegradable containers. Usually the graves are unmarked.
How is this changing genealogy? One of our major resources for research are grave markers. Many cemeteries have seen their inscriptions transcribed and published over the years. And website like FindAGrave and BillionGraves have made it even easier to view grave markers and transcriptions of the inscriptions. Often these inscriptions are the only records of death that we have.
These new forms of burial leave no markers. Not only will there be inscription to transcribe, but genealogists will be robbed of another wonderful experience. During my research I have visited the final resting places of countless individuals. Each time I am able to pause and reflect on who they were and what they accomplished in life. The feeling will not be the same for those whose remains are spread to the winds or the water, like Aunt Mary; JFK, Jr.; and Robin Williams. Our research, and our experiences, will never be the same.