This story began about a year ago with a phone call. It was John [not his real name] a fellow I’ve known for many years, from the neighbourhood. I see him at Safeway once in a while. Nice guy. We small-talked a bit, as one does on the telephone. Then, he said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’ve moved to XYZ Funeral Services”.
I’d forgotten that John was in the funeral business. “Oh really?” I said, wondering if he was about to pitch a pre-paid funeral group pac for me and all my loved ones. “XYZ handled my Dad’s arrangements,” I said, conversationally.
“He’s right here in front of me,” says John.
And he was. Not my Dad, but the ashes Dad had become, in a plastic bag in a square cardboard box with a white label stuck to it with Dad’s name and the date of his death and the date of his cremation.
The real beginning of this story was four and half years before that telephone call.
The morning after my Dad died, I pulled out his old brown briefcase and opened it on the kitchen counter. He had files in there for most possibilities, including and perhaps especially his death. He hadn’t intended to die on this occasion, but he had prepared for it. He and Mom belonged to the Memorial Society – an organization, according to their website, “dedicated to simplicity, dignity and economy in preplanned funerals”. A lifetime membership costs twenty bucks. The Society aims to help people avoid the excesses of the grief industry. In my Dad’s death file was a checklist drafted by the Society. Dad had checked the appropriate boxes. There are certain funeral homes, endorsed by the Society, whose employees are instructed to simply sit and take instructions, rather than try to push the loved ones to buy from among the exciting array of products and services available.
According to the checklist, Dad had declined most of the bells and whistles of a big send-off.
Armed with the form, my Mom, my sister and I went to XYZ and answered the Society-prescribed questions with the Dad-prescribed answers.
All the arrangements, including the cremation? It came to thirteen hundred bucks. Dad would have been very pleased. He loved a bargain and would certainly have enjoyed being one.
For some reason, Dad had indicated on the checklist that the funeral home was to deal with the ashes – sometimes goofily referred to as “cremains” [which, for some reason, always makes me think of dried cranberries]. There is a lot of goofy language in the funeral bizz.
This was the only issue on which the funeral home guy pressed us a bit, to make sure.
We didn’t want the ashes?Didn’t want to deal with them ourselves?
I suppose Dad thought he’d spare us the cost of an urn. Maybe he wanted to avoid the possibility that we might be tempted to have a grave or a vault or something. Maybe it was just an oversight. We’ll never know.
We were on auto pilot at that point and so we simply reiterated the instruction: You deal with the ashes, Mr. Funeral Guy. As we were doing it, it seemed a little unsatisfying to me. But, you know, the day after your father dies, nothing in this world seems right or satisfying or anything other than just fucking awful, so we moved on.
We had a memorial service in Swift Current a few days later. The absence of the ashes didn’t affect that. I never really thought much about the ashes after that. I never second guessed our decision. I generally don’t fuss about things I can’t change.I certainly didn’t think we’d denied ourselves “closure”. I hate that word.Closure. As if. There certainly wasn’t any particular act or gesture, ritual or symbol that was going to ease me gently into the rest of my life, make me wipe my brow and say, “Whew. Well, I’m glad all that death stuff is over.”
That spring, Mom bought a bench. A substantial, cement and stone thing offered as a fundraising effort by the Friends of Cypress Hills. It weighs about eight hundred pounds and is set on a cement foundation. She had it placed on the Highland Trail, under some spruce trees, overlooking the beaver dam and off over the hills. It faces southeast. This would be “Dad’s Bench”
We discussed what would be inscribed on the plaque. All the best suggestions were too “inside” – wouldn’t be understood by the casual hiker who didn’t know Dad or us. My brother’s favourite idea for an inscription was “You’d be more comfortable over there.” This was an expression Dad originally used whenever he would find someone sitting on the living room couch when he wanted to lie down. Dad liked a nap. He’d say, “You’d be more comfortable over there.” The expression became a family favourite; to be used whenever you wanted someone to move from the place you wanted to be. We all imagined a hiker coming across the only bench on the trail and being told “You’d be more comfortable over there”. Funny. Being funny would be the most fitting tribute to Dad, even if the humour was appreciated only in his inner circle.
We opted for “Sit and enjoy one of Bill Macnab’s favourite views”.When I sit on that bench and look out on the view from it I imagine my Dad looking out and enjoying it and I have a good feeling about him and about his life and how much he enjoyed things like this. For a moment, I become him. He’s not gone; he’s in me, in the experiences we shared and can still share.
So, the bench served very much the function of a grave site, as well as a pilgrimage. Dad’s Bench. Trips to Cypress Hills now include a hike out to the Bench and a quiet moment looking out over the view. And, we always think about changing the plaque to read “You’d be more comfortable over there.”
Back to John, the funeral guy. He told me that they really aren’t supposed to just “deal with” ashes without some written authorization or something – some detail that hadn’t been taken care of. Or paid for. I told John to keep them while I consulted. It was a bit of a shock, after four and a half years.
