Q: My brother's wife died recently without a will. He wanted to cremate her remains, but her parents are against it. Who decides on cremation or burial?
The first thing that comes to mind is, why can’t they mutually decide? Clearly, based on your question, your brother is on one side of the road, and his in-laws are on the other, each looking at the other saying, “Get over here!”
It’s not unusual to see spouses and in-laws disagree after a death. In fact, out of the thousands of families I’ve worked with, in-law relationships are one of the top three problematic dynamics. Look, it’s about their child. Sure, she was your brother’s wife, but it’s their baby.
There’s a lot at stake here. We are in our most vulnerable state after the death of a close family member, and when we are vulnerable we self-protect. As a result, there’s too little walking across the road to each other. We tend to quantify the relationships, saying, “I knew her so much better than you did.” Well, it’s not about measurements.
I advise your brother to not get stuck in this drama triangle of cremation or burial. Communicate his feelings, be open to other people’s wishes, and try to connect with them.
A death has occurred, and you’re all reeling. But the question for your brother isn’t, “Why are her parents being so damned stubborn?” It’s, “Why is cremation so important to me?” He should think about his reasons.
For example, I was just in a house with a client a few months ago. His wife has been dead for 10 years. Her urn was on the coffee table next to him, and every day he watches their favorite TV show. He told me that the only thing that mattered to him in the house was that urn. It was actually kind of romantic.
So, keeping his wife’s ashes may be your brother’s way to keep her as close as possible. He may not want to let her go. Or perhaps she mentioned once that cremation makes sense environmentally, and he wants to honor that. Or cremation is a more affordable option.
Once he knows his reasons, that’s the thing to say to her parents. Have a conversation about cremation or burial, and connect on a real level. And be prepared to listen.
Because by the same token, her parents have opinions. Maybe they are steeped in tradition and want to have a traditional burial in a family plot. Or there is a family church where they want to have a service with their friends. They may be beside themselves about not being able to place her “to rest” where she can be forever visited and be close to other deceased family. Perhaps her parents also want to be laid to rest beside her eventually. Or they may be afraid they can’t visit her remains if she’s cremated and your brother keeps the ashes.
When you can really listen and respect each other’s reasons, then you can come up with all kinds of options. For example, you can place a headstone or other marker for ashes – my grandmother was cremated, and they buried the urn under a marker in the graveyard. You can also inter the cremains in a crypt.
In one family I know, the mother and daughter of the deceased cremated his body and divided the ashes. The mother buried her half of her son’s ashes in the church memorial garden, while the daughter scattered her half in a spot that held meaning for her father.
It’s great to think that when we explain our “heartfelt why” that people will respect it and that solves the problem. But of course that’s not always the case. And so, I also suggest that your brother thoroughly and mindfully consider his in-laws’ wishes. What would burying his wife take away from him? Is he oversimplifying that having her cremated is going to fix something? Is it really that important to him?
The bottom line is that if they can’t reach any resolution, cremation or burial is your brother’s choice to make, since he is the closest living relative. But I’m assuming he wants to follow his wishes with the least amount of conflict with his in-laws. So, do it with love. Be up front with them and don’t wimp out of the confrontation.
I see people do this all the time. They tell themselves, “They’re just unreasonable.” What they’re really saying is, “I don’t want to deal with people who have a different opinion from me.”
I’d go in and say, “I’m moving forward with the cremation. I want you to be part of it. I know this is difficult for you and I respect your opinion. That being said, this is important to me for these reasons. Know that I love you, and I know your daughter loved you.”
What they do with that belongs to them. Your brother can’t control their actions or opinions, but he can own his feelings and share his truth with love and respect. Being able to do that will carry him through this painful time, and beyond.