Wednesday, April 29, 2015

These Bones

No one told us what to expect when we picked up my mother’s ashes from the crematorium.

The taxi turned into the parking lot at the top of the hill, across from the Chinese cemetery. Some chickens pecked around in the grass. The funeral director led us around to a table on the far side of the building, and then they brought her out.

She was in what looked like a large lasagna pan. She was fine dust, some ribs, an arm bone. The heat of the oven had broken her skull into three pieces.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel came uninvited into my mind. No, I said to myself. No.

We said no when they asked if we wanted to keep her teeth, to melt down the gold fillings. They took the tray around the corner, and in a moment we heard a whirring like a coffee grinder. They made a funnel out of newspaper and poured the dust into the urn. The funeral direction said he would take the ashes to the embassy to be certified for travel, and would drop them off at the apartment tomorrow.

The day before, Easter Sunday, Dad, Colin and I walked behind the hearse, coughing on exhaust fumes as it trundled the few hundred yards from the funeral hall up the hill. Dad asked them to turn off the gospel music blaring from the radio. On a portico outside the crematorium, we laid white flowers on the casket.

“Alleluia, Christ is risen,” I choked out, somehow.

“The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,” said my father, brother, and assembled friends, uncertain.

I don’t believe any of this, I thought.

That night I had a nightmare that I had forgotten the sound of my mother’s voice.

On the flight home I stowed her securely under the seat in front of me and watched Frozen.

Six months later, before we buried the ashes in the churchyard, I stood with a wheelbarrow and shovel putting dirt back into the hole. We had it dug to a double depth, so Dad’s ashes could be there too, when the time comes, but it was a bit too deep. We were to gently lower the urn into to the grave and even with my long arms it was too deep for that to happen. I added a few inches and hoped for the best.

In the end it made no difference. Dad and I knelt in the gravel, guiding the urn down. But I lost my balance and fell, the heavy urn pulling my arms down into the grave. My forehead slammed into the gravel. The urn stayed upright, the lid secure. I stood up, sheepish and trembling, my sleeves muddy. Mother Suzanne touched my shoulder.

“You’ve taken her as far as you can,” she said.

In December, as I prepared to switch phones, I found a voicemail from February. Amiable, about nothing, like our conversation the night before she died, before anyone had an inkling her heart was already betraying her, and in a few hours would suddenly give out. “Have a good day,” she signed off.

I entered this Holy Week, the liturgical anniversary of her death, with unease. But it was so much better than I expected - I was just glad to be in an identifiable place. Last year I boarded a plane Maundy Thursday morning and got off Good Friday at midnight a world away, spending the meantime in a great nowhere tunnel in the sky.

This Easter Vigil I spent with the clanging of bells rather than drinking scotch and telling stories and drafting a funeral liturgy I thought my non-religious mother could live with, for lack of a better term. This Easter instead of saying goodbye I said hello, bringing a glass of wine from Easter brunch out to the grave. I sat in the sun, liked some alleluias on Facebook, sent some emails.

At a Thursday night Bible study the other week we read the passage from Luke where the risen Jesus appears among the disciples in Jerusalem and shows them his wounded hands and feet, the gash in his side. Teresa asked us who in the story we identify with. The only characters to choose are the unnamed disciples and Jesus. Everyone picked disciples.

“Come on,” Teresa said, “doesn’t anyone identify with Jesus?”

“Ok,” I said, “I do. Today is the calendar anniversary of my mother’s death. And I’m grateful not to be able to re-feel things about that day, the splitting headache, the nausea. Today can’t be more different than that day for me. Some good things have happened. I have a new and interesting kind of relationship with my dad, for one, and that’s a gift.

“But look at Jesus here. He’s resurrected but still wounded. The world did something to him that resurrection can’t undo. I’m back, in a way, too. But I’m not the same.”

Last Saturday I found myself crying in the final scene of Die Walkure. Wotan, king of the gods, stands over his daughter Brunnhilde. For complicated Wagnerian reasons he has had no choice but to place her unconscious body, living but no longer immortal, on a high rock.

The music lasts far longer than strictly needed for the action in the stage directions to occur, so for a long time Wotan gazes at his beloved daughter, delaying as long as possible the moment when the flames rise, she will be hidden from his sight, and he will go back into the world.

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to Mary Magdalene. But how hard it is to let go and turn away.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

These bones, ground to dust, buried in the churchyard?

No. Maybe. I don’t know. I'll just keep saying the creed.

But. Love is patient, love is kind, love never dies. Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things.

Love, believe this for me.

This is a participating post in the Acts 8 Moment BLOGFORCE challenge, which asks, "Where have you experienced resurrection this Holy Week and Easter season?" Participation in the BLOGFORCE is open to anyone who's interested, just follow the link to learn how.


  1. Saying prayers for you and all who love your mother. Thank you for sharing your story and hard-won insight - you've given me much to think about.
    To Love and the promise of Easter---