Monday, November 4, 2013

Ashes to Ashes


At Home in the Park, 2013
(Click on image to see larger.)

In thinking about her death, my mother was adamant that her body not be subjected to embalmment and burial. She’d hoped her remains or some parts of them might be recycled or used for medical research, and although every kind of paperwork imaginable was in place for such arrangements it did not turn out to be possible for either of those wishes to be honored. This sent us straight on to Plan C, which was cremation. Having jumped ahead so unexpectedly to this outcome, my sister and I realized that we’d never found out what our mother wanted done with her ashes.

It was a certainty, though, that neither my sister nor I had any desire to keep those ashes in urns on our respective mantels. This left us thinking about the Elizabeth River, beside which our mother was born, and the Atlantic Ocean, close to which she lived for most of the rest of her life. 

Disposing of human ashes, or cremains, as they’re politely called in the trade, is a far trickier matter than I’d expected. For one, you can’t just wander down to the shore and toss them into the surf. That’s not legal, it turns out, just as it’s not okay to do a lot of other things you could think of that would seem appropriate and respectful.

Clearly some subterfuge was called for, which means mainly that anything goes and that the important thing is to not draw attention to yourself as you do it.

[How many of you are already recalling this cautionary scene from “The Big Lebowski”?]

My sister and I finally decided that our mother’s ashes should be scattered in the state park located at the end of the street where we spent much of our childhood. Our mother loved to walk there, especially in the fall and winter when the park’s thousands of acres of tall dunes, live oaks and swampy bottoms were a refuge from the ocean winds at the other end of our street. She’d come home cheerful and unburdened by whatever stresses she’d carried into the park. Sometimes she’d come home with interesting leaves or twigs or bayberries with which to replenish the dry floral arrangement she always kept on top of the piano in the living room.

If you’ve never handled cremains, let me tell you that they might surprise you a little. One relative warned me that her late son’s cremains had included pieces of bone several inches long. My mother’s ashes, fortunately, held no bones and to the uninitiated could have passed for a bag of finely sifted flour, a little on the grayish side.

The day I distributed my mothers ashes was sunny and chilly, just the kind of day Mother would have loved to walk in the park. I naively thought that as I tipped the bag the ashes would be so light as to float elegantly into the air and return to nature as little more than a dusty cloud. But in fact they’re kind of heavy and leave a distinct trail. So instead of tossing her ashes into the air, I took a long walk and left her ashes atop dunes and under the low limbs of live oaks. I left some in the empty crooks of trees, where maybe they’ll keep a few squirrels warm this winter or give next spring’s snake nests a soft cushion. I made sure some of them made it to White Lake and to the inland bays. I hope some of them have drifted out into the Chesapeake Bay by now or have even made their way around to the Atlantic Ocean.

As Moses, or whoever wrote the book of Genesis said, "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." 


  1. Actually, I have a picture of you spreading the ashes throughout the park, the way they spread the dirt in "the Great Escape." I think many people surreptitiously spread human ashes. It is confounding that spreading "cremains" is so regulated, considering they are ashes.

  2. Hopefully someone will be as careful with my ashes as you were with your mother's. I could think of few better ways to go.