Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cremains of the Day

I really hadn't planned on UPS'ing my mom's remains to my brother.


But sometimes, life throws you a curveball, and you just have to take that swing.

She said, "Swing away, Merrill. Swing away!"

A wonderful post on Gina's blog about her mom's wishes for her funeral made me think of the preparations for my mother's funeral and the eventual disposition of her ashes, or, as the funeral industry calls such things, "cremains."

Cremains. Sounds like a word created by a marketing company, no? From the makers of Cremora, it's Cremains! Your loved one in an carefree, no muss, no fuss powdered form!

At this point, I can already hear a couple of my less amused family members typing in WWW.SHESGOINGTOHELL.COM. Well, hey - Mom would have laughed at this, so here goes.

My mother was very adamant about her wishes - she was to be cremated, plain and simple. She didn't want to be propped up on display. She didn't want to be buried. But, things get more complicated when you have nine surviving adult children and conflicting interpretations of Mom's final wishes.

However, the cremation plan was never questioned. A small handful of the kids gathered at DeRoo's Funeral Home in Moline the day after Mom's rough last day on this planet to discuss plans with the gentle, sweet son of the man who'd handled my father's funeral back in 1986. He showed us options for "cremation caskets" - you can actually put your loved one in a cardboard box, if you want, but it's not exactly appropriate if you're having a memorial service, even though the deceased doesn't give a damn (and would probably have preferred that you saved their hard earned dollars for something other than a box that's going to be incinerated.) And let's face it, we were not putting Mom in a cardboard box. So, we ended up with the tasteful "Pioneer" oak casket. (Seemed like an appropriate choice for a pioneer-woman.)

Then, came the next issue: the cremation urn. A decision had been made to inter a portion of Mom's ashes in Dad's grave. She would have her own headstone, next to Dad's, in the National Cemetery, noting her name and status as a WASP. That was cool, and it was also kind cool that, rather than dig a new grave, they would simply re-open Dad's spot, and place the urn on top of his casket. It's a nice gesture.

The portion of Mom's ashes not interred with Dad would be handed to us, so that we could scatter them in an appropriate place. Two years before, my sister NurseRachet and her husband eBay Bob had met a B-25 pilot at Mom's last WASP reunion in Texas. He flew a Confederate Air Force-maintained B-25 out of Minnesota, and he'd offered to take Mom up for a ride (as she'd flown B-25s, among other aircraft, in WWII.) However, Mom's health never improved, and that ride had never happened. NurseRachet figured that, perhaps, that pilot might be able to take Mom's ashes up for one last ride and sprinkle them out from the skies. That would have been very, very cool, but it did not happen - I'll get to that in a minute.

Back to the urn business...

Again, the funeral director pulled out a catalogue of urns to show us. All very lovely. All rather pricey for something that was going to be covered in dirt, frankly. Mom was, at heart, a very practical woman who knew how to stretch a dollar to its absolute ends. She also had a wicked sense of humor. We countered the expensive jars with this suggestion: why not put Mom in one of her vintage Tupperware containers - in a tasteful royal blue - and, at the cemetery, we could have a solemn "burping of the seal." This was followed by a lot of potentially inappropriate laughter on our part. I think the funeral director was appalled, and he gave us a rather Spock-like look, lacking emotion.

Apparently, the state of Illinois frowns on burying things that aren't approved funeral goods. So, that is how we ended up with a $200 cloisonne jar to bury at the Rock Island Arsenal National Cemetery. I still think the Tupperware was a much better option.

We finished the arrangements. There would be a color guard at the cemetery, with a salute and trumpet playing taps. It's a dying tradition, sadly. The younger veterans aren't interested, and the old men who still see the honor are dying out. Not everyone is buried at Arlington, where a color guard is a given. In small towns, it's tough to find the folk to answer the call. (In fact, a reporter showed up at Mom's funeral to do a story on that very issue. More on that in a moment...)

In the end, there was a viewing at the funeral home. I was against it. Mom hadn't wanted it, but some of my older siblings felt it was important. I was unhappy, but outvoted. It was strange to see Mom that day. She had been so bloated by illness and medication, she was almost unrecognizable when I saw her a couple of hours after she passed away. (I missed saying goodbye to her by a short window. I was in the air over Illinois, traveling to her, when she died. I held it together pretty well until I called the Sasquatch later that day. Then, I simply, utterly fell apart.) But here, her hair dressed, her clothing neat and somber, her WASP wings on her chest, her face gaunt, she was a different person. Looking at her, I wondered if this was the dignified, elegant form she would have been granted in life, had illness not stolen so much from her.

