Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 517 (304) Ashes to Ashes

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

I've entitled this podcast "Ashes to Ashes".

I was visiting an old friend in Alaska a few years ago and asked about his mother who had recently died. He responded with this: "It is just so cold up there. I decided to go up and get her and send her back to New York. I just couldn't stand to think of her up there by herself in the cold and dark". Up there meant the front range of the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage.

He had placed an urn with his mother's ashes inside towards the top of one of the mountains just that past summer. She had come to America from Germany as a young girl seventy years earlier. She had lived in New York City ever since. But she had visited Alaska a couple of times in the summer and thought the mountains were so beautiful that she asked that her ashes by placed there when she died. She never experienced the mountains in the winter.

"Where do you want me to put your ashes?" my wife asked me a few years ago. So, I just turned seventy and things are getting a bit more serious. I laughed off the inquiry with "I don't care. It won't mean anything to me. I'll be gone." We walked on down the trail to our afternoon coffee.

The following day I was having lunch with a friend whose wife died about a year ago. He was planning on a dusting of her ashes in one of our National Parks that she particularly  liked. I suppose that it's against the law but really. I mean who is going to stop him. And for that matter I can't imagine why they should. What does it matter? I suppose there are reasons but I don't know what they are.

He told me that he had changed his mind. He didn't know what he would do with them. He didn't want them sitting around in a box but he didn't really know  where to put them. He had asked his children but they deferred to his judgement. So....he is left holding the box so to speak. A couple of years past and he eventually did take her spread her ashes in the park.

I had another friend a few years ago dying of asbestosis - cancer of the lungs. He asked that his ashes be scattered over Bellingham Bay. He like to walk along the water and gaze out towards the horizon. When he had trouble walking he would find a bench and spend an hour or so each day just sitting there letting the sounds of the waves sooth his aching body and settle his mind. We participated in the scattering of his ashes from a dock that extends out into the bay from one of our parks.

There were perhaps eight or ten of us that gathered on a cloudy summer morning. His sister and husband had come from the east coast. The unitarian minister said a few words and then his sister talked for a few moments about their childhood as brother and sister. Then we took turns releasing his ashes a handful at a time and they slowly swirled into the water. Brenda had brought some flowers and gently placed them on the water. They set still for a moment and slowly started moving away from the dock and out into the bay. We walked to the nearest coffee shop and shared stories of Dale and how he had touched our lives.

It has been several years since we launched our friend on the bay. Our windows look out over the water and my eyes go there first thing every morning. I think of my friend sometime during each day. He is out there in the storm. He is out their in the calm. He is in the reflected sun or the crashing waves. He seems to have chosen a great place from my point of view.

When our favorite dog of 13 years died we buried him in the back yard. We placed him in a in a corner of the yard that is little used but is a beautiful little nook heavy in foliage. We placed a flat slat stone over his grave and then planted a miniature lilac bush next to it. Ever morning since I find myself walking over to that corner and just for a moment saying, "Hi Zack. How you doing". He respond just as he aways did with silence but yet there is a sense of friendship.

What we do with ourselves or with our family or friends when death comes is important to some. I don't think it is important to the ones who die but it is to those that are left behind. We need to be comfortable with the decision. I'm not sure we want others to be reminded of us when they find a cardboard box in the attic. I would rather they thought of me when they looked to the mountains, the open water or a bucolic spot in the forest.  

The latest practice seems in my community seems to be a natural burial. We have three different friends who died in the past couple of years and they each were buried in a memorial garden that is part of a cemetery. They were not embalmed and not placed in a casket. Their bodies were wrapped in a shroud and placed in a grave and covered by all of the relatives and friends pitching in with shovels. In the last instance the nephews and nieces even dug the grave by hand. There are no head stones but a tree is planted to mark the spot.

If I would have been Vern I would have left my mothers ashes up in the Chugach Range. Winter cold and dark wouldn't bother her ashes. And I would be reminded of her every time I looked to the mountains. On a daily basis I would probably look up at the mountains and say to myself "How you doin' Mom".

This is Retirement Talk.

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