“We can send them to you via FedEx. Could you please notify us of your wishes?”
There are all kinds of things that can be sent FedEx. They specialize in getting items from here to there. And apart from that movie “Castaway,” they seem pretty good at delivering.
But this was diﬀerent. This was not some ordinary package being discussed. These were my mother’s ashes; these were the last vestiges of her earthly existence. She had made arrangements to donate her body to the Quillen College of Medicine upon her death. When they received her body, we had been informed that it might be up to three years before her cremains would be returned. The indeﬁnite timeline put the matter to rest for the moment—there was no need to think about something that might happen at any time within the next three years. Out of sight—out of mind.
So I was a bit surprised to get the letter last Thursday notifying me that the medical school was ﬁnished with her body. They informed me that “her body had been a great beneﬁt to our program.” Glad to hear that. Mom would have been pleased. I guess I wasn’t really ready for them to have been so eﬃcient. It had been a matter of months, not years.
I found myself not yet ready to deal with this turn of events. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it was coming, somewhere in my emotions I was preparing to deal with it, somewhere within there was the awareness that this was a task that would have to be tended to—but it was so easy to think and feel and operate as if it was much further down the road.
The timing felt oﬀ. This was unusual. In the days before refrigeration and cremation, death came and the details had to be addressed in short order. There was no opportunity to wait to take care of the body. Nature was taking its course and the timeline was a matter of biology and physics; decay came with no delay. The body might be laid out in the family home, and anyone who could get there in time for the wake or the services would do so; those who were traveling or out of range of communication would have to hear about it later. Death came as a crisis and burial could not wait.
Perhaps that also meant that people had to deal with it—confront the reality of it in a powerful way. Families knew death more intimately. Children had seen the bodies of those who had passed. The living room might have served as the setting for saying goodbye and farewell. And there was closure in short order. Death was real, and your loved one was gone. You were now free to begin the grieving process in earnest. There was an orderly progress and timing of events.
It feels totally diﬀerent to have such a letter arrive in the afternoon mail. There was no build up. There was no preparation. There was no warning that this one standard envelope would contain a lot of questions and decisions that had been only vaguely considered. It was very cordial, very professional, very matter of fact—and yet disturbing in its own way.
I set it aside and let it sit as my mind began to go through a process of thinking how it should be handled.
The ﬁrst thing would be to talk with my sisters about it. But it was already Thursday, and I was oﬀ on Friday, and Saturday already had it’s own activities—it would probably wait until Sunday when we often have phone calls anyway. I would need to call the school and notify them of my wishes. Of course, they would have to send the cremains.
The question remains what to do with them once they are in hand, and also when to do it. So there are actually a couple questions that need answers. I feel conﬁdent that mom had probably answered those questions somewhere in the volumes of things she had written, but we did not know where to ﬁnd it. I had ideas about what might happen with her cremains, but I would need to conﬁrm them with my sisters. It presented us with a conundrum. We could not communicate with her and be sure of what to do next. It was falling to us to decide how and when to handle her earthly remains.
The more pressing question that strikes me at this moment is the ‘when’ of it all. We live in an age in which we can now choose when such events are going to take place. There is no concern for health or propriety. There is no guideline that says all cremains should be handled within the ﬁrst three months. There is nothing now—not even death itself—that dictates the timing. We have the beneﬁt of not rushing into it.
Indeed, when mom passed we would not have all been able to attend a service because of medical limitations that one of my sisters was facing. We postponed her memorial service for several months in the ﬁrst place. We chose a date when it seemed that many out of town family could be present. That worked well in its own way.
But how does one choose the time for this ﬁnal farewell? Do we pick a date that already has signiﬁcance? Should we deal with her cremains on her birthday? Not a good choice as I’ll be just arriving back in town on the red-eye from the west coast. Some other date? Whatever date we pick will be endowed with its own signiﬁcance; from this time forward it will appear on the calendar and in our consciousness in a diﬀerent light. Do we try to schedule a ceremony at a time when again we could gather more extended family? A private ceremony? A public announcement? There are no clear guidelines on this question of timing. Each and every person might have their own ideas about such things.
The other side of having this as a choice is the prospect that it will be delayed. And delayed. And put oﬀ. Many are the cases where the cremains have remained in another state of waiting while those of us up drawing breath try to come to grips with the ‘when’ of dealing with the dearly departed. That, too, is a modern question that our ancestors never had to consider.
Cremains are not in a hurry. I’m sure that FedEx will get them here quickly once the call is made. I’m sure that we will discern some sense of the appropriate time to take care of matters. But the very fact that we can now choose that schedule makes this a more diﬃcult decision. Perhaps it was easier when it was never up for discussion. But the timing is now our choice to make, rather than a constraint under which we are burdened.