Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 7, 2009

Ashes to Ashes

Well – that was peculiar.  This past weekend was my Mom’s first interment.  One of the advantages/problems with cremation is that you don’t have to bury the body just once.  You can place it in as many places as you need to to satisfy your emotional needs or those of your loved ones. 

We made the decision to scatter Mom’s ashes on her favorite beach.  It’s a state park in South Carolina where my family started spending summers back in the 1970’s, when I was in Middle School.  It’s a rough beach  . . . dirty yellow sand, and many, many, many seashells, mostly oyster shells.  You need beach shoes just to make it to the water unslashed.  It’s on Edisto Island, on the near end of the island.  She always wanted to go there in the summer when I was a boy.  I’ll never forget the time that she got nailed by a seagull.  She, out of all the people on the beach and the rest of the island, and the seagull got her.  After I left home, she and her mother went there every year.  After her mother passed, she went with my sister. So it really seemed like a good place for her final rest.

My sister and I were content with the decision initially, but after a while, as I processed my grief, I began to feel uncomfortable.  Once we sort out her estate, all of her clothes and worldly goods will be scattered to charity or sold at auction.  Her home will be rented or sold, as will her car.  When the estate is settled and her ashes are scattered, she’ll be utterly and totally gone. There will be nothing left of her but some fading photographs and whatever records the IRS is keeping on her.  Now I understand, at least a little, why the grave and the marker are so important to many people.  They give the illusion of permanence.  But if you study any archeaology or history at all, you know that nothing is permanent. Spending a lot of money on a plot and a headstone still doesn’t make much sense to me. 

And yet . . . but still . . .

The church where my sister works has a contemplation garden.  It’s consecrated ground where you can, for a small fee, inter ashes and put up a plaque. It’s in the heart of Atlanta, and, as Mom didn’t have a church of her own, it was as good a place as any.  We decided that we would inter a small amount of her ashes in the contemplation garden, and scatter the rest of them at the beach where we originally planned.  And it turned into a carnival of the absurd.

When someone is creamated, what you get back is a few pounds of very fine bone chips, in about a two gallon plastic bag, inside a heavy plastic box, inside a cardboard box.  And somehow, brining the cardboard box, the plastic tub, or the plastic bag, just didn’t seem .  . . right. My sister asked me to bring a small wooden box that I had made. It wasn’t to be interred.  It was just to carry Mom’s remains with more dignity than a baggie.  But, I jus t wasn’t together getting ready for this trip, and I forgot to bring the small box. I left it sitting on a shelf back up in Knoxville. In the morning, it was time to get ready to go to the contemplation garden.  So I started stirring around Mom’s condo.  There was a small wooden box of recipie cards that had been in her kitchen for as long as I could remember.  When she was little, my sister had given it to her for Mother’s Day. It would work fine.  Mom would just be in it for the trip to the garden; we weren’t planning to actually bury the box. Then I looked inside.  Like any wooden box, it had cracks and checks. Bone chips and dust will work their way into every crack and cranny in the wood, so perhaps a plastic bag needed to be added.

So – I then had to transfer a portion of Mom’s ashes from the large bag to the smaller one for transport.  Odd things go through your mind when you undertake a task like this.  If I used my bare hands, I’d have to wash them, and partsof Mom would go down the drain. It didn’t seem right.  So I needed a tool.  I headed toward the back porch where Mom kept her gardening tools.  I didn’t make it three steps.  I mean, shifting  your Mom with a garden trowel?  It was old, it was filthy, and it had black widow spiders nesting around it.  A minute later my wife and sister were asking me why I was rooting around in Mom’s good silver. I said, “If I’m going to move Mom around with a spoon, she’s getting the sterling!”  (Don’t worry – even though there was no visible trace of the ashes on the spoon, I gave it a good washing, just in case, so if you buy used sterling in the next few months, there’s zero chance of Mom hanging around on your serving spoon.  But I’m not gonna tell you where we’re consigning it.)

Then I learned some things I didn’t know.  For example, human cremains smell like dry concrete or dry mortar mix. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t snorting lines of Mom.  I was the one who separated out the ashes we interred, and that’s when I discovered that in addition to the visible bone chips, there is a lot of very, very fine dust, and you need to be very careful shifting the cremains, or it can get everywhere.  Important tip – when you are moving ashes, you want a baggie, not a ziploc.  Ziploc bags have all kinds of folds, creases, and crannies for bone dust to catch on.  There’s a spot in the Episcopal interment ceremony (Rite I) where you commit the remains to the elements.  It took me five minutes of fidding in the middle of the interment to completely commit Mom to the earth.  And I’m still stuck with a ziploc bag lined with bone dust that I don’t know what to do with. 

UPDATE:  I took the ziploc bag lined with bone dust to the beach and washed it out in the sea when we went to the final interrment.

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  1. Wow. I am so conflicted now. I am leaning toward natural internment. Me, a wooden box, the ground. Returning to dust in the old biblical way. I just don’t want to create a fuss.

  2. Thank you for sharing both the joys and the absurd. It is easy to focus only on the sorrow and yet it is the stories like these that give such resonance to our own family stories. AS I read it, I could hear your voice and it was as though I was listening to you tell of this morning.

    I hope that in the time to come, that the memories of her and of you with her bring a lightness to your heart.

    • I’ve never lost a loved one suddenly – I think that I am fortunate in that Mom’s end was foreseen. Maybe not this time, but soon . . . So I’ve actually been mourning her for some time. I has, I think, made it easier on me, and that’s why I’m able to focus on things other than the sorrow.


  3. I’m sorry for your loss. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  4. You know, if the last interment is to be in the ocean, you can rinse the baggies in the water and be done. And the sea, as they say, is eternal.

    I’m not sure what my niece did with the bag that held my mom’s cremains.

    On the other hand, there’s the story of my cousin taking her mom’s cremains home with her, several hour journey. The bag of cremains had been put in a large vase, then flowers added. They stopped for food, and decided not to leave the flowers in the car (too hot). So they’re sitting in the restaurant with a chair occupied by a huge vase of flowers… and unseen cremains. The waitress asked ‘what’s that?’ and Sandee replied, ‘it’s my mother, she didn’t want to wait in the car. ‘

    • *snort* I described my situation to some collegues today. They clearly would rather have not heard the story. I guess not everybody is able to see humor in grief.

  5. […] Ashes to Ashes […]

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