15 November 2006
When was the last time you attended a funeral? Now it's all about "celebrations of life." Years ago I predicted -- I was not alone in this -- that the boomer generation would redefine a lot of the rituals around death. One of my particular fantasies was a locket containing some of your loved one's ashes that you'd wear around your neck, or a vial that you'd carry in your pocket along with your keys and loose change. This has not yet, to my knowledge, caught on.
Before you read any further, be warned that I get kind of giddy around grief. My remarks at my mom's memorial -- she died at the end of June -- consisted mostly of funny family stories. I'm also inclined to attach not much importance to physical remains. Treat them with respect, of course; other than that, do with them what you will. Cremation, the default among my people, is appealing in part because it gives you options. You can enshrine your loved one's ashes in a tasteful urn on your mantelpiece, or scatter them in the dear departed's favorite spot, or dig them in around your roses, which my mother would have loved. You can do all those things and more. Ashes are fungible.
My father died in 1984. He, too, had been cremated. Mom kept his ashes, all these years, in a box on a closet shelf. After she died, my brother and I agreed that their ashes should be mingled; they loved each other so much, and she missed him terribly until the end of her own life. The urns in which the respective funeral parlors (now there's an obsolescent term) had returned their remains were hardly a matched pair.
This morning I found some time and a quiet place in my mind, and decided to do the mingling. Another warning would probably be appropriate at this point: When the circumstances get strange, I tend to get analytical.
So. On the bottom of Dad's urn -- a heavy, marble-esque rectangle -- was a small brass hatch that unscrewed easily by hand. Voila -- Dad's remains, in sudden, rather startling, proximity. I put a stainless steel bowl on the kitchen scale and turned it on to get a zero reading. Then I carefully shook the contents of the urn into the bowl. A small cloud of fine dust wafted over the proceedings. I then did the same for Mom. Her urn was a cherrywood box with a sliding panel held in place by a Phillips-head screw. Inside was a plastic bag sealed with a cable tie. Dad weighed 5 pounds, 6-1/4 ounces, Mom 4 pounds, 4-3/4 ounces. That seemed about right, I thought, for no particular reason. Mom's ashes were several shades darker than Dad's; I can think of a couple of possible explanations for that, but I wonder whether either of them is right.
Then to the mingling, which I did by hand. The color differential made it easy to tell when the two were thoroughly combined. It did feel like kitchen prep, I must say; "mix until well-blended" ran through my mind like a mantra, though I didn't invite it to stay.
I'd participated in a couple of ceremonial scatterings over the years, and knew better than to expect containers full of homogeneous, fine ash. Still, the amount of identifiable bone matter was a little startling. I looked at some of the larger bits as they passed through my fingers -- a fragment of a rib or a finger bone, a flat piece of what surely must have been skull. I also found two pieces of wire, each twisted into a ring, and two tags, each with an identifying number. The proverbial toe tags, or wherever they put them, I assume.
When I finally washed my hands, they felt oily. It felt odd to stand at my kitchen sink, washing traces of my parents off my fingers.
I'd initially weighed the contents of both urns because I was curious: What would an adult human body weighing, say, 120 to 180 pounds, be reduced to after... you know. But I realized when it came to dividing up the ashes -- half for Larry, half for me, to do with as we choose -- that weighing was the way to go. Doing it by volume, with measuring cups, struck me as just too bizarre. So I weighed 4 lbs. 14 oz. back into one urn, and the same into the other. I looked for a zip-lock bag to go into the box that had been Mom's, since it was less impermeable than the other container. I made sure to pick one that didn't still have a label for its previous contents. Mom would have approved of my recycling.
This was a small private ritual that, from the time my mother died, I knew I wanted to do and felt hugely compelled to carry out. Despite the mundane surroundings and unconsecrated utensils, I was mindful every step of the way, and did what I've described with as much respect for my parents' ashes as I had for them when they were alive. Which was, needless to say, a lot.
Rest in peace, Vic and Hertha.