Ashes Underfoot: Human Remains and Public Memorialization
The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010. Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris). Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit. As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).
CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places. Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks. Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears. Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.
Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust. Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards. Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes.
The practice of surreptitiously depositing cremated remains in public places is referred to as “wildcat scattering,” and in most places it is frowned upon if not prohibited. In August, a Toronto Blue Jays fans discreetly deposited a sandwich bag of his stepbrother’s ashes near the dugout, only to be caught when a gust of wind spread the cloud out across the warning track sand and a television crew. In 2013, thousands of fans poured onto Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Field after an upset victory over Alabama, and afterward the field crew found a pile of cremated remains ground into the turf.
Perhaps the boldest of all wildcat scatterers was Christopher Noteboom, who sprinted onto Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in the midst of a 2005 game between his late mother’s beloved Eagles and the Green Bay Packers. As he made the sign of the cross at the 30-yard line, Noteboom was tackled by security and hauled away, but not before he released a cloud of powder that was the remains of his mother Charlotte. When his mother’s health had declined the year before, Noteboom promised he would leave her ashes on the revered field: “I told her I was going to do it. She was thrilled.” He acknowledged he hoped to memorialize his mother’s great passion, noting that “She never cared for any other team except the Eagles. I know that the last handful of ashes I had are laying on the field, and will never be taken away. She’ll always be part of Lincoln Financial Field and of the Eagles.”
Charlotte’s ashes in the Philadelphia turf confirm the consequence of sport, and it is clear that an enormous number of people view stadiums, baseball diamonds, and soccer pitches as hallowed spaces wed to their most consequential memories. However, scatterings on such playing fields may most clearly demonstrate the power of place and the sense of permanence such spaces provide. Playing fields are especially magnetic scattering points because they are passions with a place and a history; Christopher Noteboom seemed confident and perhaps even comforted that his mother will “always” be part of the Eagles’ turf. Sporting venues, historic sites, and parks are tangible material landscapes that look familiar over long spans of time. Of course, soccer pitches, nature reserves, and battlefields are dynamic stratigraphic spaces that are constantly being overhauled—a grounds crew member at Fenway Park assessed the desire to be scattered on the field and laughed that “People think this is the same dirt as Ted Williams dug his cleats into. That’s a joke.” Nevertheless, Fenway’s home plate is in the same spot as Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk, and a host of greats once stood; Fenway Park and similar scattering points seem to be static aesthetic and material landscapes, places with a stable history extending into the present.
Most places are eager to acknowledge their prominence in peoples’ lives, but they are much more reluctant to concede the dust of the departed. Disneyland is reputed to be one of the most common ash scattering sites, with the Haunted Mansion supposedly the single most common place that survivors leave their friends and families’ remains. The Disney park blog MiceAge indicated in 2007 that when ashes are scattered into the Haunted Mansion ride the scattering is sometimes witnessed on security cameras, and the ride is closed down and immediately cleaned with vacuums purchased expressly for the task of cleaning up past guests. Pirates of the Caribbean and Small World are both rumored to be scattering points, and in Fall 2007 a Haunted Mansion cast member reportedly found several piles of ashes along the tracks, and police confirmed that “the large amount of ashes this deposit was likely a small group of deceased people, or perhaps a very large married couple.” A widow admitted that she left some of her husband’s ashes in a Donald Duck topiary, suggesting that “I think Donald would appreciate that it’s slightly illegal. What will they do? Arrest a widow?” An anonymous MiceChat commentator who described themselves as “a night custodial cast member myself” suggested that “I’ve heard mention of the ashes alot on the haunted mansion … it’s usually a light grey color.” However, Disneyland officially disputes that human remains have ever been left at the park.
Some places receive an enormous amount of requests to have ashes deposited on site. Numerous Boston Red Sox fans aspire to be placed to rest at the foot of the Green Monster or scattered at home plate, and the team once accommodated some of those requests. However, the Sox’ former General Manager indicated that “Many times you go out there after a game and you’ll see [ashes] on the grounds. I went out there last year twice, and twice I saw it on the warning track. It’s unbelievable. It’s almost like a burial ground of Red Sox Nation. It’s amazing how it happens. Most of the time, it’s done on off days. Someone comes in on a tour group and they just drop them on the ground. It happens frequently.”
