Magazine

The man whose ashes are scattered in more than 100 countries

  • 1 December 2014
  • From the section Magazine
CJ Twomey in Red Sox T-shirt

In November 2013, Hallie Twomey turned to social media to ask people across the world to scatter her son's ashes. One year on CJ's ashes have been taken to more than 100 countries and have even been sent into space.

Of the many photographs you can see on the Scattering CJ Facebook page, one appears more often than any other. It is a picture of a young man, smiling into the camera, sunglasses resting on his head and wearing a Boston Red Sox T-shirt.

He is CJ Twomey from Maine in the United States - a former member of the US air force who loved to travel and loved adventure. On 14 April 2010, when he was 20 years old, CJ took his own life.

Last November, as his mother was looking at the urn filled with her son's ashes sitting on the mantelpiece, she decided that she wanted to send him on a journey.

"It dawned on me that his ashes would be sitting in that urn forever," says Hallie Twomey. "He didn't get to see the world and I wanted to give CJ something he didn't get a chance to have."

After discussing it with her husband John, Hallie set up a Facebook page asking if anyone would be willing to scatter a small amount of CJ's ashes in a place of their choosing.

Image caption CJ's ashes have been scattered in Machu Picchu, Peru...
Image caption ... and on a tea plantation in Tamil Nadu, India

At the beginning, the offers were slow to come in - Hallie and her family thought they would be lucky to get a few hundred people making contact.

But one year on, more than 9,000 people have offered to take some of her son's ashes on their travels and Hallie now has to be selective.

She chooses people going to places that are particularly unique or where CJ's remains haven't yet been. "I wish we could involve every person that offers but we only have a finite amount of ash," says Hallie.

When someone makes contact and the offer is accepted, Hallie places a small amount of CJ's ashes into a little bag and posts it along with a letter and the photo of CJ in his Red Sox shirt.

"I ask them to let CJ know that we loved him," says Hallie. "And the thing I need people to do most for me is to tell CJ I'm sorry. Because I am - I feel I let my son down."

Image caption CJ's ashes have been skydiving several times, including on this occasion in Arizona
Image caption Scattering the ashes on sand dunes near Swakopmund in Namibia...
Image caption ... and from a hot air balloon over Cappadocia, Turkey

Those who scatter CJ's ashes are asked to take a picture and send back a few words about their chosen location. The Scattering CJ Facebook page is filled with photographs from around the world - famous landmarks, snowy mountains and tropical islands all make an appearance.

Most of the photographs include the little bag of ashes and CJ's picture in the foreground - many show a small amount of ash held in someone's outstretched hand, ready to be scattered.

The page also shows an impressive list of destinations where CJ's ashes have been scattered - ranging from Alabama to Afghanistan and Cambodia to Cape Verde.

Image caption On the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany...
Image caption ... and 16m below the sea surface near the Dominican Republic

Despite so many packets being sent to so many destinations, there have been relatively few issues in getting CJ's ashes to those who wish to scatter them.

But a few envelopes have arrived at their destination damaged - some with the ashes missing. "That can be hard to hear but we decided to believe that wherever CJ's ashes ended up, that's where they were meant to be," says Hallie.


Sending cremated remains by post

  • Postal systems around the world have different rules about sending cremated human remains by post
  • The US Postal Service (USPS) allows the shipment of cremated remains both domestically and internationally
  • The Royal Mail in the UK considers human remains, including ashes, a "prohibited item" and will not transport them
  • If posting ashes internationally, the USPS advises to check whether the destination country permits it or if certain procedures apply

(Source: USPS / Royal Mail)


Occasionally some of CJ's ashes are returned - perhaps people have changed their minds or their travel plans have fallen through. It's something they are asked to do if they feel they can't fulfil their offer.

But it can be difficult for Hallie to receive those packets in the post. "I'm not sure why that makes me feel sad when it has always been an option," writes Hallie on Facebook.

The people who have offered to scatter CJ's ashes are from different backgrounds, age groups and nationalities. Some of them have had their lives affected by suicide or perhaps contemplated it themselves.

"Because of CJ and his journey, some people have shared with us that they no longer want to end their life," says Hallie. "We never for even one moment imagined that our son's story could save others."

Image caption Port Willunga Beach in South Australia
Image caption Overlooking Haikou City on Hainan Island in China
Image caption One of the US Winter Olympic team offered to scatter CJ at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi

Although his ashes have been scattered across seven continents including Antarctica, there are still a few locations his family would love CJ to get to - the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and under the ancient Angel Oak Tree in South Carolina.

CJ's journey hasn't only been confined to Earth - his ashes were part of a rocket's payload launched from the New Mexican desert in October. "It allowed our larger than life son to reach farther than we ever imagined," says Hallie.

CJ's family don't intend to send all of his ashes away - a small amount will remain at home and some have already been incorporated into jewellery for Hallie to wear. They have never measured the exact amount of ash in CJ's urn but about two thirds of what they planned to share has now been sent.

Their aim is to post the remaining third by early 2015 but there is no definite timeline. "I trust that I will know when it is time to be finished," says Hallie.

Image caption Hallie Twomey and her son CJ

Hallie doesn't know how she will feel when the Scattering CJ project draws to a close and she sends off the last packet of CJ's ashes - but she is sure she will cry. "Mailing your child's ashes anywhere will never feel right because it's totally wrong that he's gone," she says, but she's glad she did it.

"As his Mum, my single biggest fear is that CJ will be forgotten," says Hallie. And with more than 18,000 people now following the Scattering CJ Facebook page and new offers to scatter his ashes still arriving each day, she hopes that sending CJ on this journey will keep his memory alive.

Hallie Twomey spoke to Weekend on the BBC World Service

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