Beauty for ashes…a story of redemption.

It’s been two years and five months since mum died and it’s taken us this long to decide how to scatter the ashes. As the days went by and a box of her earthly remains continued to keep its place on a (hopefully not dusty!) funeral director’s shelf, I felt that we were finally ready to get on with it. And after much family discussion, we finally had a plan!

My mum was from Hartlepool in the northeast of England but spent some of her early years in a little village nearby called Fatfield. Mum’s childhood was marked by sorrow as she and her older sister June lost their dad William when my mum was just two years old. One of my mum’s earliest memories was watching her own mum, Charlotte Annie cry as two men loaded William into a hospital vehicle. He was 43 years old and he never came home.

Growing up in a single parent family wasn’t easy and my mum’s mum (my grandma) Charlotte had to juggle jobs as both a midwife and a cleaner in order to keep my mum and her sister clothed and fed. When my mum was barely 16 years old, the unthinkable happened when Charlotte died suddenly too.

I think mum carried the pain of these two traumatic losses all her life. Mum was an amazing mum, grandma, wife and Aunty who loved everyone she came into contact with but she was also plagued with (and would happily admit to) insecurities from the pain of being an orphan.

When mum encountered Jesus in her 20s, many of her emotional wounds began to heal but we would often hear stories of her sadly-missed mum and dad, the house they lived in (opposite the River Wear), the big cosy open fires, Charlotte’s delicious homemade apple pie and fruit scones and then later, the devastation of having to move far away to Yorkshire when Mum was barely 16, to begin a new life with her older sister.

Although I never got to meet either of my grandparents, I was very familiar with their stories. And in later years, I’ll always remember my mum bursting into shocked but delighted tears when my brother told mum that her first granddaughter, a beautiful baby girl, would be called Charlotte Annie Hope – Charlotte Annie after her mum and ‘Hope’ because well, with Jesus, there’s always hope.

After mum died suddenly in 2021 and we realised that scattering ashes at Dunelm (her favourite place to go!!!) was probably not entirely appropriate, we finally decided it would be right to head up to the northeast to see this place we’d heard so much about.

Our family is dotted about the UK in Staffordshire, Yorkshire and Wales and as the ashes were held at a funeral director’s in Cheshire, a lovely family friend collected them for us and then left them at our church so I could pick them up. Remarkably, knowing absolutely nothing about this, that morning at church the worship band had chosen to sing ‘Graves into gardens’. Knowing the ashes were sitting in the church office next door, I had a teary smile as we worshipped and sang words that had never been more true:

You turn mourning to dancing. You give beauty for ashes. You turn shame into glory. You’re the only one who can. You turn graves into gardens. You’re the only one who can.

And so finally yesterday, armed with ashes and plant pots of pink dahlias (mum loved pink!) I set off up to Hartlepool, meeting family on the way, with the idea that we’d scatter the ashes but also visit some important places in mum’s childhood too.

I wasn’t entirely sure if this trip up north (with ashes strapped into the back seat as putting them in boot felt all wrong!) was meant to be a solemn moment or a silly one, especially as mum and I were legendary for going on road trips and ending up completely lost.

In the end, I opted for a joy-filled journey, remembering all our utterly ridiculous but hilarious journeys. Mum never learned to drive so had an even worse sense of direction than I do. ‘Follow that red car’, she’d say, absolutely convinced she knew where we were going, followed by (as soon I’d taken the wrong turn), ‘I meant the OTHER red car, not THAT one’.

And then there were the times we ended up on dark country lanes (with zero phone signal), found ourselves heading South instead of North, not to mention the occasion travelling to Cheshire from Yorkshire, we somehow ended up on snake pass in Derbyshire. Yep, we really were that bad. I miss those mad adventures.

But with all these memories bubbling round in my mind yesterday, from the minute we arrived at our first stop on ‘Mum’s road trip’ – the churchyard where my grandfather William was buried – we were struck by how peaceful it was. The little churchyard was situated on a slope and as the sunlight dappled through the enormous shady trees, we could tangibly feel the presence of God in the stillness, the peace, the quiet.

We found grandad William’s grave and to our amazement, the headstone was upright. Despite seeing an earlier online image showing the gravestone had toppled over, today it was sitting proudly on its plinth. The churchyard is looked after by some amazing volunteers so we can only assume this was the result of their kind handiwork. As we stood round the stone in a little huddle, we were struck that something so sad (he died when he was just 43) could also be so beautiful, so redeeming. In a way it felt like we were righting the heartache my mum and her sister had endured. It was going to be ok!

I walked down to the small garden of remembrance, sat on a bench in the sunshine and in the serenity, thanked God for my mum’s life. Hers was an early life marked by sorrow but despite all her losses, she had her own family of children, grandchildren, a nephew and nieces and many friends. And here were just some of us together as a family, back in her old stomping ground.

There was so much I wanted to tell her and even though I know she’s happy and whole with Jesus and not ‘here’, I told her anyway.

I told her my new car has in-built sat nav so I don’t get lost as frequently as I did when she was here. I told her that the rest of the family who couldn’t make the journey are doing just fine, that the grandkids (including Charlotte Annie Hope) were growing fast and doing great, that I’d completed Bible college, was now training to be a minister and also that after so much sadness, dad had found new love and was soon to be married again. And I could say with a heart full of joy that truly God had done so many good things since she’d left us. Just like the words of the song we sang at church last week, God had been so faithful and kept us together during the fiery trial of grief.

You turn mourning to dancing. You give beauty for ashes. You turn shame into glory. You’re the only one who can. You turn graves into gardens. You’re the only one who can.

The rest of the day was marked with visits to one of the houses mum and her sister grew up in (the one opposite the river that she’d talked about), a local pub for lunch (and a glass of Prosecco) followed by a trip to the cemetery where my grandma Charlotte and great grandfather’s ashes were scattered. We sat on benches, mulled in silence sometimes, prayed, laughed and cried. But the circle was complete.

And of course, we will always miss Mum, always wish we had her for longer, always wish that maybe we could have returned to visit this place with her but as it says in 1 Thessalonians 4, ‘we do not grieve like those who have no hope’.

As followers of Jesus, we grieve with hope because we know that one day, every tear will be wiped away, that death will be demolished and swallowed up in victory. This is not denial or ‘grief delayed’, it’s the truth. And two things can be true at the same time – we can both miss her but also rejoice, knowing where she is.

But for now, we’ll make the best of the earthly lives we’ve been given and do just as mum had always asked us to do, ‘live our lives with hope’.

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  • Linda wooding

    Absolutely beautiful. I’m so glad it all went so well for you xxx

  • Jacqui

    Beautifully written Paula and such a story ❤️ Jesus redeems all things ❤️

  • Danielle Kourpas

    Beautiful Paula, ‘As followers of Jesus, we grieve with hope’. Wee Shirley would be so proud of you

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