Hannah Clark



When my uncle arrived at the funeral with my grandmother’s urn tucked under his arm I was surprised by the utility of its design. I guess I had expected something more along the lines of a hand-painted ceramic vase that a family would want to display on their mantle. Jane was in a simple black box that looked unbreakable, waterproof, light-tight and ugly. I’d never been to a funeral before and the vague expectations I’d held had involved a more attractive vessel. I wondered if that was the only model they offered at the funeral home or if my uncle had chosen it based on quality, Amazon ratings. Let your loved one rest in peace in the OtterBox of Urns.

I’d come home from school a few weeks earlier to find my parents in the living room, evidence of recent tears on both of their faces. Jane had been found sitting upright in her la-z-boy, dead. In her will she had asked to be cremated and sprinkled into the Pacific. There would probably be an ocean-front service soon, the family would convene on Samish Island, they were working out details. Once I was filled in, my parents spent the rest of the afternoon making and receiving phone calls. I went upstairs to my dad’s office to Google cremation in privacy.

Incineration takes about 1 hour per 100 lbs. of body. When the process is complete, cremation companies will pass the remains through a magnetic field to remove any metal, which they then recycle or sell as scrap. Several types of implanted device must be removed from a body before cremation. A pacemaker could explode, damaging the cremator and potentially injuring nearby staff. The undertaker must remove such devices before the body is delivered to the crematorium. The Cremation Association of North America has officially renounced the popular portmanteau “cremains.” They prefer that the word not be used, as it does not have the same identifiable human connection that the phrase “cremated remains” does. For those not planning to preserve the cremated remains of their loved ones, some funeral homes offer “delivery only” service. Sandra, Dick, Judy, Tom and John gathered on the edge of the dock, and the rest of us made a crooked little audience on the beach using coolers and mismatched lawn furniture. We were going to say some words for Jane after the ashes had been spread, mimic a proper funeral. Plastic chairs were our pews and we had the Pacific for an altar. My dad prayed and then Jane’s five children walked out to the end of the dock and fumbled to disassemble the urn. After pin-balling between nervous sets of hands, the box settled with Dick, the oldest brother. I thought of how competitive Dick, Tom and John were every Thanksgiving about carving the turkey, how they would take turns breathing down one another’s necks and grabbing the tiny electric saw blade from the hands of the brother who was at bat when they grew too impatient. Their combative dynamic was hushed by formality, and none of them seemed to want to Do The Honors on this particular occasion.

The first myth about “spreading ashes” that was dispelled that day in front of an unsuspecting audience was that verbs like spread or sprinkle can be applied to the activity at all. Dick opened the box and took out what looked like one of those thick plastic bags that scrabble pieces come in. The set-up reminded me of the movie-theater approach to candy packaging. They give you a pretty big box, but when you open it there’s just an inflated plastic bag inside that itself is only a quarter of the way full. In the end the packaging is grossly misleading as to the actual volume of product contained within it. He held the partially filled bag over the water, pinching each side of the open lip, and with a few gentle thrusts tried to coax a graceful breeze of ashes from the end. When it was apparent that a different technique would be required, he made increasingly aggressive attempts to sprinkle Jane until he finally had to tip the whole thing upside down and let the remains clumsily fall into the water in a disconcerting clump. Jane partially dissipated, creating a dusty patch on the grey water.

Cremated remains represent roughly 3.5% of the deceased’s body weight, an average of 4lbs for women and 6lbs for men. The remains consist primarily of calcium phosphates, dental fillings, and surgical implants.

The second myth about spreading ashes, specifically into a large body of water, that we confronted was the assumption that Jane’s remains would float out into the infinite solvent that was the sea, expanding its reach particle by particle until it was uniformly concentrated. The ashes were supposed to float down and dance around rusted anchors, get nibbled on by curious fish. They were to lap the sides of boats, reach distant shores and ease up onto pebbled beaches. Jane was supposed to become forever inextricable from her favorite place. She was supposed to be light, more like air than earth, carried by the wind to disintegrate into untraceable gusts. Instead she was a salient mass, usurping our last image of her body with a filmy map of her remaining cells. I imagined a giant spoon skimming it from the water like the gummy layer off the top of heated milk. It was an amorphous creature that looked as if at any moment it would congeal into a lethargic head and blink two primordial eyes at its gaping audience. Her murky cloud hovered in one place for a few stupefying moments and then began to slowly drift under the dock and out of sight.

Out of a collective horror disguised as decorum, we all pretended not to notice, desperately ignoring the cloud as if it were a threat to Jane’s dignity. Nobody jumped up to shout You’re going the wrong way! Though the ashes were conspicuously out of sight, we carried on with our plans to “see her off.” The whole family had reassembled on the beach, the empty urn rested at my uncle’s arm in the mesh cup holder of his camping chair. Before the first eulogy was finished the cloud started to bob back into view on our side of the dock, as if to reciprocate our silent fixation on it. We sat dumbly as Jane’s body drifted toward us. Family members did their best to draw attention away from the tide, and the tender tributes continued even as the congealed matter washed up toward our feet, buoying cigarette butts and leaving a residue on the barnacled rocks.

U.S. law forbids the cremation of more than one body at a time, with two exceptions: still-born twins, and mothers who died in childbirth along with their stillborn children. In 2002 the director of a tri-state crematorium was given a 12-year prison sentence when it was revealed that he had been disposing of bodies on the crematorium site and sending the families urns full of concrete dust. When his dump site was discovered, horrifying reports told of mounds of decayed flesh, unidentifiable bodies that would never come to rest in a decorative vase thanks to this monster. He was sued for 80 million dollars.

Failing to conceptualize death with satisfaction, we feel that the least we can do for the dead is treat their cadaver as if it is something very different from a sack of bone and muscle tissue. We don’t want to be seen as we fester, as our bodies become swollen pustules. We want others to have the same privacy in their time of decay. The varnish we’d tried to apply to Jane’s 4lb bag of calcium and metal teeth cracked irreparably that day. When the custom that I had taken for granted was revealed to be comically disappointing, I had to respond by disowning the symbolic gesture altogether, in defense of Jane. I’d been wrong to think that coming home to weeping parents approximated “facing death.” I never felt more intimate with mortality than when an unexpectedly strong tide flowed up the beach and caught us off guard with its speed and reach. With almost elegant synchronicity every foot was hoisted off the ground just before the water rushed between the legs of our plastic chairs. We sat with our knees tucked into our stomachs and stared at one another for a few brimming seconds while we waited for Jane’s ashy film to retreat back from the shore.

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