When I arrived at my mother’s house she was still getting ready. I asked if I could take the things out to the car. There were three boxes of clothes—some of which were intended for my grandfather, some of which were going to charity—and a blue velvet bag. The clothes had belonged to my father, while the velvet bag was my father, at least in a sense. It held his ashes. When my mother had picked them up from the funeral home, the director kept referring to the bag as “him” or “Richard” as in “would you like us to put Richard in the front seat with you?” and “Would you like us to buckle him in?” My mother quietly asked him if he could please, really, just put it in the trunk.
Inside the bag the ashes were contained in a nicely carpentered, overpriced wooden box. The funeral director called it an urn, and had asked “Have you given any though to an urn for Richard?” Of course we hadn’t—this was raised at our first visit, the morning he died—and my mother and I both independently tried to picture the kind of people who would have.
Still, I think my father would have liked the box. He had been a hobby carpenter, and wood was one of the few languages in which he chose to express himself. The fact that it cost $600 would have impressed him as well. He wanted to have a sense of permanence, and he wanted an urn and a plot and a stone. If nothing else, he wanted his name someplace where it could be found. He wanted, I think, something real and lasting, a wish that was sparked by his own understanding of how little his ancestors had left behind. There wasn’t much more than headstones and a few undated, unlabeled photographs.
Perhaps because of all the blanks in the family tree, when I was young my father went through a genealogy phase. We toured cemetery after cemetery taking pictures of stones and scrutinizing dates and names. Dowdy. Wills. Howick. Keenan. Dilts. One of the cemeteries we visited a number of times that summer was Hillside, the one where my grandparents’ stone was. Their headstone was in place and their names were engraved on it despite the fact that at the time both were still alive. It sat next to the stone of my grandfathers’ father’s parents, which was next to my grandfather’s father’s father’s parents. Like birds on a wire, the generations set neatly in a row beneath a stand of mature maples.
My father said even then that he wanted to be part of the line, though he was aware there may not be room for my mother. And at any rate, he said, she didn’t really want to be in a cemetery, so it should be OK. At the time, those thoughts seemed entirely theoretical, so entirely out of touch with the immediate realities around me. If there was ever going to be a discussion about it, I thought at the time, it would come in a future so distant as to be unimaginable. Now, three decades later, on a crisp, bright autumn morning I gathered the boxes piled just inside my mother’s front door and took them and a blue velvet bag out to the car.
The conversation on the drive to the cemetery was just what it would have been had my father actually been alive and sitting in the back seat. My mother talked about the book she was reading, the election coming up, the latest gossip at the knitting club—things my father wouldn’t have had anything to say about, anyway.
At the cemetery, a narrow gravel road continued in past an old gate and rows of headstones leaning with age, covered in lichen, some of which have been standing since the time of the US civil war. My father’s plot was marked with an orange road pylon. Mark—I don’t think he refers to himself as an undertaker; he called himself a city parks employee a couple times while we were there—leaned on his shovel, wearing Day-Glo coveralls and a baseball cap, talking to my aunt through the window of her car.
Across from them was a small dais made of three stacked boxes, each covered and tacked with Astroturf and set next to a lump. The lump was the backfill that Mark had removed from the hole, now covered with a sheet of Astroturf held down by four square granite shop samples. Each sample was named on the edge in black sharpie marker, and the edge I could see as we approached was marked “Paradiso,” a black granite that would serve equally nicely as a kitchen island or a grave monument.
As I took the box—the urn—out of the bag and moved to place it on the dais I noticed an envelope Scotch taped to the bottom. I pulled it off and saw that it was marked “Cremation Certificate.” Proof I guess that the ashes were really him, should we feel that these were two dots—my father, the ashes—that we needed to connect.
Mark turned to my mother and me and said, “I’ll give you a bit of time.” It sounded abrupt given that he had been talking to my aunt about mutual high school friends, including one who had just died of a massive heart attack.
“Well,” he continued, picking up his story, “it’s either the ticker or cancer, isn’t it?” He and my aunt are in the generation that has outlived high school car accidents, and yet is still young enough to not yet be in the cohort of strokes and dementia.
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess it is.”
Then he walked over to the equipment shed just up the hill and at the back boundary of the cemetery, just where the stones give way to a stand of forest and the farmers fields beyond that. Next to the backhoe, in those orange coveralls, he stood with his hands grasped behind his back as if to suggest, despite all the hard edges of the situation, a last-ditch bit of reverence.
Were it a movie, we had arrived at the moment when someone would have said a few words. Something like “He could be a bastard, but God I’m really going to miss him.” Or the son would turn to the mother and say, “He would have wanted it this way.”
Instead we were struck by the need to determine just what was expected of us.
“Is he going to come back?” my aunt said. “How much time does he expect us to take.”
My father had been ill for years and while the reality of the end was distant at first, it had always been plainly in view. It inched forward like Omar Sharif riding across the Sahara in Lawrence of Arabia. Beginning as a speck, by the time it finally arrived, we’d pretty much made peace with it, if not a little bit amazed at how long it took for whole thing to ultimately play out.
“Do you want me to go and get him?” I asked.
“No, I can do it,” my aunt said. “Do you think we can just wave, or do we need to walk over there?” Then after a beat in which you could hear the rustle of the leaves overhead, she demurred. “Actually, I guess I’ll just go and get him.”
I was still holding the empty velvet bag. “Do you want this?” I asked my mom. She said, “I don’t know what I’d want it for, but I guess I have to take it. I can’t imagine that I’d ever use it for anything.”
