Shortly before my grandfather died of pancreatic cancer, he told my father not to bother with collecting the ashes after they cremated his body. For one thing, there was an extra expense to pick up the ashes, rather than just dispose of the body. It wasn’t much, but Grandpa never believed in wasting money, even after he was dead. Maybe especially after he was dead, actually.
Aside from the expense, Grandpa didn’t trust the funeral home to collect his ashes, rather than–as he put it–“someone else’s Aunt Margaret,” or “some guy’s cousin Bobbi Sue” who might be left over in the oven from the last cremation. Ever since he put that thought in my head—via my father, who told me about all of this on the phone about three hours after Grandpa died—I can’t help think about it every time I hear about someone spreading a relative’s ashes. Maybe they really just scattered Norma from down the street, some puckish voice with a cigarette rasp in my head will say. Or keeping the ashes in an urn in your office: “I bet,” and I hear in my head a pause for a long, deep drag, “they just got the neighbor’s damn dog in there.”
My brother once lived with a guy who kept one-eighth of his father’s ashes in a plastic bag that he had put inside an old tube sock and kept in his sock drawer. He had taken a red magic marker and drawn a goofy smiley face onto the tube sock, just to remind himself not to throw his Dad out, or to accidentally send his Dad through the laundry. Maybe that is disrespectful to keep your dead father’s ashes in your sock drawer with a goofy magic marker grin on it. But then, perhaps, my brother’s roommate had hit upon an excellent way to be aware of his own mortality and his Dad’s presence in his life. Maybe every morning my brother’s friend got up, picked out a pair of socks, and then meditated on his existential finitude and about all the times he played catch or Frisbee with his Dad in the backyard. Hamlet in a sock drawer.
Disrespectful or not, I can’t help but think: maybe it wasn’t his Dad at all in that tube sock with the goofy grin on it. Maybe it really was some guy’s spinster Aunt Margaret, who couldn’t afford to be buried the way she wanted to, and Bob the mechanic just had her cremated and called it a day, and the guys down at the funeral oven couldn’t be bothered to be too careful, and just scooped a couple of teaspoonfuls of Aunt Margaret in, perhaps without even realizing it. Maybe even a bit of my grandfather was in that tube sock: after all, why bother cleaning out the oven (the guys working the funeral home might say) when we’re just going to put another body in there, and man, you know, it’s 4:30 on a Friday, and who can be bothered with this stuff? and, I could really use a beer. I mean, it wasn’t my grandfather in that tube sock, because my grandfather died a year before, and in a different Idaho county, a few hours’ drive up the road toward British Columbia, but it’s just an accident of time and geography that gives me the tiniest bit of certainty.
Maybe—probably, really, the more I contemplate—there were atoms from as many as fifteen or twenty people in that tube sock that holds the ashes that, supposedly, only represented 1/8 of a person to begin with. Both the math and the symbol gets weirder and weirder the more I let my mind wander down this utterly absurd trail: how much of your Dad did you get? Is it really your Dad? Everyone who died in June of 2003 in that little county in Idaho might have a representative flick of ash in there. The ashes of your father that you did get might be the ashes of the intricate tiny bones in his left foot. How attached were you to your Dad’s left foot? Do you have fond memories of your Dad’s left foot? It might be mostly your Dad, your Grandfather—whoever it is you want to think that that urn, or that spot on the river they liked to fish where you dumped him—that tube sock represents. But come on, let’s be realists: ashes are pretty damn difficult to keep completely separate or organized.
There’s likely some lesson there, if you were the kind of annoying, didactic person just determined to see it that way. We’re all going to end up mixed together, we were all once the material of stars, we’re all just dust and ashes anyway: whatever cheap wisdom you to pick out of those ashes, you can probably find it.
I call it cheap, because that’s exactly the kind of sentimental bullshit that my grandfather wouldn’t tolerate, but of course there is truth there, even if it’s clichéd, Hallmark-card-style truth: we really are all just anonymous collections of atoms that, on one level, are poised to return to a less animated state of being with the slightest of mortal nudges. Cemeteries, tombs, sepulchers, even the pyramids: they try to comfort us with the illusion of an after, an eternal, a something more. But even that mummy, preserved for thousands of years, really is just turning to dust a bit more slowly than the rest of us.
I remember reading about one ash spreading that went completely wrong, and perhaps the story illustrates my point: a guy wanted his ashes spread over the home diamond of the Seattle Mariners. The guy’s wife, who loved her baseball crazy husband too much to say no to him, even in the afterlife, contracted a local pilot to fly her over Safeco field while the roof was open. One sunny spring morning—the kind of morning that makes you think about baseball and popcorn and hotdogs and pretty girls in cutoff shorts drinking cheap beer—the plane took off. The bereaved widow reached for the mason jar that she was keeping the ashes in (the mason jar, no doubt, being yet another story, one that didn’t make it into the newspaper I was reading). The lid was stuck. The pilot was flying the small plane. Her dead husband and his manly husbandly muscles were no longer available to open up stuck mason jars for her, all of that help and kindness and everyday marriage was actually inside a jar, reduced to ashes. She panicked, thinking that her window of opportunity to give the love of her life what he wanted in death was closing. She, trying, jamming, smacking the lid on the side of the window: the jar ended up jumping out of her hands.