British Premier League teams generally forbid ash scatterings on the pitch, though there have been scatterings for decades that clubs did not publicize. In 2004, Everton stopped allowing fans to scatter ashes at Goodison Park, where the team has played since 1892 and about 800 fans’ ashes have been laid to rest. The Blackburn Rovers have played at Ewood Park since 1890 and allow fans to conduct services and scatter ashes in a Memorial Garden; Manchester City likewise has a Memorial Garden. Tottenham Hotspur made an exception to their scattering prohibition in 2009 when they allowed David Beckham to scatter the ashes of his grandfather on the pitch of the White Hart Lane stadium, where the team has played since 1899. Many of Argentina’s famed Boca Juniors fans “were leaving instructions to their families to scatter their ashes on the playing field of La Bombonera,” where they “would arrive on weekdays with their urns and scatter the ashes on the playing field.” A press officer suggested that on the La Bombonera pitch “you could see little mounds of ashes left afterwards,” and the team opened a cemetery in 2007 that includes turf from the pitch.
Many scattering places have a well-known heritage, like stadiums or Disneyland, and some of the most popular scattering places are picturesque places with deep histories. Grand Canyon National Park, for instance, introduced scattering permits in 1994, and national parks like Yosemite require a scattering permit. Abbey Hepner’s photographic project Temporary Container argues that one key reason such spaces are chosen is because they are “scenic, postcard-worthy and highly photographed areas.” This month Aztec Ruins National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park prohibited scattering of human remains. The parks’ superintendent indicated that “We’ve had a couple this year, people leaving ashes in the Great Kiva (at Aztec Ruins) and at Chaco we’ve had between 25 and 30 this year,” which disturbs archaeological remains and violates indigenous spaces.
Historic sites have also been scattering points. In 2008 staff at Jane Austen’s House Museum felt compelled to prohibit human ash scatterings in Austen’s idyllic Hampshire gardens; the collection’s manager exclaimed that “It is distressing for visitors to see mounds of human ash, particularly so for our gardener. Also, it is of no benefit to the garden!” In 2013 Richie Havens’ ashes were left at the site of the Woodstock concert.
By all accounts, cremation is becoming increasingly common in the US–in 2017 more than half of Americans will be cremated when they die. In the UK two-thirds of the deceased have opted for cremation since the 1970’s. Leonie Kellaher, David Prendergast, and Jenny Hockey’s 2005 study of cremation in the UK found that many people chose cremation and scattering to escape the “fixity” of a cemetery and death rituals governed by municipal and religious regulations. Cremation scatterings may seem placeless dispersals in some observers’ imaginations; however, Kellaher, Prendergast, and Hockey found that many survivors scattered cremation remains yet retained some ashes in a particular spot, knew the location where the ashes had been released at sea, or otherwise kept remains in personally meaningful spaces.
Americans’ increasingly common ash scattering probably reflects the same disenchantment with deathways that Prendergast, Hockey and Kellaher outlined in their 2006 study of British cremation disposal. Cremation rituals in the US are an emergent if flexible set of rituals, but bereavement has become increasingly controlled by survivors managing the material remains of their families and friends. Both the UK and US governments exercise very little regulation of cremated remains, so survivors have a significant amount of freedom over the disposal of the deceased (in contrast, Belgium, Germany, and Italy are among the states that forbid cremated remains leave a cemetery or formal site). Prendergast, Hockey and Kellaher argue that ash as a material thing can be kept at home as a presence; it can be released in a meaningful place; or it can be scattered in meaningful places while portions remain in the hands of survivors. Ash scattering roots the deceased in consequential communal experiences in places like stadiums and theme parks; scattering favors spaces like the Grand Canyon or La Bombonera that appear resistant to change, if not timeless; and it allows groups of people like CJ Twomey’s family and friends to share grief through the scattering of his ashes.
Liam David Renshaw Brown
2012 Death in the City: The St. Lawrence Funeral Centre thesis. Masters Thesis, University of Waterloo.
Douglas James Davies and Lewis H. Mates (editors)
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2005 The Secret Cemetery. Berg, Oxford.
Robert W. Habenstein
1949 A Sociological Study of the Cremation Movement in the United States. M.A. Thesis, University of Chicago.
2013 Cremation in Norway: regulation, changes and challenges. Mortality 18(2):195-213.
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Leonie Kellaher, David Prendergast, and Jenny Hockey
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David Prendergast, Jenny Hockey and Leonie Kellaher
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Stephen R. Prothero
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Tim Flohr Sørensen
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2011 Goddard Flight image from Celestis
Auburn Cremation Ashes image from Auburn Turf Team
CJ Twomey ash scattering, Rhine River Cologne Germany image from Scattering CJ
Fenway Scoreboard image from Alex
Haunted Mansion image from Jeff Fillmore