I got sent ashes

I have been sent many strange things over the past year. I’ve had many offers of strange things. People send me very strange emails.

But getting a jar full of ashes is my weirdest thing.

I received a jar of ashes from a family home that was destroyed by fire.


I felt – feel – ill about it. I took the ashes outside. I left them out there. I don’t want that bad juju in my house. I know misfortune or horror or awfulness isn’t contagious but even touching that jar made me feel nauseous. It held a family’s world inside, their possessions, all the things that made a house a home. I couldn’t help but look around and imagine my photos, art the boys had created, our clothes, furniture collected over the years, the decorations from my friend’s baby shower that I threw almost a year ago that are still up (I’m exceptionally lazy) reduced to ashes and put into a jar.

My mind thankfully stopped me from imagining fire and my son asleep in his cot downstairs.

So I put the ashes outside and tried to ignore them. But I kept thinking about the family whose house was reduced to those ashes. I thought of Cathlyn Paala. She was looking after her three nieces – six months, two, and six when her house caught fire and burned to the ground.

Because of her smoke alarm, she saved them. They’re alive because of a smoke alarm.

I know that smoke alarms save lives. I mean who doesn’t know this. And so I felt exceptionally foolish when I had the following conversation with my husband:

Me: Do we have smoke alarms?

Husband: I think so?

Do they work?

I don’t know.

When did you last test them?

When did you last test them?

We need working smoke alarms.

I’m a working smoke alarm. If there was a fire I’d be able to tell.

I gave my husband a look like:


Then I read to him from the accompanying letter that came with the ashes. “People lose their sense of smell when sleeping, making them vulnerable to dying as a result of toxic smoke inhalation long before flames can even get them”. And “Fires are extremely quiet in their early stages and only begin to make any noise once the fire is already well established”.

When my youngest is awake I’ll be testing the fire alarms. We moved to this house when Eddie was six months old. He’s now three and a half. So while we have smoke alarms, we haven’t tested them in years.

I asked my husband why we never tested the alarms and he said – I don’t know. We just didn’t.

I’d like to say it was because we were too busy with the kids or something but it is what it is. We just didn’t. They were just there and we saw them and subconsciously must have thought “Well, there are fire alarms in this house so that’s sorted” and thought nothing more of it.

It’s horrifying to think that there are 3,200 house fires every year. And worse still to now know that 80 per cent of house fires the New Zealand Fire Service attend have no working fire alarms.

I know that somewhere we just decided a fire could never happen to us.

But I’m reminded of the things that have happened to us that I never thought would ever happen to us. Things like the car accident my husband was in when he 24. The car accident that almost killed him and our best friend. Their car was hit by two trucks and a car on the Desert Road. I was waiting for them in Tauranga and I received a call saying there had been an accident involving someone who owned the phone they were calling from. My father worked for a media organisation at the time, he called the newsroom and was told there had been a fatal accident. For a desperate half hour I thought the love of my life or one of our dearest friends were dead. They miraculously survived. I never, ever thought my son would be born with a health condition. That he’d be unable to breathe. That a cold would nearly kill him. That he’d need surgeries and we would spend the first two years of his life in and out of hospital.

You always think – not us.

But I know better now. Well, I thought I did. So when the baby wakes I’ll be checking the fire alarms. And I’ll be making sure if the worst happens to us – we won’t lose our lives or the lives we are entrusted to protect.

Thank you to the Fire Service. I can’t believe I’m thanking someone for sending me bad juju ashes. And also, I don’t know what I’m meant to do with them now – I would like to not have them.

Tips from NZ Fire Service:

  • Regularly check your smoke alarms and their batteries.
  • Have an alarm in every bedroom and main living area on every level of a house.
  • Have an escape plan in the event of fire, including a safe place to meet.
  • Once out, don’t go back inside, even to call 111. Call 111 from a cell phone or from a neighbour’s phone.
  • If you leave the kitchen, turn elements off
  • Check on elderly relatives, friends, and neighbours to make sure they have working alarms.

OK SO I CHECKED THE DAMN ALARMS AND NONE OF THEM WORK! Check your alarms! Check your alarms! Check your damn alarms!

11 Comments on “I got sent ashes

  1. My husband asked me the other day why we had a smoke alarm on the kitchen bench (been there a few months).

    It’s a new one to replace the one downstairs in my workrom. Where I regularly have irons running for hours on end. (And were I regularly traipse down to in the middle of the night, 20 or so minutes after going to bed because I’m paranoid I might not have turned them off.)
    Which I know doesn’t work, because I tested it. Which is why I bought the new one.

    Last night we were kept awake for hours while the fire engines put out a house fire two doors over from us.
    That smoke alarm is going up in a few minutes time.

    And tonight I will be praying for my neighbours’ speedy recovery.

  2. Thank you for writing this Emily. I am a volunteer firefighter. I am also a broken record when it comes to smoke alarms: Check them regularly, install longlife photoelectric smoke alarms in every bedroom and living area, have and practice an escape plan. If you need help, call your local fire station.
    Smoke alarms also make great gifts.

  3. The campaign here is to check them every time you change your clocks. So twice a year you will check your smoke alarms as well. <3

  4. My brother the firefighter always tells me that “when you go to sleep, so does your nose”. Those 10 year never change the battery ones are a little more spendy, but if you own your home (or just don’t like change much) are a good investment!

  5. The best advice I ever got was to check the smoke alarms at the start and end of Daylight Saving — so you’re doing it about every six months. It’s my mum’s habit, and it’s stuck with me.

  6. WHO ON EARTH IS SENDING YOU ASHES? That’s messed up call the police or an exorcist or both.

  7. This is a great article. When my daughter was a baby a lamp fell on the floor in her room and caused a fire. I never even knew that a light bulb could become hot enough to start a fire. Thankfully I was nearby and she wasn’t in the room but it could easily have caused a tragedy. Afterwards we discovered to our horror that none of the smoke alarms were working. After that we replaced the existing alarms with the annoying ones that beep constantly when the batteries are low. I hate it in the early hours of the morning (esp as we now have one in each room so have to play “where’s the noise?”) but it’s worth it! I also changed all the incandescent light bulbs with the long life ones that don’t get so hot. I sincerely hope that anyone reading this checks their alarms and never has a near miss experience (or worse).

  8. This reminds me of the time I was in my bedroom feeding my baby girl to sleep. I was soon to be going upstairs and without a monitor, just leaving her for the 45 minutes until I knew her next cycle broke. I sniffed a toxic smell and found my plug extension socket smouldering. A dirty burnt plastic smell was filling the air and smoke was barely coming off it. I unplugged it and dropped the smouldering item on the wet grass outside.

    We got smoke alarms fitted in each room the very next day.

  9. Oh my gosh this is terrifying! I will be checking mine today!! Thank you for this post, more people including myself need to be aware of this and how easily it can happen!

  10. Such a good reminder. I’ve heard the tip to change the batteries every six months on daylight savings. Of course I forgot this year. I’m going to go check my alarms.

  11. An excellent message……I know mine work as I toasted some herbs with my tomatoes in the oven and….voila! The smoke detector went off….which got us a phone call from the alarm company……which got them a smartass answer from my husband about “kitchen mishaps”………but at least I know they work, and the alarm company gets the notification so that the fire department would be called should we not answer…..