I thought of a kid who lived up the street when I was growing up who always had a wealth of Crown Royal bags. He had lots of bags for his marbles, but everyone knew that it was only because his dad was an alcoholic. As a result, it was hard to envy him. Likewise, using a cremation remains bag for anything other than cremation remains runs the risk of sending an unwanted message.
When my aunt came back with Mark he was carrying the shovel perfectly, and all but inevitably, on his shoulder, his free hand casually in the pocket of his coveralls. As they approached, my mother and I entered their conversation mid sentence.
“… and that’s when he took over the Ford dealership on Effingham Road,” my aunt was saying . “Just near Eff and Main. His wife was a bitch.”
“Yeah, they all went really quickly there for a while,” said Mark. “I felt terrible for him. You know, to have so many go at once. His daughter especially. That was the worst one.”
He turned to me, adding details that presumably my aunt was already aware of. “She committed suicide. Hung herself. Four o’clock in the morning, you know, he comes down and finds her dangling in the garage. It’s terrible when a kid blames herself for the break up of her parent’s marriage. You never get over something like that.”
Then, turning back to the hole, “Anyway, would you like me to fill it in while you’re here?”
My mother said yes, perhaps because the only other option—getting into our cars and leaving the box there on the Astroturf—didn’t seem to be a realistic one. Though, in truth, watching someone indistinguishable from a construction worker bury the remains of a loved one felt equally surreal.
“Yeah, he had a rough go,” Mark said as he began filling in the space around the box. “And then the high school kids. Three of them. The cops never said if there was booze involved, though it’s hard to think that there wasn’t booze involved. So they come to the corner of Canboro road, you know there by the Avondale, and stopped in the middle of the intersection. And John Dilts, did you know him?” he said turning toward my aunt. She nodded that she did. “Used to live next to where Hanson’s Furniture used to be, across from the fair grounds? Well he comes along and ran right into them, going like 80 clicks. T-boned em. Had to use the jaws of life just to get the bodies out. Anyway, Matt, a friend of mine used to work for the town, he comes along first. All of them gone. Absolutely quiet, you know? Just like that.”
“They’re all over there,” he said, pointing to a newer section in the opposite corner of the cemetery, “even John.”
As he talked, he lifted shovels full of dirt from the pile and placed each one gingerly in the hole. “We make these holes pretty big. Some people come in with vaults, metal things. I dunno. And if they don’t tell you ahead of time, well, it’s pretty embarrassing if it doesn’t fit. I’ve had to dig holes bigger, all with the family standing here!”
He said this as if it were something we ourselves could imagine, that we could implicate ourselves into the experience of standing with a bereaved family as he dug a hole to accept a burial vault.
As he filled closer to the top, he tamped each shovel full down with his foot, leaving deep impressions of his tread. “So, has Nancy told you how many more you can fit in here?” he asked, gesturing to the row of family plots.
My aunt said that she had been in touch with Nancy, but wasn’t quite sure.
“Well, the rules have changed you know. The city says you can have one full burial and three cremations in each plot. Used to be just two cremations. Now it’s three. Not sure how they come up with this stuff. But you should ask Nancy to let you know how many you can fit in here.”
My aunt said that she wasn’t sure, because one infant burial, Susan, could be considered a full burial.
“And that’s what? ’53?” He craned his neck to check the date on the back of the headstone. “Probably nothing left there now. Bones are really small and soft at that age, you know. You might find a bit of plastic, but maybe not even that. I really doubt that you’d find anything.”
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say “who knows?” and then turned to lift the plywood board that he had used to pile the dirt on, tilting it to send the loose bits of earth onto the top of the hole now filled flush with the surrounding grass. He leaned the board up against a neighbouring headstone and then replaced the sod.
“You know,” he said, motioning to the right side of my grandparents’ headstone, “That’s your dad, eh?”
My aunt answered that he was. “He’s at Portal Village now, in Welland. He’ll be turning 98 in December.”
“Well, again, you should check with Nancy on this, but when he goes, you could put him … Uh, is he going to be a full-burial or a cremation?”
My aunt answered full burial.
“That’s what I thought. Well when he goes, you could choose to put him down an extra three feet. That way you could get another full burial on top.”
Of course, the only person left in our dwindling family that this could benefit was my aunt, the very person he was talking to.
“I’ll have to look into it,” she said. “Do you think she’s in tomorrow?”
“Here, I’ll give you her number. She’s in and out, but if you leave a message, she’s usually good at calling you back.”
I thought that while the setting could easily have been in a movie—it was the prime of fall in the country, bright yellow leaves set against a brilliant blue sky, tires groaning along a gravel road—the experience would never be. In movies, it’s only gesture: a person is mourned, and honoured, not buried. An urn sits on a mantle, or a dais, but no one needs to buy it, or fill it, or put it there. Mourners mourn a death, they don’t shepherd the mechanics of the memorial or hand over credit cards. But in life a monument needs to be bought, the hole needs to be filled, and a person needs to do those things. We need to do those things. And, in time, we do. Still, for some reason it’s all just as surprising as it is, well, obvious.
We left Mark there—he was going to get the power tamper to even out the bulge in the sod—and we drove off, my aunt following in her car, to a local diner for lunch. Over BLTs and house salads we talked about my brother’s recent move to China, about the mysterious impulse people have to deep fry turkeys, about a coming meteor shower. We had lunch, said our goodbyes, and no one mentioned the ashes.