The entire jar fell where ashes always fall, back toward the earth. It landed on the sidewalk, just outside of the baseball stadium, narrowly missing a double-stroller that was conveying four-month old twins down the street after their mother had had an especially hearty breakfast, the kind of breakfast you’d need when you’re breastfeeding twins. The restaurant owner (after calming the understandably distraught mother down panicked by a Mason Jar of ashes almost striking her one pretty June morning, thus reminding her of her own precarious mortality) just scooped the ashes into a dustbin, not really realizing what they were.
Ha ha, you say. That poor schmuck ended up in the landfill, not on the pitcher’s mound or home plate, or spread across the gorgeous outfield, where he supposedly wanted to spend eternity. But of course, sometime in the next year or ten, someone will pull down that stadium so that some billionaire can build a new one. They’ll take all that debris to the landfill, where they’ll mix it with that week’s eggshells and fish carcasses, and that years’ twin babies’ dirty diapers.
That baseball fan was always headed towards the same place. A pharoah’s body, preserved for millennium, is headed there too, it’s just taking a bit more time.
This entire goofy chain of thought reminds me of my grandfather so strongly it hurts: engendering this kind of wackiness was his genius.
As a young man, he had boxed his way into a year’s worth of college education, the last boxing scholarship that the University of Idaho ever offered (according to him). Then he had sailed the Pacific, fighting the Japanese, in the global conflict that he would only refer to as ‘man’s foolishness.’ In the pictures taken of him as a young man, he is startlingly handsome; girlfriends I brought home looked positively dumbstruck when they saw his slender frame in his Navy blues, a charming smile and a devilish wink on the twenty-year old boy who had just married my grandmother while on shore leave.
The mental picture I had of him was very different. In my mind’s eye he still sits, ass planted firmly in his easy chair, smoking a cigarette, flicking the ash into a glass ashtray, watching ESPN: boxing, basketball, football, and baseball in constant seasonal rotation. He talked constantly, most of it complete bullshit. But it was a very odd variety of bullshit, inventive bullshit, thought-provoking bullshit, the kind of bizarrely subversive nonsense that would jar you out of your usual modes of thinking. Out of nowhere, he’d hit on something about life, with a certain turn of phrase, and I’d end up spending the next week turning over whatever it was he’d said. I’d be thinking about it three months later, arguing with him in my head. His thoughts about this politician, or that issue, would come to me, in the middle of the night, and I would think of what I should have said. Or he would make me notice something weird, and it would change my relationship to some random thing forever.
An example: we were watching Nomar Garciaparra up at the plate. Every damn time Nomar came up he would readjust his gloves in this elaborate ritual; anyone who watched the Red Sox back in the 90s and early 2000s likely knows exactly what I’m talking about. Around the seventh, when Nomar was probably up for the third or fourth time, Grandpa turned to me, exhaling a cloud of smoke, and said, “This Boston shortstop would make coffee nervous.”
For the remainder of Nomar’s career—including when I watched him do a rehab start playing for the Pawtucket Red Sox one summer night in Indianapolis several years later—I had to think about that phrase. A few months after Grandpa died, the Red Sox were in the playoffs. Garciaparra came to the plate. He started hyper-actively adjusting those damn gloves. I swear I actually heard my Grandpa’s smoke going out of his lungs, and “This Boston shortstop would make coffee nervous.” I jumped off the futon that I was sitting on in South Bend, Indiana, two thousand miles away from where my Grandfather had died, expecting to see the man smoking the cheap generic cigarettes my grandmother resentfully bought him twice a week.
And here I am, about thirteen years later, still trying to sort the whole thing out, thanks to a mental time bombs he sent to me, via my dad, apparently about twelve hours before he died from that massive tumor in his pancreas. Grandpa made me see cremation in this completely silly, truly bizarre way. More than likely Grandpa was just being cheap: he didn’t want his son spending a bunch of money on foolishness, as he would call it. Also, just a bit cynical: he was a complete atheist, and anything that reeked of ritual or spirituality irritated the daylights out of him. He was going to be dead, goddamn it. Get on with life, he was telling Dad, and don’t look back at me, or my ashes, or my house; take care of my wife, take care of your wife, take care of my three grandsons, take care of yourself.
All of that is true. My grandfather was cheap and cynical and unsentimental and the way he showed us he loved us was to keep our eyes focused forward in time, and on how much money was in the bank account, and how we were going to make the mortgage that month, no matter who had died, or what disasters had happened.
Or maybe he just knew that if it were up to me and my brothers, we would probably try to stuff him in a tube sock and draw a smiley face on it.
You know. Just for shits and giggles.
Nathan Elliott is an American living on the west coast of Newfoundland with a poet and the collaborative project they like to call ‘Sam.’ After a childhood spent in the mountains of North Idaho, he acquired a Ph.D in Victorian literature at the University of Notre Dame. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Tahoma Literary Review, and he is the 2016 winner of the Newfoundland and Labrador Art Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award. He tweets @writeronabike.