Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ashes to Ashes

"Easy for him to say, hard for you to do," said the funeral home director when we told him that our son had indicated a wish for his ashes to be scattered, and then tried to convince us, albeit with restraint, that an elaborate urn placed in one of the cemetery's glass cases in the new mausoleum was the way to go. My father has also said that he wants to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered, and has been specific as to the locale. When that time comes, I will be better prepared for funeral industry resistance.

Oh, what to do with these bodies of ours when they are no longer animated by soul and spirit, by hope and sorrow? During my summer CPE at Gigantic Hospital, I observed bodies of every size, color, age, and condition, often praying over them as family members clung to each other, and sometimes praying over them in solitude because no one from the family had shown up, or because they had been unable to bear the solid certainty of loss any longer and had left the hospital swiftly and in silence. But I did not have to perform the subsequent tasks of the nurses, or make the next plans with the families.

In my own family, closed caskets have been the rule. There has been a general undercurrent of agreement to "remember them as they lived," and so I saw none of my grandparents, nor my aunt, mother, brother, or first stepmother after they died. My mother and brother were buried while I was still in the hospital recovering from the car accident; I'm not sure that I even knew of their deaths before they were in the ground. Only with my last stepmother, and only because I was holding her hand when she died, was I able to spend time in her presence afterward, absorbing her transition to someplace unknown to us.

In none of these situations did I have to make any decisions about what came next. At the hospital, people took their heartbreak and their mourning out the door with them. In my family of origin, my father has usually been the one to direct the events of the week after a death, and has countenanced little in the way of participation of others. Only with my grandmother, to whom I was especially close and who died a couple of years ago, was I able to insist upon something of my own vision of a memorial service, none of which applied to the care or disposition of her body.

I have tried to do things differently. Following the magnificent guidance provided by the wife of one of my patients this past summer, who with gentle authority and great love gathered her family of siblings and adult children and spouses for major decisions and for the final difficult hours of her husband's life, I brought three generations of us together to plan our son's memorial service, and ensured that the Quiet Husband and I involved our children in every decision about our son's remains. We were also graced by the presence of many friends who had recent stories to share over the kitchen table about bodies, funeral homes, cremations, cemeteries, and the scattering of ashes -- all in gentle, generous, and sometimes humorous conversations in which everyone seemed to intuit the wisdom that we each have different needs and expectations and desires with respect to what finally happens to the bodies of those we love.

To give the funeral home director his due, I believe that he was more interested in protecting us than in selling urns when he told us that scattering ashes would be difficult to do. (A few weeks later he was most helpful in answering all the related questions about practical issues.) Many people in our death-resistant culture accept the handling of its processes by the experts, believing that it may be easier to force its tangibility out of their minds than to acknowledge it for what it is. And while I personally am not so inclined, preferring always to see and hear and touch for myself, who can blame them? The confrontation with the physicality of death, with its insistence on the completeness and finality of the breach it creates, is difficult. But it is also the reality.

And so last week I waded into the Pacific, off a coast which our son had never reached in his short lifetime of great adventures, and scattered some of his ashes onto the gentle swells of water. It was in the end not so hard to do, for, in the words of Isak Dineson that one of of my friends used to share with us, "The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea."

As it turns out, she was not entirely accurate. There are some things for which there is no cure. But for those, the ocean offers its embrace and, sometimes, the sparkle of sunlight across its surface.

19 comments:

Magdalene6127 said...

Thank you for these beautiful words. In your loss, you continue to minister to your readers by your depth of honesty. Tears, and love.

Kathryn J said...

I wondered if that was part of the trip to the Pacific Ocean. I knew that the difficult two weeks you referred to in an earlier post would include, not just the grief but also, the logistical legacy of death. The Isak Dineson quote has long been a favorite but I recognize that words are of limited value. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

sunflowerkat321 said...

I think it's an experience that we cannot anticipate until it's upon us, and each time it is so different. My experience has been that, no matter how I try and prepare, what I'm left with is different from what I expected.

