For our 10 day break, Margaret and I travelled to Broken Hill. It was a family gathering because there we were to scatter the ashes of Margaret’s parents. Jim and Helen Nixon grew up in Broken Hill and the family decided to scatter the ashes in a dry creek bed at Silverton because that was a favourite picnic spot for them.
Cremations and the scattering of the ashes, especially in a dry riverbed, for Christians dare I say, is a relatively recent accepted practice. Cremations were forbidden by law in the middle ages as a heathen practice but came back into practice in the late 19th century. I note that the Catholic church continues to have some concerns about it based on Statements from the Vatican such that while it prefers burial in the ground, and accepts cremation, it forbids the scattering of ashes and even the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home. One Cardinal Gerhard Muller has stated in the Catholic News Service 2016 that ‘the church confirms its faith in the resurrection and separates itself from attitudes and rites that see in death the definitive obliteration of the person’. The sense of it is really the swirling theology of the resurrection of the dead, but in our celebration of the scattering of the ashes, where we could literally say ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ I trust we have not obliterated Helen and Jim!
But cremations, as a way of dealing with the dead, have a long history, as we found on our visit to Lake Mungo (well what used to be a Lake), prior to arriving in Broken Hill. We took a tour and learned that the earliest archeological record of a cremation was Mungo Lady, as she is now known, discovered by a Canberra geologist, and her remains are dated to around 40,000 – 42,000 years old, making them the oldest human remains found anywhere in Australia and in the world. Mungo Man was found later but unlike Mungo Lady he was buried, making him an important anatomical discovery. But the ritual practices of dealing with the dead, of burial and of cremation, as revealed in Mungo Man and Mungo Lady where they were both placed on their backs with hands crossed onto the lap and their bodies sprinkled with red ochre, suggest a well thought through ceremonial and cultural practice of the First Peoples of our nation and, for the Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyimpaa people, an important part of their communal history. It was amazing to visit this historic time capsule of a place.
I am not sure what you think or believe about cremation and the scattering of ashes. For our extended family it was a wonderful time to celebrate the lives of two people who shaped our lives. And we were pleased to release the ashes of their remains to the riverbed to be reclaimed by the elements, believing that the spirit of these two people had departed long ago, and to just remember them. For us, the remembering and the telling of stories about them was something akin to resurrecting and holding dear their essence in our hearts.