Comparing the following two stories from England, you can easily see that they're variations on a theme:
No. 1: "The parcel of dried fruit for the anniversary cake arrived from Australian cousins, with no note or letter. The ingredients, including some grayish powder - to add spice? - were duly mixed and baked, and the cake pronounced by family and friends as `gorgeous.'"Then the delayed letter arrived, with the instructions: `By the way, the gray powder in the packet is Uncle Joe's ashes. Would you please scatter them on his mother's grave?' "
No. 2: "The guilt-ridden Wilkinsons of Sussex . . . having gotten what they thought was a gift package of herbs from Australian relatives, stirred the contents into a traditional Christmas pudding, ate half of it and put the remainder in the refrigerator.
"Soon thereafter, a member of the family relates, `we heard from Auntie Sheila that Uncle Eric had died, and had we received his ashes for burial in Britain.' Shocked, the Wilkinsons quickly summoned a vicar to bless, and bury, Uncle Eric's left-overs."
The first story was published in a 1978 collection of British urban legends, along with a variation in which the ashes were packed in a cocoa tin.
The second story was quoted in a Dec. 18, 1990, Wall Street Journal article about a British Broadcasting Corp. radio program that features letters in which listeners confess their worst sins.
My conclusion is that a listener decided to "confess" to the urban legend called "The Accidental Cannibals." The program's producer, who,according to the Journal article, "makes no effort to verify the authenticity of confessions," fell for the story.
"The Accidental Cannibals" has been a popular legend since the end of World War II when powdered foods first became available and were sometimes included in relief packages.
In most versions of the story, Americans send their European relatives a family member's cremated remains, which are mistaken for dehydrated soup, a powdered drink or a cake mix.
The cremains are cooked and eaten before the enclosed letter that identifies the substance is translated.
In England, the story usually has an aunt's, uncle's or grandmother's ashes being sent back home from Australia or the United States for burial, but when they arrive they are mistaken for a seasoning. An explanatory letter comes too late to prevent the family from eating "Aunt Ada's Ashes."
There are too many similar versions of "The Accidental Cannibals" that have circulated too widely and for too many years for me to accept any of them as true. Yet I've always wondered whether cremains might actually be mistaken for a food product.
Here's what a mortician wrote me on the subject:
"I have handled many urns of cremains while sprinkling them in various places requested by the deceased. They are so similar to coarse sand or finely ground seashells that I believe no one could mistake them for soup or baking ingredients. Considering that cremation removes all but the mineral content of the body, this isn't surprising.
"I believe that fascination with the legend about someone accidentally eating a relative's ashes simply shows most people's total inexperience with the results of cremation."
Coping with people's confusion about cremains seems to be an international concern.
According to a newspaper article I clipped in New Zealand a couple of years ago, a funeral director in the city of Oamaru, hoping to "dispel some of the myths that have grown up about cremation," arranged an interesting public demonstration.
Citing the "popular misconception" that a person's cremains may include ashes remaining from the coffin, here's what the article says the director did:
"Mr. Perkins has cremated a sheep and will use the remains to show how the casket ash is removed using a sieve, the screws are taken out with a magnet, and the bone fragments are ground into fine ash."
Good show, Perkins! But don't send any unmarked packets of that fine-ground ash to relatives in England.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.