To some people, ashes are sacred, the physical embodiment of our inextinguishable spirits. Others think of them, at best, as a kind of meaningless soot.
I went down to the post office in my little town to mail the package. “What’s in the box?” the clerk asked. “Oh, you know,” I said. “Cremated human remains.”
I waited for the clerk to raise an eyebrow, but instead she replied with unexpected enthusiasm. “Oh!” she said. “I’ve got special stickers for that!”
After many years, I was finally sending the ashes of my sister-in-law Katie off to her son in Tennessee, a task I’d put off in part because I’d dreaded having this very conversation at the post office. But the bigger reason I’d been reluctant to deal with the ashes was that I wasn’t sure what they actually meant — to me, to my nephew, to all the members of our still-bereaved family.
To some people, ashes are sacred, the physical embodiment of our inextinguishable spirits. Others think of them, at best, as a kind of meaningless soot — a residue of a life, perhaps, but surely not the most potent symbol of that life.
I’m fairly certain Katie would have had ambivalent feelings about her ashes’ unresolved fate if she’d considered this issue beforehand. But then, who thinks about such things? To devote attention to the topic is to admit to ourselves that we are mortal, and even though we all know better, many of us share the belief of William Saroyan, who said, “Everybody has to die, but I always hoped an exception might be made in my case.”
As my ill luck would have it, I’m the member of my family who thinks of ashes as sacred. Which is probably why the ashes wound up with me — I was the one who’d endlessly complained that Katie’s remains were “just lying around” in the house of her former girlfriend and lobbied hard for us to take possession of the ashes and return them to the earth. I’d succeeded in trying the patience of virtually all of my loved ones with this campaign, so that when at last the cremains came back to us, I was so embarrassed about the fuss I’d made that I was too self-conscious to follow through with the interment.
Which is why they then lingered on a shelf in my office for five years, next to a collection of short stories by James Thurber.
This is not an uncommon end for one’s leftovers. The remains of Dorothy Parker, for instance, sat in a file drawer in a Wall Street law firm for 14 years before they were finally interred in a memorial garden at the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters in Baltimore, bearing a tribute to her as well as the epitaph she’d written for herself: “Excuse My Dust.” Then there’s Maj. Raphael Guido Rombauer, a Civil War veteran, whose ashes remained unclaimed for 102 years. He was finally buried in 2015, when his great-granddaughter arranged for the interment, assisted by volunteers wearing Civil War uniforms.
There are a lot of things you can do with cremains. A green burial mixes your ashes with a seedling, wood chips and a special soil mix. There’s also a company that will turn your cremains into bullets. Or, as the actor James Doohan (who played Scotty on “Star Trek”) did, you could choose to send your ashes into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
What’s your plan? Have you had this conversation with your loved ones?
While I’m pretty sure that my actual dust won’t have any sentient properties, something about being turned into ammunition feels, I don’t know, a little off brand. My current plan is to have myself poured into a stream near my house in Maine, a place full of herons and loons and red-winged blackbirds (assuming this is legal, which I fear it might not be).
Other times I think I’d like to be interred in the columbarium at the Riverside Church in New York, where I’m a member. There’s something lovely about the idea of always being part of Riverside, but I don’t know. I’ve seen the columbarium, and it’s pretty somber. Given the choice, I’d rather rest with the herons.
As I watched the postal clerk affixing her special stickers last week, I thought about the woman I had loved, and who had loved me in return, and whom I still miss. I remembered Katie’s merry laughter, her love of lobster and corn and white wine. And her abiding love for her family — her brother and her sisters and her sons. Katie was a minister in the United Church of Christ; in 1994 she had baptized our son. That was seven years before she learned she had the ovarian cancer that finally felled her.
At her funeral I had read a few lines from a poem by Galway Kinnell: “Maybe a life is just an interlude, before and after all that singing.”
There had been long stretches of time since the ashes came to me when I hadn’t given them any thought at all, when they just sat there on the shelf next to “The Thurber Carnival.” But as I walked away from the post office last week, the pang of her loss hit me afresh, as if some part of her had been with me all this time and now, once more, was lost.