Helen Deeming’s partner Phil was in his 40s when he died suddenly. Like many people of that age, they’d never got around to talking about their final wishes, and neither she nor Phil had been religious. Although Helen quite liked traditional churchyard graves and headstones, it wouldn’t have been an appropriate choice for Phil.
“I enjoy reading histories on gravestones, but I’ve never associated them with ashes. I’d agreed with Phil’s mum he should be cremated and it didn’t seem quite right to bury his remains there,” says Helen, 47, who was in the hospital recovering from a breast cancer operation when Phil contracted meningitis in January 2006.
Without the chance to say goodbye, choosing the right memorial was important to Helen, who’d been in a relationship with Phil for 16 years and shared a home with him in Somerset, England. Only a few years beforehand, her choices would have been limited. But with the dawn of the internet and a huge growth in cremations as an alternative to burials, the bereaved now have a wider choice than ever.
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Scour the web and you can find anything from "memory bears" — specially commissioned teddies made from the deceased’s clothes — to keepsake rings, key rings, and pendants designed to contain ashes.
According to Dr. Sheila Payne, co-director of the International Observatory of End of Life Care, having a tangible place or thing that remains of the living person helps with the grieving process. “It helps with the transition from the living person we connect and talk with every day to someone we can only remember. It enacts the memory and sustains that relationship in some symbolic way, ensuring they live on in our lives. “It doesn’t matter what the memorial is as long as it is meaningful, comforting.”
In the end, Helen turned to her sculptor and stonemason friend Kate Semple, 47, to help her capture the spirit of Phil, a mechanical engineer, for posterity. In his spare time, he’d loved walking, sailing, and the outdoors life and was a keen Sheffield Wednesday fan.
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A joint family decision to donate Phil’s heart, liver, kidneys, and spleen had given them comfort that part of him was living on doing good, but they still wanted a solid, personal memorial. After his ashes were split between Helen and Phil’s mom, some had been scattered in meaningful places — including a beechwood forest in Sheffield, England, he played in as a child, and two beauty spots in Cornwall, England.
“Phil’s mum put a bench in the forest as her memorial, but I didn’t know what to do with the last bit of him. It felt like letting him go,” admits Helen.
Expressing her thoughts to Kate, they agreed on a wood and glass artwork to include beech from the forest and blue glass to represent his team colors. It was hand carved with rolling hills to represent their love of the countryside and inscribed with some meaningful words. A compartment at the base was used to carry the last of his ashes that Helen later scattered on a Dorset hillside.
“The whole process was really important to me and the end result has allowed me to relax into a new life. I’ve since moved house and Phil’s memorial is on the front windowsill of my new home, where the light catches it. It’s not a shrine or anything morbid; it’s a beautiful comforting piece of art I think he’d like himself.”
Kate, who founded Somerset-based Elysium Memorials — a collaboration of traditional craftspeople and artists — in response to requests like Helen’s, says: “The internet has given people the opportunity to think more about how they really want to remember someone, whether it’s sending their ashes up in a rocket or having something artistic to keep them in; it is very liberating.
“Far from being morbid, my job is utterly uplifting. It is so meaningful to create something beautiful that has such significance for people.
“Most of us have a pocket watch or some other treasured possession passed down from a beloved grandparent that we’d grab if we had to run out of the house in a fire. The memorials we make are the heirlooms for tomorrow’s generation.”
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One of Kate’s first commissions remains one of her most unusual pieces, something she created for former art therapist Pat Hurley, 86. Describing herself as someone who believes in a spiritual dimension but doesn’t subscribe to any organized religion, Pat didn’t want clergymen involved at her funeral. Nor did she want a tombstone. Pat has never married and has no remaining family, but has lots of good friends. She decided she wanted her ashes scattered at a local arts center and a sculpture left there.
After talking to Kate, Pat decided she wanted to leave a stone cup of tea! “I thought a cup of tea was such a universal thing and such a comfort in our country. When people are nonplussed they always say ‘put the kettle on and let’s have a cup of tea’. It gives people time to reflect,” says Pat.
For the past six years, the three-foot high sculpture has taken pride of place in the front room of Pat’s Edwardian terrace. “It’s rather nice and not at all morbid!” she laughs. “I am not afraid of dying, and I’ll go when I go.”
When that time comes, she hopes her sculpture will speak for itself and make people smile. “It already makes my friends smile now when they visit,” she adds.
Dr. Payne says: “Just as we like to commemorate loved ones, it’s also perfectly normal and nice to think that when we’re dead we won’t be completely forgotten. We all want to be a little bit immortal.”
Photograph © Patrick Boyd Photography
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