When the time came for the neighbors and friends to come in, Mom's wings and rings were removed, and the funeral director attempted to close the lid. I don't know if many of us noticed that he was having problems, but, in retrospect, it's a little funny. He just couldn't get it shut. I think Mom was propped up a wee bit too high. I couldn't help but wonder if he was having problems with her prominent nose being too close to the lid. Very subtly, my sister NurseRachet went up and gently pressed down on Mom's shoulder as he worked to shut the casket. It was surreal and somewhat horrifying then, but now, I have to smile. Mom was probably up there saying, "Oh, for Pete's sake, just slam the damn thing shut!"

(Now, the rest of my family members have just starting typing in WWW.SHESGETTINGABIGSETOFHORNSANDAPITCHFORK.COM...)

(Already have those horns, thank ya very much!)

One of the neat things about mom's memorial service - it was pretty free-form. Those who had something to say just stood and said it. I spoke about her respect for people and not giving a damn about appearance or money or anything superficial. God, I miss her.

Many of my friends came to the service. It was so neat to hear them talk about how much Mom had meant to them. One friend, whom I hadn't seen in years, talked about how, even when I was out of the country, Mom would call her and see how she was doing. I hadn't known that.

We had a bulletin board of photos of Mom's life, her kids, grandkids... The funeral home printed up memorial cards with a photo that NurseRachet had picked out. I carry one in my wallet all the time.

The morning of the military graveside service arrived, and, about a half hour before we were to leave the house, a call came in. It was someone from the national cemetery. Did we ask for news coverage of Mom's funeral? Because someone from the local ABC affiliate was planning on showing up with a news crew.


No, we hadn't call the press. No, I had no idea what the hell this was about. None of us did.

I called WQAD, the ABC affiliate just two blocks from Mom's house. I used to sit out behind the station and watch the live outdoor weather forecasts with "Bob BetterWeather." (That stopped when the streakers running through the set became too numerous to count.) I was put in touch with the reporter in question, who was just about devastated as I alternately pummeled her with questions and read her the riot act.

It was not my finest hour.

It turns out, she was doing a story on the dying tradition of the funeral color guard, and she'd asked the gents from the VFW if there were any upcoming military funerals she could cover. The guys gave her the date and time of Mom's ceremony, but no one had called us. In the end, with the reporter in tears (poor thing - I can be pretty tough on the phone), we brokered a deal. She would do a story about Mom being a WASP, and she'd use some of the footage for a later story about the color guards.

It all turned out beautifully. Some of my siblings and nieces were interviewed. I apologized for being a total troll to the reporter, who even came over to the house to watch the broadcast with us. That was really, really cool. (Also helps that it takes 30 seconds to drive from the station to the house.) In fact, I need to find someone with some technological skills to help me transfer the news story from VHS to a digital format, so it isn't lost. (The same is true with an audio cassette of my mother giving a speech on her flying days that needs to be transferred before the cassette dies. If you have the skills/knowledge, please zap me an e-mail!)

The color guard was lovely, the weather clear, and the ceremony, short and solemn. The only problem? The funeral home had forgotten that they were supposed to give us part of the ashes. As soon as the ceremony was over, the jar had disappeared, and I started asking everyone where the rest of the ashes had gone. I finally caught up with the funeral director, who was mortified. His folks had forgotten they were not to bury all the ashes. He raced to get the jar back from the gravediggers. Had the jar actually entered the grave, it would have required a disinterment order from the U.S. Government to pull it back out.

Disaster averted.

He surreptitiously went to the trunk of his car and poured out half the ashes into a box. We'd be able to pick them up in the morning. And with that, the jar was laid in my father's grave.

The discount-version cremains container ain't elegant. It resembles an army green, economy-sized version of an old, square Nestle's Quik box, without the cute rabbit cartoon. There is something initially disturbing about seeing a life reduced to a box with a typed label marked "CREMAINS OF GERALDINE N. JORDAN." But after the disbelief fades, you realize the life isn't there - it's in what you carry with you. What you continue to share with others about that life and its great value. But the box is, initially, a bit freaky to have around.

