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New role for parks: Final resting places

Ashes of the dead have to go somewhere

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.

My kids used to sing this nursery rhyme when they were younger.

The song always creeped me out.

Legend has it that the song is about the plague. The posies covered up the stench of death, and the ashes were about cremation.

I was thinking about that Monday when I noticed a new Illinois law went into effect allowing state parks to set aside a spot where human ashes can be scattered.

Now morticians and others who profit from death don’t like the word “ashes.” They’d prefer a $10 word like “cremains.”

That euphemism smacks a bit too much of marketing for my taste.

After all, it’s ashes to ashes; dust to dust, not cremains to cremains.

I’ve never had a problem with the idea of cremation so much as trying to answer the question of what to do with the ashes.

Too many times over the years, I’ve encountered folks with a box full of ashes who had no idea what to do with it.

For example, decades ago my ne’er-do-well great Uncle Harold’s ashes showed up in the mail at a relative’s house.

Harold had been estranged from much of the family. I don’t ever remember meeting him.

But many folks who did said he was a jerk.

So, the arrival of his last earthly remains in a cardboard box came as a shock.

No one wanted to pay for a burial.

So, one day a family member disappeared into a country cemetery with a spade. Harold was secretly planted not far from his relatives in an unmarked hole.

He ended up closer to family in death than he ever was in life.

As cremation becomes more common, unwanted boxes of ashes are turning up in all sorts of places.

Back when I was a reporter in Las Vegas, my friend Marlene Richter, who ran a homeless shelter, found herself the unwilling recipient of human remains multiple times.

When she walked into her office in 1999, she saw on her desk a cardboard box with a label from a mortuary attached.

After a quick glance at the label, she thought she knew the rest of the story. It read: “Clara D. Penny, Died Oct. 13, 1996.”

Someone — she doesn’t know who — entered her office at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and left the plain cardboard box.

Twice before over the previous two years, a box of cremated remains had ended up on her desk in St. Vincent’s Homeless Shelter, and she had to search for surviving relatives.

I gave her a hand, and after several phone calls, I found a half-sister of the deceased in Jena, La.

“I just can’t believe this,” Alice Stapleton said of her sibling. “We were told her ashes were scattered on some mountain near Las Vegas. It never occurred to me that they could end up in a box in a homeless shelter.”

Stapleton said she had a nice family cemetery plot where the ashes could be buried.

After I got off the phone with the relative, I called Marlene and suggested she look in the box – because the family thought the ashes had been scattered.

I strained to hear over the phone line as my friend pried open the box.

Then I heard a scream and a gasp.

“The box is full of pine cones, Scott! I never thought to look inside. It would be like peeking in the casket. It’s just something you just don’t do.”

I called the sister back to tell her of the discovery in the box.

“Well, it’s a good thing y’all didn’t mail back that box. We might have ended up burying a box of pine cones in the family plot,” she told me with a chuckle.

The only mysteries remaining: Who left a box of pine cones on the desk — and why?

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at

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