I worried that this would upset Mom. After a few weeks of dithering, I called my sister. She sounded a little annoyed that the funeral home hadn’t done what we told them to do. We agreed that we would think about this. No more dithering. We were now thinking.
We have a rule in our family that we don’t hide things from each other. It’s a rule that arose, I think, because of the time one of our relatives decided not to tell another one about the death of a third because the first person was sure that the second really couldn’t afford to travel to the funeral. Best that she miss it. This passes for reasonable thinking in my family.
Whatever its origin, the “no hiding things” rule is a good rule. Much better than the “save money – even other people’s money – at all costs” rule. Though, if you can follow both rules, all the better.
You want to be confident when you’re talking to a loved one, and maybe especially when you’re not talking, that anything you would want to know is not being withheld from you – for your own good. When a loved one says “I’m fine” it should mean just that, and not “I’m fine, the hospice staff is keeping me comfortable.” We’re not worriers in my family, but when there actually is something to worry about, we want to know.
So, I knew I was going to have to tell Mom about these ashes. It’s the sort of thing she’d want to know. Though she seemed quite confident four years earlier that she didn’t need the ashes, this was an opportunity to rethink that.It was a second chance.Productive second-guessing.
My sister and I never got past the “thinking” stage on the ashes issue. Months passed. I didn’t tell Mom, though I had not made a decision NOT to tell her. I would tell her. That’s the rule. I just hadn’t done it yet. No real hurry. The ashes weren’t going anywhere. That was the issue, I suppose. John the friendly funeral parlour guy called every few weeks. I assured him a decision was imminent. Every time.
Summer came and passed and Labour Day weekend arrived. My family tries to get together at Mom’s place in Cypress Hills on the long weekend. I decided I should bring this matter to a head. I called John, told him I’d pick up the ashes. I did. Put them in the trunk of the car.
Almost the whole family was out there that weekend. There were two missing: my sister’s daughter, and my youngest, number three [not his real name].
Saturday morning, wife number two and I were having coffee with Mom at the kitchen table. I couldn’t think of any delicate way to get at this, so I just blurted it out. “I’ve got Dad’s ashes in the trunk.” This threw her back a bit, but she recovered very quickly. Normally, Mom wants to know the whys and wherefores of things and I expected a lot of questions for which I’d have no answers. She didn’t. “We’ll spread them behind the Bench.”
And so we did.
The trail where the Bench sits is a large long loop going along one side of the creek and around a large reservoir created by a beaver dam, then crossing the creek and coming back on the other side. One side of the trail, the shaded side, flooded badly that spring and was still muddy and essentially impassable, so we’d have to get out to the bench and back on the sunny side.It was a cold day, but not windy and so fairly warm in the sun. I carried the square box of ashes in the complimentary XYZ reusable bag – suitable for hauling groceries. We didn’t talk much on the way out to the Bench.
We crossed the creek to the shady side where the Bench sits. Still not talking very much. What to do? We hadn’t decided on a plan for this. “Decided”? We hadn’t even talked about it. Mom suggested we get started. I took the plastic bag of ashes out of the box. My brother had a jackknife. I took the knife and went behind the bench, motioned for Mom to follow me. I cut a hole in the bag and let the ashes drain out while I walked a wide circle in the brush back of the Bench. Mom followed me, except in a spot where I had to step over a shrub.I circled back and shook out the last bits right behind the Bench. I worried that we’d left an obvious mess. I looked behind and there was little sign of what we’d done. Some grey dust on some leaves, the rest pretty well absorbed by the underbrush, grass and soil.
There was a surprising flood of emotion, which took all of us, and which I won’t describe.
It lasted a while.
Mom asked if anybody had anything “profound” to say. Nope. Because I never like to let a silence last for long, however, I did speak up and say what I had been thinking about that whole weekend.
We had reached the point as a family where we could talk about Dad again, in a way that felt natural, not painful. For so long, it hurt to think about him and it was hard to talk about him. And each of us could see that talk about Dad hurt the others. We avoided him. Always the life of the party while alive, he’d become a real downer since his death. But I had noticed that weekend that we were referring to him frequently and telling stories that included him and laughing about what he’d do or say about particular things. He was a casual presence in our weekend. It was like we’d let him back in our lives, we no longer had this dark absence in our family.
That is not closure. That is a reopening.
My sister then announced that we were going to stay there at the Bench and talk until we all cheered up.
So, we told stories.
After a while, we were all laughing and feeling good for having cried together – for finally facing the biggest loss of our lives without averting our eyes.
When I got home to Regina, I wrote a note to John at XYZ Funeral Services, telling him what we’d done and thanking him for the gift of this opportunity to fashion a unique ritual for ourselves – this chance to honour Dad’s life finally freed of the shock of his death.
John wrote back, reminding me that what I’d done was illegal and that I shouldn’t tell anybody about it.