It was decided that I would take Mom's ashes out to Maryland, when I returned to the house in Illinois in July to collect the family photos and genealogical research that Dad had done. I had no kids, I traveled. I would likely be able to arrange someone to take Mom's ashes up for a final flight.

Cute, but not approved for holding human cremains.

Do you see where this is going? It might help to tell you that Mom passed away at the end of March.


By July, although we didn't know it yet, the very thought of being able to go up in a plane and sprinkle some mysterious powder into the atmosphere was fading fast.

Then came September 11. And then, close on its tragic heels, came anthrax.

By then, Mom's box o' cremains had become my bookshelf companion. I'd come home from work and say, "Hey, Mom," as I walked by the shelf. On her birthday, my inner Buddhist called to me, and I pulled Mom from the shelf and made a little altar on my coffee table. I pulled out a Pfalzgraf luncheon plate and made an arrangement of ham and cheese on Triscuits with apple slices (a Mom classic) and lit a candle. I think she would have approved. (And I think my friends would have thought I was nuts at the time.)

But, all good (and slightly off-kilter) things come to an end, and eventually, Mom's tenancy on my bookshelf was over. My brother, Air Jordan, and his partner, my adopted brother, The German, planned a trek to the West, to see the places where our mom grew up and learned to fly and ski and simply cherished. They would scatter mom's ashes across the western mountains and lakes she loved.

But how would I get the ashes out to them? I worked as a contractor then. I had no leave, no time, no money to meet up with them.

This was important.

I would have to think like a Marine, channel Clint Eastwood in "Heartbreak Ridge" and "Improvise. Adapt. Overcome."

I went to Mail Boxes, Etc.

With the box wrapped carefully in layers of plastic Giant and Safeway bags and taped securely, I went to mail Mom 1,000 miles back to Illinois so my brother could take her out west. I did this with a measure of trepidation. I didn't even go online to see if this was legal. I just didn't want to know.

The young clerk at MBE was cheerful and delighted to help me take the non-descript, plastic-wrapped mystery and lay it in a bed of packing peanuts in an oversized box. Meanwhile, I slowly filled out a UPS shipping slip.


"Mom's stuff." (True enough.)


Oh dear god. What does one write? Suddenly, shipping a box has become a philosophical venture.

$100. (No matter what I wrote, I was going to Hell. No doubt.)

I wrote out one of my sisters' addresses in Illinois for my brother's receipt upon his arrival from Germany and handed the form over.

"Oh, how nice!" The clerk smiled. "A Mother's Day surprise? Lovely!"

I looked at the calendar. It was a week before Mother's Day. I had forgotten completely. I just smiled at the clerk. "Yep. I'm definitely doing something special for Mom!" (I'm just not telling you what that is.)

$18 later, my mother had been entrusted to the capable hands of the United Parcel Service.

And then began five days of sweating out all the potential disaster scenarios. What happens if Mom is lost by UPS? What if the package breaks open and I get arrested while Homeland Security checks out the strange powder I'd shipped as "Mom's Stuff"? How will I explain this to more humorless relatives?

Fortunately, Mom arrived safe and sound, and Air Jordan and The German took her out for one more adventure in the West. She took flight one last time, on the winds of the rugged rural lands she loved so much. I wish I'd been there to see it.

It does my heart good to know that she is forever part of that landscape, part of the atmosphere that made her the fearless woman she was. I hope I carry part of that with me, too, wherever I end up going on this planet.

Be fearless, people. Be willing to do something brave and right and true with your lives.

Live decently and kindly and openly. And let others do the same.

I had no plans to write this today. I'm sitting in the coffee shop, watching the snow start to stick, nursing a big cup of Moroccan mint tea. Guess it just feels good to feel better and have a moment for the brain to work on something different.

Here's hoping for more of these moments.

Now, I wait for the phone call from my oldest sister, after she finishes freaking out that I mailed Mom across country...

Cheers from snowy Rockville,



Merujo said...

Sonora, thank you so much for sharing your story - that was great! I'm glad I made you smile - you did the same for me. I love what you and your siblings did with her ashes.



Claire said...

This may well be my favorite and the best post of yours I've read to date.

