Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ashes in a Box

In ancient Egypt, the dead - the wealthy, at least - were mummified: stuffed, wrapped, and buried with mummified servants, pets, and loved ones in preparation for an immediate afterlife (in which one would desire one's servants, pets, and loved ones).

Below Rome, tourists can walk through echoing catacombs - miles of which are still relatively unexplored - where people were buried, underground, paintings on wet plaster occasionally depicting what the deceased did in life.

In Germany, Martin Luther wrote practical instructions on how to dispose of plague victims to contain the spread of the disease in a way that was both respectful and sanitary. (outside the city)

Across the ocean in Great Britain, you can find tombstones with -er - quite a few names on them. When you live on an island, real estate is scarce. Sometimes graves went several coffins deep.

In modern-day North America, apparently you visit the post office.

Oh, not always. Sometimes there are notable funerals when a sobbing (drunk?) family member sings Frank Sinatra's "I Did It My Way" in tribute of the person up front. (That was an interesting experience.)

Occasionally Catholic churches offer columabariums for the..deposit?..of ashes on sacred space, in a quiet, reverent atmosphere (no Halloween teenagers leaving Budweiser cans on tombstones).

But a few weeks ago, I went, with my mother-in-law, to the Post Office.

It started this way:
"Oh, Joy, did you see you got a card from the mailman for a package pick-up?"
"Yes, I've been putting it off, I dread going."
(to myself: Hmm, what, did J.C. Penney's mess up an order or something?)
"I think it's Mother's remains."
(in my head: WHOA, holy cow, didn't see that coming, no wonder she's weirded out.)
"What?? That's right, there was only a memorial service. It's taken this long?"
(to myself: That's right, Grandmommy donated her body to scientific research, and I guess...I guess now, they're done.)
"Do you want someone to go with you? That's not the kind of thing you should have to do by yourself. I'll go."
"Oh, I'll probably be alright, it's just weird, I mean, it's her - at the post office. I've been dreading this ever since she passed. I guess the university is done. It's just so random that it's now."
(in my head: no woman needs to go pick up her mother's remains at the bleepity bleep post office by herself. I'm going.)

And so, we went. To the post office. To pick up Grandmommy. Kind of.

My sweet, sweet mother-in-law was shaky. She blinked a lot. And then we saw the line. A cold, practical, bureaucratic line over 20 people long.

We were going to have to look at Disney stamps while she waited for her mother's ashes? In a crowded post office in a strip mall?

She gritted her teeth. A long line meant Keeping It Together all the longer. Thankfully, southern women are good at gritting their teeth.

It was hot, and smelly, and she stood with the little card in her hand, as if she'd just ordered a sandwich at a deli. Thankfully, the postal workers waved "pick-up's" ahead. We went to the counter. She handed over the card. The big, bustling man behind the counter bustled into the back room.

We stood. She blinked rapidly. I patted her shoulder awkwardly.

But a few seconds, then a few minutes, then I was trying to make weird we're-waiting-to-pick-up-ashes small talk.

It started to get tense.

They weren't...

They weren't having trouble finding the box, were they?

Sweet mother-in-law began to voice this concern. We'd stood at the counter for at least five whole, long minutes. Others came and went. Someone came over to make sure we'd been helped. Customers filed through the long line.

A big, bustling, worried employee finally returned to the counter.

"We're, ah, having trouble locating your particular package."

My sweet mother-in-law is so sweet. All she said was - tearfully, haltingly - "but it's my mother's ashes." She didn't even have to raise her voice. The big, bustling man looked like - well, like he'd seen a ghost. With a "just a minute," he disappeared into the back again.

I, on the other hand, was getting ready to send sweet mother-in-law into the lobby while I had a loud conversation in front of a crowded afternoon post office with a postal worker whose collar I was gripping from across the counter. My adrenaline was pumping. Whether or not she realized it, if she didn't leave the post office with the box of Grandmommy, there was going to be A Scene.

