Ashes to ashes, dust to dinner

To most, the idea of consuming a loved one blended into a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke is a ridiculous proposal, however the practice of eating someone’s ashes – sometimes referred to as endocannibalism – does exist. Most people’s introduction to cannibalism began with the 1991 film, Silence of the Lambs, following the human-munching adventures of Hannibal Lecter as he prepared gourmet meals using his victims. While most films have portrayed cannibalism as a psycho chasing and killing their victims to eat, the real life tabloids appear to have taken a completely different approach, with ‘Carry On Cannibal’ style headlines such as ‘I WILL EAT MUM ON CHRISTMAS DAY’ and ’I’M ADDICTED TO EATING GRANDMA’.

The truth appears to be that some people simply do wish to be devoured by their loved ones after they pass away, many funeral related internet forums and funeral directors’ FAQ sections include references to consuming ashes, with those that wish to do so seeing it as a way of living on inside someone else. While scientists and historians say that no firm evidence exists to prove cannibalism has ever been socially acceptable anywhere in the world, at any point in history, it is thought that this practice originates from tribes such as the Yanomami, based on the border between Venezuela and Brazil. It is said that the Yanomami death ritual involves consuming ashes of the dead alongside a soup made from fermented bananas. In the instance that the death is the result of a conflict, the Yanomami will save the ashes until they feel that the deceased has been avenged. The reason Yanomami eat the ashes of the deceased is not too dissimilar to the reasons given by western people wishing to consume their loved ones; the Yanomami believe that the spirit of the deceased will live on inside them. In complete contrast to the Yanomami and westerners, controversial Hindu sect the Aghori rub the ashes of the deceased into their bodies after they’re cremated as well as eating them. The Aghori eat the ashes of the deceased not in tribute but in order to supposedly achieve a superior state of mind and body. Other actions carried out by the Aghori to achieve this include smearing excrement.

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With the main practitioners of consuming ashes seemingly tribes removed from western civilisation, this surely prompts the question of whether all this is actually legal here in the UK. “There is simply no law which prohibits this,” says Gary Rycroft of Joseph A. Jones and Co Solicitors, adding: “In this country, law is made by parliament and the courts and I do not think either have considered this issue.” Rycroft honestly explains the subject is “certainly one of the most bizarre situations [he has] been asked to comment on”. Those that kill a person in order to eat them are of course liable for murder charges according to Rycroft, however he explains no one has ownership of a corpse. The executor of course carries out the wishes of the will however, Rycroft says: “My view is that executors should not allow a third party to eat ashes and if they do it should be entirely ‘at the own risk’ of the person eating.”

Rycroft says that precaution is advised if anyone does wish to consume ashes as the act could be considered to “outrage public decency”, an offence liable to prosecution. It is also not against the law to eat the flesh of a deceased body according to Rycroft however he points out that other laws may mean that should it be necessary this could also be prosecuted under “public decency”.

Whilst it may perhaps be legal to dine upon a loved one, it might not be the healthiest way to pay tribute. Human ash contains many toxins, including carcinogenic formaldehyde, which is used to preserve the body for the cremation ceremony. Carcinogenic formaldehyde has been known to cause psychosis in those that consume it as well as being linked to causing certain forms of cancer. Most ash eaters are not worried that the toxins contained in the ashes that could make them next on the plate, for them the ability to feel close to loved ones is well worth the risk. Some ash eaters have become addicted to eating the ash, causing problems when it inevitably runs out.

So with multiple news reports and queries about eating ashes, how popular is this practice? Julie Dunk, CEO of  the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM) says: “this is not something that I am aware of,” adding that ICCM members would “advise families to think very carefully about their choices regarding ashes”. Dunk says there are many other options for ashes that people can consider, indicating that eating them would not be her first suggestion. To those worried that a loved one may command them to feast upon them in their will, Dunk reassures: “although a person may indicate their desire for their ashes, the family are not forced to follow these.” Co-operative Funeralcare on the other hand, had heard of the trend, with a Co-op spokesperson saying: “We would strongly advise against anyone considering ingesting ashes, as it could lead to medical issues.”

The Co-op spokesperson says that the company recommends customers wishing to have their ashes eaten, or wishing to eat their loved ones ashes to consider other options. The main option recommended as an alternative by Co-op Funeralcare is specialised tattoos that contain the ash of a loved one, thus allowing the person to carry their loved one with them, without the risk of illness or prosecution. Other alternatives suggested by Co-op Funeralcare include “products that encase ashes into glass or even convert them into diamonds” along with “ashes that can be launched into the outer atmosphere” or “ashes that can be placed into a firework and shot into the sky”.

While the desire to eat or be eaten is trivialised by tabloid publications it seems that there lays a major health risk behind the humour of the headlines. With some clearly wishing to eat ashes, regardless of the possibility of serious illness isn’t it time that government and funeral organisations looked to bring in measures to educate mourners and funeral planners on the risks the practice can entail?

Endocannibalism evidence

Christmas Pudding

One British woman was reported as eating her mother’s ashes as a seasoning for her Christmas pudding last year. The lady explained that she had done it in order to be as close to her mother as possible at Christmas. A special place was reserved at the Christmas dinner table for the woman’s mother and her fiance completely supported her decision. The woman’s two sisters were completely unaware of her intentions.

Ash addiction

An American woman became addicted to eating the ashes of her husband following his death. The lady, aged 26, became the star of the US TV series My Strange Addiction, explaining on camera that she first started consuming his ashes after spilling some by accident and deciding that licking it up was the most respectful option. The programme showed the woman’s struggle with addiction following the incident, noting the potentially dangerous side effects of eating ashes. The end of the show showed the woman checking in to an inpatient care facility.

Almost eaten by accident

One British man almost consumed the ashes of his mother by accident after they blew back into his open mouth while he was scattering them over a lake. Rather than simply empty the bag into the water, the man decided that he would reach inside the bag and sprinkle them with his hand, unfortunately he had not checked the wind direction and the ashes floated on to clothes, skin and into the man’s open mouth. Rather than do what most in similar situations have done and swallow, the man decided to spit the remains into the lake.

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