ASHES to ashes, dust to dust. For generations that solemn phrase, inspired by the Bible, has symbolised the final farewell for people grieving the loss of their loved ones. It conjures up images of tearful black-clad mourners in bleak churches where a stern-faced minister leads the traditional funeral service.
But as more and more people are turning away from organised religion, so more of them are choosing increasingly bizarre ways of "celebrating" death. Where once cremation itself was thought of as slightly unorthodox, it has become commonplace for people to scatter their beloved’s remains on a favourite hill or golf course.
And now, people seem more determined than ever to make the final farewell as personal as possible.
Instead of ashes to ashes, a group of friends of one young Edinburgh cancer victim opted for "ashes to fireworks" so that they could "launch" him over the city, drinking a champagne toast to his memory as the spectacle lit up the sky. The young man had always loved fireworks and effectively turning him into one after death seemed to his friends and family a fitting send-off. It certainly brought a whole new meaning to the phrase "what a way to go".
Similarly, widow Joanna Booth had her late husband James’s ashes mixed with shot so that a group of friends on a Scottish estate could send him - and numerous game birds - off with even more of a bang on what would have been his 52nd birthday. The ashes of the former Sotheby'’s guns specialist were mixed with shot and loaded into 275 12-bore cartridges. Apparently they bagged 70 partridges, 23 pheasants and seven ducks.
"It’s difficult to say what I was feeling as the first shot sounded," she recalls. "I guess my main feeling was: ‘I wish James was here. He would love this.’ It was nice that we had a minister bless the cartridges. We stood together as he said the words and that was quite moving. The whole day was fun. James would have loved it. He adored shooting, he had been doing it since he was a boy."
Then there are those who have their loved ones’ remains made into diamonds, shot into space or made into artificial reefs for the sea bed.
Stewart Wilson, director of Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland, says the growing trend for the bizarre reflects people’s need for their own kind of closure. He says: "It really seems important to people to link the decision about where to scatter the ashes with a place or activity which the deceased person enjoyed, for example scattering dad’s ashes in a river where he fished or on a hill he loved to walk on. The widow [who had her late husband’s ashes loaded into cartridges for a game shoot] is just a bit more esoteric."
And referring to the Edinburgh cancer patient whose remains were turned into fireworks, he says: "He was a young man who died tragically of cancer in his mid-20s. All his life he had been very interested in fireworks and on his birthday [after his death] a group of his friends wanted to do something to celebrate his life.
"They persuaded his parents to give them the ashes and they had them inserted into several rockets which they launched from one of the hills in Edinburgh while they toasted him with champagne."
He explains: "Scattering the ashes is the last thing that you can do for the person who has died in terms of a practical thing which you have control over.
"It can give people a sense of peace. Scattering the ashes can also be a symbolic way of letting go. One of the things that is really difficult about bereavement is accepting that the person has gone. People sometimes hold on to the ashes for some time after the death before scattering them."
City crematoria have noticed a definite shift away from traditional religion and towards more personal funerals. Jim Nickerson, general manager at Edinburgh Crematorium Limited, which runs Warriston and Seafield crematoria, says: "People are moving away from the conventional and trying more personal ways of saying goodbye. We are certainly asked more nowadays to play CDs at funerals that have nothing to do with religion."
Nickerson is open-minded about some of the stranger services now offered to the bereaved.
These include turning the ashes into diamonds so that the bereaved can transform their loved ones into a glittering ring or necklace. American firm LifeGem offers customers the chance to pay from around 1300 to 7000 for a "high-quality diamond created from the carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique and wonderful life". The firm’s website boasts that more than 50 one-carat LifeGem diamonds can be created from one individual. And a diamond is, as they say, forever.
Another firm, Eternal Reefs Memorials, offers to use the remains to create an "environmentally positive alternative" to ash scattering for around 2000. The ashes are mixed with concrete used to produce artificial reefs which are then sunk in the ocean and become home to fish and sea plants. And yet another, Celestis, offers a service which shoots a seven-gram sample of the cremated remains into Earth’s orbit, for 2800. When the memorial satellite eventually re-enters Earth’s atmosphere it vaporises, blazing like a shooting star in a final tribute.
Much more common, according to Edinburgh funeral directors, are requests for people’s ashes to be scattered at their team’s football ground. Helen Reid, funeral arranger at McKenzie & Millar, of Great Junction St, Leith, says: "Mostly people choose football stadiums like the Hibs ground."
Hibs confirm that they regularly receive requests for fans’ remains to be scattered at the ground - and are more than happy to oblige. A spokesman says: "It is quite a common request from people who have been very loyal supporters, people for whom the team and the ground means a great deal.
"The ashes are scattered behind the goal, because obviously it would not be right to have them scattered on the pitch itself. We try to be as sensitive to relatives as possible, making sure that there is no-one working near them while they are scattering the ashes."
TV programmes like the cult show Six Feet Under have also helped make talking about death more acceptable in society. But despite people’s increasing openness about the subject, death is still a bit of a taboo, and funeral directors do not make a habit of asking bereaved people who take their loved one’s ashes away what they will do with them. Reid adds: "When people say they want to take the ashes we don’t really ask them what they are going to do with them."
A spokeswoman for another city funeral directors, Barclays, agrees: "Some people put the ashes in their gardens or have them scattered at sea but the majority just take them away and we don’t hear about what they do with them after that."
The lack of recorded information about what people do with their loved one’s ashes has even inspired the government to commission research into the issue.
Professor Jenny Hockey, of Sheffield University, has been conducting a study into the fate of the remains of those who decide against traditional burial. "The trend for removing ashes seems to show that people want to have ceremonies tailored to their own individual needs and often they have spiritual needs that are not in line with the Christian Church. By removing the ashes, people are taking back control of the process and doing it for themselves," she says.
Meanwhile, the rules and regulations about scattering ashes remain a bit of a grey area to many, with the bereaved unwilling to draw attention to their actions because they fear they may be flouting the law. The Scottish Executive says it is legal to scatter ashes "anywhere", providing permission is sought and obtained from "the relevant authority".
Eric Robinson, head of the environmental department at Edinburgh City Council, which runs Mortonhall Crematorium, says: "Once people take the ashes from the crematorium, what they do with them is their concern.
Another likely reason for the growing number of bereaved people choosing to take control of their loved one’s final journey is increasing concern about overcrowded graveyards. By choosing cremation and scattering the ashes themselves afterwards, relatives and friends avoid the risk of a grave being disturbed.
Wilson says: "People do worry about what will happen to the deceased person’s grave. At least with cremation they know what has happened to their remains."
While more people are choosing to take control, death affects people in very different ways, and not everyone wants to get involved in the process of death.
"There are some people who are not remotely interested in what happens to the ashes. And a lot of people feel very strongly that they do not want to look at them. They feel that once the spirit of the person has gone the body is no longer significant," Wilson adds.
But with so many new ways of giving the dead a personal send-off, it is likely that fireworks and diamonds are just the beginning.