By Jesse Kalfel, author of “So You’re Cremated … Now What? Over 100 Creative Ways to Scatter Your Ashes and Other Useful Information”
My mother is going to die. I am not sure when but she is 97 and getting frailer by the moment. She wants to talk about her end. I don’t. It’s not a comfortable topic of discussion for me or most of us.
And we have a problem.
“You didn’t get a double plot,” I remind my mother.
“I know,” she says. “I was angry at your father for dying. For leaving me.”
“I can get a double plot. Move him over next to you when you pass.”
Pass. Croak. Not with us anymore. Expired. Kicked the bucket. We have lots of ways that avoid talking about the D-word: death. Like Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind the idea of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
“He’s happy just where he is,” she says.
I ask her whether she wants her own plot.
“No. Too lonely. And I don’t like the idea of being cooped up in a box for eternity.”
I need another idea. Think out of the box, as they say.
“There’s cremation,” I offer. “Aunt Tillie and Uncle Pat did that. You can do things with your ashes. Put them places, scatter them if you want.”
“What did they do with their ashes?”
“Their kids placed them both in a memorial wall.”
She looks at me. She is concerned.
“A wall?” she asks.
“Next to their church. A fieldstone wall where you can inter your ashes inside.”
“A wall. A casket. What’s the difference? You’re trapped. I want something done with my ashes that’s really me.”
I had to think about that. What was something that was really mom?
“Let me do some research and come back with some suggestions,” I offer. “In the meantime you can think about what you would like to do with your ashes.”
I start by asking my friends what they would do when their time comes. They are divided about burial versus cremation. Those that opt for cremation have a few ideas about what they want done. Others have none. What I find interesting is that people see themselves as still alive when they consider burial and cremation. Cremation folks have an idea, like my mom, of seeing themselves trapped in dark and dank coffins with worms and bugs. Burial advocates feel the pain of the fire.
I figure the web can give me ideas. I Google cremation information. There are plenty of web sites with very dry and somber facts written by no-nonsense funeral directors. After the particulars are described including what the cremation process entails, these sites heavily promote a variety of urns and funeral services you could get from them for a price. Other web sites warn about legal issues; others offer news like a newly deceased celebrity being cremated; a few advertise local scattering services. I recount their blunt content and marketing spiel to mom.
“Why can’t we have fun with this?” she asks after I tell her what I have found so far.
She is right. No web site, magazine article, or blog has a sense of humor about cremation and what you could do for your last production.
You don’t often hear the words humor and cremation uttered in the same sentence. But taking what is a somber, emotional topic and reframing it in an entertaining yet informative way can actually help people discuss something that we all have to face one day. Those considering cremation can have a more comfortable way to prepare for a memorable send-off. Something that’s really them. A little fun with death.
So I do more research. What I discover is there is not one source that covers everything you need to know about cremation, the hundreds of urns types you can choose from, do’s and don’ts, scattering places or things you can do with your ashes aside from scattering them . And of course, humor is absent from everything I read.
“You should write a book,” mom suggests after I tell her there is no good guidebook out there.
So I start writing a book.
“Give me some ideas,” she says. “And I will give you some of mine.”
“You love the sea. You can have your ashes be part of an artificial reef.”
“King Neptune and fishies for company,” she muses. “I like that. What else?”
“You can be made into a diamond.”
“Then I would be really precious,” she laughs.
“We can also put your ashes into fireworks and have a great send-off.”
“A bit showy but then I was always a bit showy.”
“You have any suggestions?” I ask.
“I don’t have to do just one thing, right?”
“You can do as many things as want,” I answer.
“Sprinkle me on your father’s grave. I also want you to put me into the flower bed around my favorite tree in your backyard.”
“I know the one,” I say.
“You know those plastic pink flamingoes they have for lawns. The kitschy kind.”
“Drill a hole and pour some of my ashes inside.” She laughs and so do I. “Give the bird to your cousin Pat to fit in with his collection of lawn gnomes.”
She hands me a list and I read it. It has twenty-three names. Nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.
“Put a bit of my ashes in little velvet sachet bags and give each of these people a bag after my service is over. I want them to have a private send off and ceremony for me. I just hope my cousin Ella doesn’t flush me down the toilet since we had that fight last year.” She smiles about that one.
I am impressed with her ideas. She is having fun with this.
“Do the reef thing and fireworks on my birthday.”
“Consider it done.”
“Two more things,” she says.
I nod my head.
“I want you to find where Amando is buried. Sprinkle a bit of me there.”
This will be difficult. My mother is Holocaust survivor. General Armando Marin Muniz was the Chilean consulate general stationed in Paris during World War Two who saved my mother’s life by giving her a false identity as a Chilean national.
She sees me hesitate. “Try your best.”
“I will. What’s your last idea?”
“Save a little of me and take a pinch each time you and your family go on vacation. Scatter me in a nice spot.”
I realize that each idea gives her comfort as if she can actually see each scenario she has described. She sees herself with her husband, under my tree, and coming with my wife and daughter on vacations.
It also gives me comfort. She will always be close, especially at the times when I will miss her the most.