Luckily, however - after sending her blood pressure through the roof - the big, bustling employee returned from the back, box in hand. Looking...wary. *$&#less. Fearful.

"Please sign this. I'm so sorry for your loss (very reverently)."

Then he looked at me. "I'm so sorry for your loss."

Then we were on our way, and my adrenaline began to abate, and now sweet mother-in-law was blinking very hard and mumbling, "it's so small. The box is so small."

And I knew she was thinking about how it couldn't fit her mom - how all that was left of her mother fit in a small 8 inches by 10 inches box that had been shipped in the mail alongside Sears curtains and care packages and late birthday gifts.

It had been over two years since Grandmommy had passed away, but finally, finally - through the United States Postal Service - sweet mother-in-law had gotten her back.

But in getting her back, she realized all over again how truly gone she was.

Sweet mother-in-law pulled herself together - again - and announced she needed some new shirts and wasn't there a sale and shouldn't we browse before looking at urns? In my opinion, she was entitled to whatever she needed to do to get through such a bizarre day.

We browsed sales and avoided the topic, until she brought up her mother. Then I listened and asked and let her talk. And let her get on to other topics, almost desperately, sometimes. We talked of family and childhood, memories and grief, hope and humor.

"Maybe the urn should wait until another day."

Hmm. I knew it really should be now or never - strike while the iron is hot. I gently pushed.

We went urn shopping.

Not stuffy funeral home silver urn. No, decorative, pretty urn at a home decor store.

Once again, finding just the right resting place is no easy feat. A plot in a cemetery is normal, straightforward, simple. Even coffin-shopping is expected; there are salespeople and over-priced caskets, but at least it's...well, normal.

"What do you think?"

Oooh. Tricky question. It's the same question a bridesmaid gets asked by the bride when she's out wedding dress shopping.

"Well, I think if you can't find anything you really like here, we should probably go somewhere else and keep looking. But - it's different if it's a matter of not finding anything that will be perfect for your mother. Nothing will be good enough, because none of these will actually contain all of who she was, even if it holds her ashes."

That seemed to help soothe her thoughts - and fears.

The loudspeaker came on: the store was closing. Sweet mother-in-law chose the urn I thought she'd probably end up taking home. We went home.

We told my father-in-law about the close call at the post office. "What would they do, file a missing person's report?" I gave a spear-you-to-the-wall look in his direction and very deliberately made my face and body language mournful and sensitive as I turned to my mother-in-law, who was fumbling with the post office package. (The truth: it was hard not to laugh at the quip, and he's a dear, dear soul.)

But now new hurdles emerged. The university had mistyped Grandmommy's middle initial on the donor thank you letter. And there was a black, plastic box with her name on it, instructions.

Were the ashes in there loose? Were they in a bag? And how in tarnation do you open the thing? We poked. We prodded. No one wanted to pop it open only to have a plume of Grandmommy's ashes erupt into the air. Finally, sweet husband gently pried it open.

They were in a bag.

Thank goodness.

Sweet mother-in-law transferred the bag to the urn, and the urn to a high bookshelf. She called for Grandmommy's portrait to be propped next to it, and sweet husband spent a half-hour adjusting fake plants and picture frames and urns until she was satisfied.

Grandmommy had finally made it home.


Anonymous said...

I think it's criminal that there aren't pages of comments praising this post yet, so I'll begin. This is a wonderful dose of very HUMAN humanity, and it captures the humor and poignancy of this facet of life much in the way a Wes Anderson film would do. Well written, well done, E-Town.

vanilla said...

Thank you for the reminder of my mortality. (Oh, yes. Everything is about me. Selfish, selfish me.)

Wonderful story. Nicely done, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Turner said...

Vanilla -
My Celtic streak causes me to have brooding seasons occasionally. My only problem is not giving sway to morbidity too often: laughter seems to be a good anecdote to this.

"Anonymous" -
When I returned home, I actually commented that the I had felt, that afternoon, like I was in the middle of an indie movie.