My mother died in 2009. She intended her body to be used for medical science, but an unexpected problem made this impossible and funeral arrangements had to be made hurriedly and without careful thought. My father decided that she should be buried on their land. Due permissions were obtained and acceptance sought and gained from his near neighbours – a requirement in Scotland, where he lives.
Shortly after the funeral, his neighbours said that they were no longer happy about the burial and wanted her exhumed and moved. For obvious reasons, this was neither desirable nor easily accomplished and the neighbours dropped their objection.
My father took great care to screen my mother’s grave from view and it is not possible to see the grave, which is some distance from their house and the boundary. Relations with his neighbours are good.
My father is elderly and, while generally in good health, could die at any time. It is his express wish to be buried with my mother. Neither of them was religious in any way.
The other day the neighbours spoke to a member of the family privately, and asked that we make sure that when he dies, he is not buried there because “the thought of two skeletons being there” disturbs them.
While I feel my neighbours’ view is irrational, that is how they feel. My father wishes to be buried with my mother and, again, while I feel his view is irrational, I fully understand. Even though it was a bad decision to inter my mother in the back garden (it’s vast, but still the back garden), I do respect my father’s wishes. My brothers and sisters tend towards being uber-pragmatic and the general view after my father’s death seems to be “dig ‘em up and cremate them, scatter the ashes”.
That would mean expressly going against my father’s wishes. I am too close to the problem to see the way clearly. We are a strong-willed family and my line in the sand is that my father’s final wishes should be carried out if at all possible. What do I do?
You are being terrifically sensitive to everybody’s needs. I think a key part to your letter is in the first few lines. Your mother’s intentions were not to be buried in the garden but to donate her body to science, but because that wasn’t possible, and it was all rushed, your father “kept her close”. And now he wants to be buried with her even though she never expressed any wish to be buried in the back garden.
A solution is what your longer letter suggests you are tempted to do: sit down with your father calmly and talk this through. Go through the guidelines for home burial with him. An option would be to suggest your mum is exhumed and reburied somewhere else – maybe somewhere that meant a lot to her – or cremated and also “kept close” at home.
This could be done with a lovely ceremony – not rushed, but carefully thought out, and his place next to her (if she is buried) could be bought/reserved at the same time.
I wonder if this is less about where your mum actually is, than your father ultimately being near her? I think it’s really important to talk about this while your father is alive. I know people don’t like talking about death and burial, but it seems as if there is already a lot of talking going on in your family anyway, it just needs to include him.
I think being buried in a large back garden is a rather lovely thing to do but it does have, as you are seeing, practicalities. If your father will not shift in his wishes, then obviously it’s up to you as a family whether you fulfil them after his death. Like you, I would be uncomfortable not following through with a loved one’s last wishes. I do wonder, however, if part of his obstinance is to do with the fact that your mum never got her last wish?
Being fixated on one’s own funeral/burial arrangements can sometimes be a sign of fear. Fear leads to trying to over control situations.
As you’ve seen, there are no specific restraints on home burial in Scotland, as long as guidelines are followed. Visit the South Ayrshire website at south-ayrshire.gov.uk for more information on this.
Your neighbours do not have redress unless the burial (or a future one) went against these guidelines and it is now causing a nuisance or public health issues (the guidelines go into more detail), although I appreciate you do not want to fall out with them. I suspect they are worried about the resale value of their house. You will have to mention the burial in a future house sale and that may make selling it more difficult (prospective buyers may also need to tell their mortgage company). You also mention keeping the portion of land your mother is buried on; this would help deal with things like being able to visit as long as you had access to the burial site.
I’ve put two useful links for you below, not least Cruse. I wonder if your father needs to talk through his bereavement with someone outside the family?
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 30 January 2016.