Ashes to ashes, except when they're not
August 13, 2009 9:21 PM   Subscribe

FictionFilter! I can't believe I'm asking this, but.. here goes: What could you put in an urn that would be mistaken for the ashes of a loved one? Oh god, that looks even worse now that I've actually typed it! Luckily, it's only for a story I'm writing.

The gist of the story: a woman wants an ex-lover to think she has died. She leaves him the urn with her ashes... except, of course, they're fake.

...what would serve as an easily found substitute? The more easily found, the better. I'm assuming ashes from the fireplace wouldn't look right... would they? Would something else be better?

I've never looked into an urn to see what the ashes look like.
posted by 2oh1 to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
According to (really!):
Cremated remains bear a resemblance to coarse sand and are pasty white in color. The remains of a normal size adult usually weigh between four to six pounds.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:27 PM on August 13, 2009

So, to answer your question: Some sort of ashes would obviously work best, maybe bleached to look white.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:29 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, ashes from the fireplace would probably do the trick, if they were sifted (they need to be more powdery than "ashy"). Most people don't have many up-close-and-personal experiences with cremains, so fireplace ashes in an urn would be a good enough substitute to convince the average person.
posted by amyms at 9:30 PM on August 13, 2009

IIRC, my grandfather's ashes looked a bit like really fine woodchips mixed with a sort of ashy sand. When we scattered his cremains into the ocean, it was pretty windy. Most of the cremains just fell straight down, but there was still a fair bit that got picked up by the wind, and my poor brother got hit by some in his mouth. He likes to joke that a part of Grandpa will stay with him forever.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:31 PM on August 13, 2009

Best answer: You could send a MeMail to ColdChef and ask.
posted by amyms at 9:32 PM on August 13, 2009

Best answer: There are several decent images via google images. Note that cremation ashes do not look like ashes from burned wood. They're actually pulverized bone and ashes which are ground into a powder. So, no, not ashes from your fireplace. More like coarse sand mixed with tiny pebbles...that's what you're going for.
posted by iconomy at 9:35 PM on August 13, 2009

Maybe the coarse sand that others have suggested with a (little) talc or something fine to resemble ashes added to it for realism. Maybe burnt offerings from my BBQ?
posted by Taurid at 9:49 PM on August 13, 2009

She could always steal/obtain someone else's ashes. Or she could ask a crematorium to cremate a dead deer or something...might have to bribe them a bit...
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:50 PM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: Where could one find "fake cremation ashes"? Especially if the person being sent to get the fake ashes has no idea that's what he's getting...? In other words... woman calls friend and says "Hey, I know this is going to seem totally random, but, can you pick up a few things for me?"

Is there a sort of sand from a pet store that would work? Something one would put in a fish tank, or gerbil cage, maybe?
posted by 2oh1 at 9:51 PM on August 13, 2009

I don't know what tone you're trying to hit, but if you want to go Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque, she could swipe a cremated pet from one of her friends. My childhood dog, for example, is sitting in a tiny cardboard box on a bookshelf at my parents' house, and you could easily slip him into a purse without anyone noticing.

On preview: Stop stealing my ideas from the future and going back in time and posting them, Salvor.
posted by martens at 9:53 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work with cremains all the time.

Get sand with a bit of crushed shell, but make sure the shell is crunched up enough to look ambiguous. A little cornstarch mixed in will give it a realistic look. It is going to have various degrees of pulverization, from very small chunks of bone to fine powder.

Cremains look nothing like ashes from a fireplace. They are dehydrated and ground up minerals/bone.
posted by Vaike at 9:57 PM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Cocaine that somebody spilled their beer on.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:58 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Note: make sure it all looks white (may have a touch of grey), no yellow or black grains of sand/shell.
posted by Vaike at 10:00 PM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: I almost want to flag turgid's comment as best answer because it's just so so so so wrong!!!! That cracks me up.
posted by 2oh1 at 10:01 PM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: The tone I'm going for is very somber and serious. It's a short story... until the very end, you're supposed to think she is suicidal. You believe she is sad, but not manic. And then, the twist at the end of the story is that she isn't killing herself at all. She's 'leaving behind' her fake remains.
posted by 2oh1 at 10:06 PM on August 13, 2009

I've handled cremains a few times also, Vaike is exactly right. Some sort of coarse sand or ground up seashells would be your best bet, all white.
posted by scalefree at 10:13 PM on August 13, 2009

This picture makes the ashes look like smashed bisque (once fired, unglazed pottery) You can get bisque figurines at a lot of craft and hobby stores.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 10:29 PM on August 13, 2009

Crushed oyster shell. If you find more finely ground stuff it's a dead ringer. Most people aren't familiar with crushed oyster shell either so they wouldn't recognize it, unlike wood ashes.
posted by chairface at 10:32 PM on August 13, 2009

The cremains I've seen were not white, they were medium grey, fine powdery ashes with some whitish/greyish/yellowy bone chips in them. Like this.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:02 PM on August 13, 2009

Clay kitty litter mixed with some cornstarch. Get the kind w/o the blue and green deodorant balls.
posted by jamaro at 11:03 PM on August 13, 2009

Here's the deal. You, the writer...and most people here have never held human commercially-cremated ashes in their hand.

