- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

LONDON — Mourners who scatter the ashes of their loved ones on the mountaintops of Scotland are being warned that they are playing havoc with the environment. The problem, it seems, is that cremated human remains make a dandy fertilizer.

Critics say the practice is upsetting the foliage by causing plants to grow too fast and too thick.

“The instant you put [human ashes] down on the ground,” says one professor, “you are getting luxuriant growth” of vegetation.

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland says nature lovers and other admirers of Scotland’s picturesque mountains have taken to requesting in their wills that they want their ashes dumped on the summit of their favorite peak when they die.

The result, the council says, is that a number of the more popular mountaintops are all too frequently being dusted by cremated remains, and the practice is having an unwanted chemical effect on the ecology of the surrounding area.

What happens is that plant growth is being stimulated by phosphate enrichment and changes in the acidity and alkalinity of the soil, marring the bleakness that many find so attractive in Scotland’s mountain ranges.

The key is in the types of soil found on the mountaintops, Des Thompson, principal uplands adviser to the environmental group Scottish Natural Heritage, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

“They are acidic, they are impoverished,” he said. “They have very small amounts of minerals such as calcium. They are very wet.

“And in an environment such as that,” the professor said, “the ash is providing a bean feast for the plants. The key nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium, [and] ash is full of phosphorus and calcium and other nutrients.

“The instant you put that down on the ground,” he said, “you are getting luxuriant growth of vegetation.”

The mountaineering council published its own suggestions to minimize the impact of leaving ashes on the mountains. Mourners should avoid “the really iconic tops, by opting instead for a corrie [a hollow on a mountainside], a certain point along a ridge, or beside a particular tree on the lower slopes of a mountain.”

“Their chemical effect is reduced if [the ashes] are buried rather than scattered,” it said.

It is not the first time the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has crossed claymores with mourners bent on memorializing their loved ones on the wilderness landscape. It is already upset over the proliferation of stone memorials, potted plants and plastic plaques that dot the same mountain peaks.

Four months ago, the council spurred a debate over claims that these memorials to the dead, however well-intentioned, are “intrusive, inappropriate and worse than litter.”

“Mountaintops are not cemeteries; mountaintops are not memorial gardens,” Cameron McNeish, editor of the Great Outdoors magazine, told BBC Scotland.

He related an occasion when “my friend and I climbed to a mountaintop and there, crudely cemented into the summit cairn, were some children’s toys. Obviously a young child had died, and the parents thought the best way to remember him was to take some of his toys and cement them into the cairn.

“While it touched them, and perhaps made them feel a bit better about everything,” Mr. McNeish said, “I think to everyone else coming on the mountain, this was just litter.”

One of the most popular sites is Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain, but it is about to be closed to any more memorials.

The John Muir Trust, which owns most of the mountain, intends to shift the dozens of monuments and plaques down from the peak this summer, to a dedicated memorial garden at its foot.

That has upset Mo Leadbitter and Morag Robinson, who want to put a memorial on Ben Nevis’s top to a friend who died last year of breast cancer.

“It’s the highest point in Britain,” said Miss Robinson, “and there’s nowhere in Britain where you can be closer to heaven.”

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