I was surprised by just about everything about Monday, the day we buried mom’s ashes next to my dad, 65 years to the week after he died.
First was my nervousness over the whole affair. I wondered how each person was going to react, not only to the burial of mom’s ashes, but to each other. I hoped I would feel relieved–finally. I hoped my brother would think it was the right thing to do.
When we arrived we saw my nephew and his mom at the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather chapel, where mom and dad were married in 1935. Then we followed them to the grave site, where Cely, the woman from the cemetery I had dealt with for the past year, found us.
She then took us to a somber room in the mortuary where mortuary personnel in black suits typically meet with bereaved families before a burial to handle the arrangements. That was where we handed over the ashes because for some reason handing them to someone at the grave site was illegal.
My husband and I and my friend who accompanied us were served coffee and cookies. My brother and his wife were outside in their car, having just arrived, but did not want to come in. I didn’t blame them.
A man came into the room to collect the ashes and I was assured the ashes would show up at the grave. Then Cely asked if he knew where the grave marker was, but he deferred to someone named Annette who we had not met and backed out of the room with the ashes.
I finally said, “I can’t be in this room any longer.” Cely was surprised, but patient. She said we were waiting for the director, but director of what I didn’t learn, because I said, “We’ll see him at the grave.”
My cousin texted at that point and said he was outside. I disappeared out the door. Cely and her partner Miguel found me and my cousin and brother and sister-in-law by the car. We went to the grave in a mini-caravan. That was protocol, I guess. We couldn’t all arrive willy-nilly. My nephew and his mother were already there.
There was a large tarp covering a mound of dirt, dug from a rather large hole. A backhoe was not far off. They had erected a tent in case it rained and brought out two sets of four chairs. I had expected to stand while a few guys dug a hole in the ground next to my dad’s grave, put put the box of ashes in the ground, cover it up and place the tablet.
But no, there was the four-foot deep hole, a canopy over our heads and the grave, and the chairs. We were invited to sit down.
“We’ll leave you alone for a few minutes,” said the director who we had now met. He, Cely and Miguel, Cely’s work partner, hovered behind our chairs, not actually leaving us alone.
My nephew’s mom sat to my left, husband to my right, my friend, nephew, brother, wife, and cousin.
We had not invited anyone formal to speak because it was another $500 to do so. It wasn’t that we were cheap. We already had the words spoken over her last year and mom would have said, “No way.”
“You just take your time,” Cely said.
No one knew what to say. We were unprepared. We had people lurking behind us. I had told everyone repeatedly that it was not a typical memorial service, that we would just be putting the ashes in the ground, but nephew was surprised that no one was there to speak.
“You mean it’s up to us?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
Finally his mother brought out a bouquet of photos she had made of the seven descendants: my brother and I, his two sons, my one son, and mom’s two great-grandchildren. She said something about how each of mom’s seven descendants had blessed her life and she thanked her. It was a perfect thing to say.
Then I stood and turned away from the wind that blew from the north and said, “[Brother] and I talked months ago about ‘closing the circle.” I was unable to continue.
The wind blew cold and my nephew said, “Well, grandma always did love ice cream.”
That loosened our laughter. But everyone was mute. I think my cousin shared a few things, but it was time to move on.
The director said, “When you are ready, we will place the ashes. But we have to take down the tent to bring in the backhoe.”
My brother grimaced and said, “If I had known they were using a backhoe, I would have brought a shovel.”
They moved the tent. My brother handed the ashes to the worker who stood in the hole. He placed the box inside a steel box in the ground. Then they asked if we had anything else to place in the box with her. We didn’t know we could do that. No one told us and I didn’t think to ask. I had never done this before. But nephew’s mom had the bouquet which she was pleased to put in the box. I put in a red rose as did my sister-in-law. That was it. We didn’t know what else to do.
The backhoe came in and we stood there as it filled in the dirt and tamped it down. They replaced the grass, adding turf as needed and tamped it in place.
They showed us the inscribed tablet earlier and everyone commented on how beautiful it is. The worker placed it on the ground next to my dad and asked us if it was okay where it was placed.
My brother said, “Move it closer [to my dad].” The worker moved it an inch closer.
I turned back to my brother and he said, “Closer.”
The director came over and said, “We’ve never had anyone ask to move a grave marker closer. But I’m sure it’s okay, but we can’t move it right next to his.”
The worker moved it an inch closer. I turned back to my brother and he said, “Closer.”
An inch closer.
Finally it was within six inches and my brother said, “Good.” It was a subtle moment and was my favorite part.
They prepared the cement and placed the marker. Then the director got two temporary vases and put water in them for the two bouquets, one that I brought and one that my nephew brought. I placed one in my dad’s vase, probably the first flowers that have been there since my aunt and I and son visited the grave in 1997. My brother put the other bouquet in mom’s vase.
It was cold by then, not a typical Southern California day. But then, nothing was typical. I had on my down parka I brought from Washington, but no one else was prepared. My nephew and his mom left. My cousin left. Then my brother and wife left. My husband and friend and I finally got in the car and started down the hill.
I said, “no, no…wait, I have to go back.” We drove back up the hill and I asked the worker to move the truck. I took this photo and others like it, their grave sites free and unencumbered.
In the night Monday I couldn’t sleep. I awoke processing the day. Then I thought of this image and smiled and felt a subtle peace.
It is done. Their graves sit on a hill overlooking the city of Glendale and the downtown Los Angeles skyline in the distance. They were married just down the hill at Wee Kirk O’ the Heather. They have a view,…maybe not ideal these days, not like it was the day they were married when smog was still to come, not a view of the ocean or the mountains that mom always loved, but a view, nonetheless. A view of where it all started.
Certainly what we gathered to do was purely symbolic. But as my brother said, “It was the right thing to do.”
I feel a strange euphoria intermixed with deep exhaustion. Today we are resting at my brother and sister-in-law’s in the mountains outside San Diego. A cold, rainy and untypical day.
It is also mom’s birthday and we are going to celebrate with with chocolate sauce on chocolate ice cream, her favorite. A perfect tribute. The right thing to do.