My mom was telling me over lunch just today about a new trend in environmentally friendly cemetaries where you can sort of do whatever (plaque, stone, sculpture, nothing) in a woodsy setting so long as you dig the grave yourself (no machinery) and the body's biodegrable (not embalmed and with a casket or covering that's also biodegrable). More like walking through a park than a traditional cemetary. Sounded interesting.

In any case, way to channel the pre-snow mojo into some very good writing.

Merujo said...

Thanks for the good words, Claire!

You know, one of those parks played a part in the finale of "Six Feet Under" when one of the main characters died and was buried in precisely that setting. They had his body wrapped in a simple shroud and buried him near a lovely tree. (They had some logistical issues carrying him to the grave, just grabbing onto the shroud.) But it's cool to know this isn't just TV, but a real concept.

Washington Cube said...

See what a nice snowy Saturday can produce? Excellent writing.

Merujo said...

Thanks, Cube! I really think the weather was very inspiring today. I've been so busy with work that I'd forgotten how much I love spending a few hours at the coffee shop, just tapping away.

I need more Moroccan mint tea now!

Claire said...

The news bit my mom saw even had a clip from that 6' Under episode.

Merujo said...

Hi, nurseatty! You're very welcome here! If you'd like to read more about my mom's wartime adventures (and her life in general), please read this post:

I plan to eventually write a book about her. I'd like to write both an adult book and a children's book. I'd like her great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids to know all about her. :-)

Reya Mellicker said...

What a story! Thank you SO MUCH for sharing it all. Wow. What a saga.

I know it's been awhile, but I'd still like to offer my condolences. Both my parents are gone. It's a huge rite of passage, even if they're old and have lived a great life. Warm thoughts on their way to you.

Sudiegirl said...


We have WAY too much in dad passed in '05 and we had military rites for him, but nothing like your mother's.


It sounds like a "gallows" sense of humor should be appreciated more than it is, too. But, I would NOT want to have the job of a funeral director. One of my classmates does that now, and I don't know how he does it.

Thank you for creating this post, and if you don't mind, I'm linking to you through We midwesterners have to stick together.


Cyn said...

If you haven't already gotten volunteers, I have a nifty VHS/DVD recorder combo and I can burn a DVD for you from your VHS tape. Let me know.

That was a wonderful post. Touching...honest...dare I say "funny"? Thanks for sharing it. I could absolutely see it as a magazine article -- or are you saving it for the book you will inevitably write?

Washington Cube said...

I came back to re-read this excellent piece of writing. I totally get the Tupperware or Quik box urn. I think that's great.

Funny, I was watching a snippet of 2001: A Space Odyssey the other night, and when Hal 9000, the computer, takes over the craft, he shuts down the life support of the snoozing in limbo astronauts. When they are dead, a computer sign lights up saying, "Life Functions Terminated." Sick as it sounds, I thought, "Wouldn't that make a wild epitaph?"

Merujo said...

PT - it's true. I don't think I wanted to acknowledge that need to see that life is gone, but it really does help.

Gina - my mom was a real adventurer, despite being a shy woman happiest with a room full of books. And thanks to you for your post that inspired this one!

Rabbit - thanks for the good words, and yeah - I still think the Tupperware was the way to go!

Reya - thank you - and I gladly accept your warm wishes and thoughts! :-)

Sudiegirl - thanks for the link-up! Good to meet another Midwesterner in Montgomery County!

Cyn - I'll be in touch with you re: the video tape - THANKS! And, man, I guess I'd have to find the right magazine for this post, huh? There might be a women's magazine out there that would be the right pitch... I'll have to think about that...

Cube - I always thought that "What are you looking at?" would be great on a tombstone.

Loracs said...

Thanks for your wonderful writing. My mom died in Sept. 2000 and I miss her every day. I was the only one of my family who got up to speak at her service. And I read "My Top 10 Reasons Why I Loved Moosie" (Moosie was our pet name for her.) It made people laugh and cry. I managed to get through it without crying - the flooding tears came later. I think she would have been publicly a little scandalized, but personally she would have been laughing her butt off.
Burping Tupperware at a funeral with an honor guard is just so . . . American!

Mom's can be so amazing. I love hearing the stories about your Mom and I look forward to reading the future book.
Thank you!
loracs aka gillygrrrl

Dr. Deb said...

Came to you via Rosie. This is a very moving post.