I am touched the quote, and by how you closed this post. You are in my heart and mind today...and always.

Kat

stushie said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Presbyterian Gal said...

My father's ashes are sitting in my mother's closet awaiting her ashes to sit alongside. Neither of us know what to do with all of it. And we have no other family. So it will fall to me. I have been warned by friends that one must be careful where one scatters as all public places require a permit. And I find that to be just so sad. Bureaucracy controls us beyond the end.

Yours and your family's loving experience in this awful time must provide you with some modicum of comfort. I'm adding my prayers. God bless you.

Anonymous said...

PG, from what I have read, in California the funeral industry has been particularly aggressive in protecting its turf and has succeeded with respect to stringent legislation re cremation and cremains.

In general and elsewhere, however, what one does privately and discretely is another matter.

GG

Carol said...

Once again, GG, your clear writing is teaching and hopefully sensitizing us to the process that you're living. Thank you. And now the previous post makes more sense. You continue in my thoughts.

Teri said...

three years ago next week we scattered the ashes of my 47 year old mother in the oceans that roll up to the Oregon coast. It was both the easiest and hardest thing ever--both for funeral industry reasons and emotional and family ones. Thanks for your beautiful words expressing what this loss is like and the poignancy of scattering ashes in that beautiful place. I now like to think that my mom is becoming pearls all over the world. here's hoping the same is true of your son.

Lisa :-] said...

So, our ocean did its part.

I'm glad...

Michelle said...

I walked out at low tide onto the Pacific rocks, prayed the Office of the Dead, and reached in to touch him one more time. Over and over, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...until the box was empty.

The memory still brings salt water to my eyes...

Beach Walkin said...

Salt water... heals... that is why I'm at the beach now. Perhaps... the tears that I weep... will be just as healing.

May your journey of healing... take you into a meadow of hope soone.

RevDrKate said...

Oh GG, tears and love and feelings beyond words...thank you for continuing to give us this gift.

LawAndGospel said...

As I read your words I was reminded of Kate Braestrup's
narrative about the death of her husband, in her book, Here If You Need Me. She insisted on participating in the preparation of her husband's body, and his cremation. As a chaplain, we do participate aiding the family's initial discussion about what comes next, but then, as you say, they take their situation out of the door. Here in my state, there are sadly, regulations about distribution of ashes, but most people just quietly do what they feel they should, along rivers, in the still of the woods, joining the swirl of creation in new ways. Continued prayers for you in your sojourn.

Paul said...

So he did reach the Pacific,which, of course, is the Ocean of Peace.

bean said...

such a beautiful piece of writing...i've watched my husband, paul, scatter 1st his mother's ashes and then, this past summer, his father's ashes. His father was partly scattered on the west coast and then the rest tossed off the brooklyn bridge to 'give him back to the city he loved'. back to the cycle of the world.
so hard to do...but i'm glad for you it's done. i love the dineson quote. she was spot-on.

Gannet Girl said...

Paul, thank you. I had not even thought of that. (And for the quote as well.) And Bean, sigh, there is more to go, in other places, as time permits.

Rev SS said...

your writings continue to touch and bless, and prayers for you continue.

cw2smom said...

I finally found you here by reviewing an old AOL journal entry comment, where you left your new blog address! Unfortunately I wasn't active on AOL for awhile, but have migrated and am vowing to write once again! I am soooo sorry to hear of your terrible loss! You are in my thoughts and prayers. Your strength to write such touching entries at this horrific time of grief is inspiring. You are an amazing example of grace, strength and love. Blessings and love, Lisa/Cw2smom

cw2smom said...

Oh and I am trying to subscribe to your blog, but haven't figured out how to do so yet. My bloglines hasn't been activated as yet due to a problem with the verification email. I've written them for help and am awaiting the answer. In the meantime I will continue to stop by! Lisa/CW2smom @ Wearin' My Heart on My Sleeve