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Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

My family has had some intense discussions about ashes. About what to do with them.

The conversations started nine years ago when my mother died. She was 90 and was cremated, as she had requested. I picked up the box of ashes from the funeral home. That’s when the argument started.

“What shall we do with Mom’s ashes?” I asked my father.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “She’s gone. That’s not Pauline in the box.”

My sister Carol and I exchanged glances. Of course, that’s not really our mother in the plain cardboard box, but it sort of is. And we had to do something with the ashes, right?

Maybe not. A scientist by training, our dad grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and wanted nothing to do with religion. He refused to sit Shiva or have any kind of ceremony, even a totally secular one. As the next of kin, he had the right to make that decision, but it felt wrong to me. I made a small ceremony with my husband and our daughters. We looked at photos of my mother and told stories and remembered.

But that still didn’t deal with her ashes. My sister and I live 90 miles apart. I wanted to divide the ashes in two parts, so we could each bury half in our yards, under the flowering bushes our mother loved so much. It seemed like a reasonable thing, except that one extended family member hated the thought of dividing Pauline in half. She couldn’t bear the idea of the ashes not being together, intact.

“Mom wouldn’t have cared about that,” I said. But my sister insisted we respect the dissenting view and keep the ashes together. I gave in. We decided to bury Pauline under an azalea bush at my sister’s house. Mom had beautiful azaleas in our yard in Maryland and Carol inherited her green thumb.

However, I cheated. Before I brought the ashes to Carol, I took a small baggie’s worth out of the box, and kept it. I didn’t tell my sister.

Now our father has died, six months short of his 100th birthday. Since he couldn’t object, we sat Shiva for him, a lovely afternoon with family and friends. We looked at photos and talked about him. I miss my father a lot.

His ashes sat for weeks in a box on my desk. What to do with them? It didn’t make sense to bury them at my house. I’m moving and my house will soon be occupied by people who never knew Jack. Carol and I agreed easily this time. His ashes will be mixed with Mom’s under Carol’s azalea bush. Because Mom loved plants but Dad did most of the weeding. Maybe we’ll do it on their shared birthday in July. Maybe some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren will join us.

But first, I took a scoop of Dad’s ashes out of the box, and added them to Mom’s ashes in a small glass jar. They are different colors; I don’t know why.

I also can’t tell you why I find it comforting to have the jar of ashes on a shelf over my desk. But I do.
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