Ashes to ashes: The last good-bye

After my mother died in 1995, my family and I sprinkled her ashes in the Gulf of Mexico. She had smoked the vast majority of her life and so it was fitting that she wanted to be cremated. I remember being struck by the reality that ashes are ashes. As we ladled my mother into the sea, I was reminded of the thousands of times I had emptied ashtrays around the house when I was growing

Last week, not quite eighteen years later, my family and I deposited my father’s ashes in a stretch of water not all that far from where we had left my mother. We were near Captiva Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. My father’s ashes struck me as finer than my mother’s, but this might very well have been a trick of memory. My father died in 2011 of a cerebral aneurysm. He hated the beach, but he loved my mother, and so he wanted to be – more or less – with her. As we watched the ashes dissipate in the water, my brother remarked that this was one of the only times when our father was in the ocean and in no danger of drowning. My brother was right: Our father wasn’t a strong swimmer. He always preferred the pool.

In the two years since my father died, his ashes had sat beneath my aunt’s – his sister’s – bed in South Florida. My father and my uncle were great friends, and my aunt would joke that they were fine together under there. They were playing cards. They were arguing about politics. They were discussing their

But both my aunt and I felt the need to fulfill my father’s desire to be reunited in the water with my mother. It took us two years to accomplish this principally because I am a derelict son and always found excuses not to complete this one last task.

And yet I wonder if, on some level, there was another reason why I kept stalling. When we were pouring my father little by little into the light chop, I was struck by the utter finality of the gesture – by the way this was our final parting. When we had brought my mother’s ashes to the Gulf of Mexico, it was close enough to her death that my father was reeling and my brother and I were numb.

How long ago was 1995? My daughter was a toddler skipping obliviously (and adorably) along the surf while an Episcopal priest eulogized her grandmother. Now she is 19, flew to Florida from Manhattan where she lives alone, and spoke at the small memorial. She had been visiting her grandfather with me on the day he died. I was proud of her in 1995; I was proud of her that day two years ago when her grandfather passed away; and I was proud of her last month.Chris and Grace and Dad's Ashes

My brother and my aunt and I discussed whether we should put all of the ashes in the water or whether – for instance – I should bring some with me to Armenia when I am traveling there in August. “There might be some left over,” my aunt observed.

“This isn’t a lasagna,” my brother said, shaking his head. “I don’t think we’re going to have leftovers.”

He was making us laugh, which he is very good at, but I also understood the underlying wisdom of what he was saying. We had drawn this out a long time. It was time to let go.

And so, quite literally, we did. We all did. We let my dad slip into the waters where, once upon a time, a similarly homeopathic rendering of my mother was left to drift. My father may not have been a fan of the beach, but now he is where he always was happiest – with my mother.

Good-bye, Dad. Godspeed. Farewell.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on July 7, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” goes on sale on Tuesday.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Ashes to ashes: The last good-bye

  1. Joan Josinsky-Montour says:

    Having just read your Sunday column, I just had to write and express the same feelings. My father died at the beginning of May. As of today his ashes are still at the funeral home. We are planning a military burial, next to my mother, next week. Why didn’t we have it the day after his wake? Maybe we aren’t able to let go of him just yet. My mother who was sick for a few years before she died in 1994 was buried 2 days after she passed. Maybe we didn’t want him to leave us just yet. As one of my cousins said, we are the front liners now. I took his ashes back to his house after the wake, as we were staying there until we flew back to our home in SC. I put his ashes on his dining room table, where you could always find him doing his crossword puzzles, or tinkering with something or listening to his radio. The next morning my sister put him on his chair at the table. Later on that day a flower fell from the bouquet my sister was throwing out and it landed near his ashes, so we picked it up and put it on top of his urn. A few days later I found a picture of my mother when she was young and I put that on top of his urn. Then someone in the family came and put his watch on top of the urn. Why it was just like he was there and it was so comforting to know that he was still in his house. I would go out and do errands and come back to his house and say hi to him. He was right where he was suppose to be. We still had him with us. Finally time for us to head back to SC so I brought him back to the funeral home and told him I would see him in a month or so. Now the time is nearing for his burial. Are we ready to let him go, I would say no, but we must. He belongs with my mom. It will be hard to let him go but live goes on. We have cleaned out most of his house and we have buyers for it. There will soon be a new family with children running up and down the stairs where we use to run. They will be sitting in the same dining room where we had so many gathers. I have seen the circle of life and like it or not it is part of life. Time to put away and let go. Time for him to be where he is suppose to be…time for a new family in our house. I hope they enjoy it as much as we did.

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