If we don't know...then its a pretty safe bet to assume somebody else (character in your story) doesn't know.

If you needed a character to see the ashes...and another character (the liar) create those ashes...why not have them do something fantastic like:

-bought and burned 25 reams of paper in an outdoor bathtub...gathered all the ashes and put them im an urn.

-used the ashes and other stuff from the bottom of a barbecue grill

-bought and burned a bag of ashy charcoal

on and on...

It would just add another layer of desperation in the character who is trying to prove someone is dead.

Good luck....and hope I helped.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:19 AM on August 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of commercial pet crematoriums. Would it be a stretch for her to pay a little for the cremated remains of a couple pound puppies?
posted by internet!Hannah at 1:24 AM on August 14, 2009

Could she burn his love letters, crush the remaining ashes and use those? Very symbolic...
posted by Admira at 2:16 AM on August 14, 2009

If you're trying to avoid dwelling on the nuts and bolts of the ash-gathering, a possible solution is for her to snag an outdoor ashtray. They're outside most office buildings, public spaces, and typically unsecured - take it home, sift out the butts, and dump the ash sand into an urn.

On the other hand, you could make the ash-gathering a virtue and write a scene of her doing some Heavy Thinking alone while she feeds a campfire throughout the night. (That'll get you some ash.) Bonus points if this is the last time we hear from that character's perspective. (You also get the added benefit of funeral pyre/reborn-as-the-sun-comes-up symbolism, since your story's tone is somber.)
posted by greenland at 2:22 AM on August 14, 2009

Best answer: Okay. Human cremated remains look like dusty kitty litter. I've never seen anything as fine as sand or anything resembling small "round" pebbles. Closer to the granulated chlorine they put in swimming pools. The crushed oyster shell is good, too. But dustier.
posted by ColdChef at 6:11 AM on August 14, 2009

Oh, and "between four and six pounds" is spot on.

The wood ash and paper ash would not be suitable. It burns too dark. Cremains are usually light in color.
posted by ColdChef at 6:28 AM on August 14, 2009

kitty litter
posted by Drasher at 6:30 AM on August 14, 2009

Were it me, I'd put several large roasts in my oven and set it to 'clean'.

I don't know if that'd actually get you a result similar to real cremation remains, but that's what I'd do, anyway. And then I'd hope it was fine. Most people probably haven't seen that many cremains, so unless you're trying to fool ColdChef, it probably doesn't have to be all that precise.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:14 AM on August 14, 2009

Cigar ashes....some people save them.
posted by ian1977 at 7:19 AM on August 14, 2009

The ashes I've seen were white and looked like bleached-out, small wood chips (as said above).
posted by bunny hugger at 7:32 AM on August 14, 2009

Most people probably haven't seen that many cremains, so unless you're trying to fool ColdChef, it probably doesn't have to be all that precise.

Perhaps. They might not have seen human cremains, but many people own pets and some of those have had them cremated.

Personally, I've never seen human cremains, but have seen those of my cats and dogs. They were all as ColdChef described.
posted by zarq at 8:29 AM on August 14, 2009

Best answer: More important than the fake cremains themselves, I think, is getting the container right. If I ran across an urn full of dusty powdery stuff, I wouldn't immediately think "OMG MY DEAD EX!" I might decide eventually that that's what it was, but it'd be a pretty tentative conclusion, since, yeah, I've never seen cremains up close and couldn't be sure what I was looking at.

But now, if I received a package with the return address of a funeral home on it, stamped WARNING HUMAN REMAINS, along with an official looking form letter with my ex's name on the line for the name of the deceased, that would freak me right the hell out. It wouldn't even matter what was in the package at that point, as long as it was vaguely ashy-looking.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:50 AM on August 14, 2009

Response by poster: Well... my googlefu is failing me. Why would anyone save their cigar ashes? For the smell? How long would it take for the smell to fade?
posted by 2oh1 at 9:54 AM on August 14, 2009

I'm reminded of various MeTa threads where I've seen people comment, "You want to get around (rule)? Say you need to know because you're writing a story ... " ;-)
posted by WCityMike at 12:08 PM on August 14, 2009

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