You know how it is, when you find yourself in the middle of some task or event, and you realize right in the middle of it that, not only have you never done anything like this before, but it is a completely surreal experience? I found myself doing just such a task two weeks ago, when my sister and I spread my father’s ashes: doing something I’d never done before, and experiencing how truly surreal an experience it was.
The funeral home packaged my father’s remains up nicely in a dinner-plate sized bio-degradable box and several smaller wooden boxes the size of a cigarette-box. The box was nice enough to bring to a small gathering we had for Dad and ourselves, and was given the place of honor, surrounded by pictures of my dad and my family. The gathering was on a beautiful, sunny day at a restaurant in Seattle that is right on the water, so we got to celebrate in a place Dad would have loved.
I had made arrangements to scatter Dad’s ashes the following day from one of the ferries that sail around our picturesque Puget Sound. We were told by the funeral director that, given enough notice, the ferry will stop mid-voyage so that remains can be dropped off of the back, and, since Dad loved riding the ferries – loved all boats, really – that seemed like the perfect thing. It was on the noisy car deck of said ferry that I found myself experiencing the surreality of the whole event.
I’ve enjoyed riding these ferries all of my life; I know how they look and smell, the sound of the horn, and the chug of the huge engines. I’ve been on the car deck of the different boats many times as I’ve gotten out of my vehicle and moved towards the stairs to get to the passenger deck. I’ve even stood at the back and looked out over the creamy wake at the receding city, or the San Juan Islands, or wherever the ferry happened to be sailing. But I’d never done something like this.
As promised, the Captain announced that there was going to be a memorial, stopped the ferry, and the Second Mate lifted the safety rope that allowed us to get close to the back end of the boat. Clutching the box, my sister and I moved closer to the edge. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see people on the deck above watching curiously. It was then that I felt strongly how strange a thing this was that we were doing, how unlike anything I’d ever done, how out of reality it felt.
We each grabbed a corner of the box, and on the count of three, heaved it out over the back as hard as we could; and then watched it bob away, pushed by the wake, as the ferry began to move gently away. The skyline of the city receded gradually, gray clouds hovering over the buildings. As I turned to the others, I was grateful for their presence and that I wasn’t doing this thing alone. We watched as Dad took his final voyage, and then gently sank from view.
Later, we took the smaller boxes of remains and spread them on Lake Washington, from the beach front property we used to own, which the new neighbors were kind enough to let us access for this purpose. That small piece of land, right on the lake, is as familiar to me as my hands; we spent days and days every Summer swimming, picnicking, and sun tanning right there. Dad’s sailboat bobbed here, waiting to enter the swift wind. Dad loved the lake and swam here every year until his mind failed him; after that, he sat and watched the ducks and the sky and the water.
This time, I had to open the small bag of ashes, and I could see and feel them. I knew enough from friends’ stories to be careful with the wind that was snapping around me; not wanting a breeze to lift the ashes away. I’ve had cats die, and I’ve looked at their ashes so I knew what to expect, but this somehow seemed different. Gray, fine, smooth, they trickled out of the bag and into the water, spiraling into the depths as I watched, right in the same spot where his boat was anchored.
I never had the chance to spread my mother’s ashes; my father took them and spread them on Mount Rainier without telling us. I’m not sure I ever forgave him for that, because I would have liked to have been involved, and know where she was spread. Perhaps if I’d known then how difficult a thing it is to do – and even harder, probably, to do alone – I might have been more forgiving. I know now.
That box of ashes was heavy, and it contained my father, and tossing it off the back of that boat and watching it float away was one of the hardest and most blessed things I’ve ever done. As we drove home, I felt a sense of peace steal through me; the certainty that I had done everything exactly as he would have wanted it – had he known what we were doing. That is a particularly good feeling, and one I’ve known from the moment he died – the caregiving was over, and I did it right and as well as I could.
They say it gives you closure on the day you spread or bury remains, and that is definitely true but be warned about how odd it will also feel. After all, one doesn’t do this kind of thing every day. Although I’ve heard from friends about their experiences at burials or scatterings, and I’ve been to my share of Memorials, somehow I wasn’t prepared for this event. Perhaps it’s a good thing not to be prepared, to have that moment of surrealness to really mark that what you are doing is an essential part of grieving: important, sad, and not to be forgotten.