“By the way, my Uncle Homer is on the mantel in a leaky cardboard box,” my dad said casually at Thanksgiving, sometime between the turkey and the crafty painting of ornaments. My sister Roni and I looked at each other, “Huh?” we said. These may not be precise quotes, but they’re close enough for a court of law.
It turns out there is some debate as to who exactly welcomed Great Uncle Homer’s ashes. My dad steadfastly praises my stepmom, Linda, for her kindness and generosity, and Linda is adamant that my dad played a larger role than he’s letting on, not that she would ever use the word “railroaded,” but those two hard Rs and the final D sort of echoed through her voice. From what I could piece together, the previous custodians had grown weary of toting him around as they moved house from one side of the country to the other, and had developed a fuzzy sense that some of their flotsam could be comfortably offloaded. It’s possible I’m being unfair here because I was not present, and the eye witnesses weren’t entirely in agreement. However, I am the one writing it down, so unless someone else gets out their pen, in 10 or 20 years I will be considered the primary source for this particular branch of family lore, which is unfortunate since ricocheting comments left me unsure whether the box was actually cardboard or a very flimsy plastic. What is certain is that Uncle Homer’s remains were on my dad’s mantel in a container of dubious repute.
My sister and I looked at each other again. “We’ll buy him an urn,” we said, opening Amazon on our phones, because if something can be shipped in a box sporting a creepy faceless smile, it can certainly be found there. “That would be nice,” my dad said, revealing he hadn’t considered anything beyond getting the box up out of the way.
I should interject here that you could not pay me enough to keep human remains in my house. I know, go ahead and make fun of me, I know exactly how that sounds, but I watched the movie Sixth Sense for nearly two hours completely aware it consisted entirely of trickery and shock fiction and still had sweating nightmares for weeks. If I had a box of mortal ashes leaking on my mantel, I’d be fine at 2:30 in the afternoon, but come 3:00 am I’d hear a bang in the kitchen and be shaking under the covers and praying for rats, certain it was Grandpa-Great looking for his lunch. A girl’s gotta know her limits.
I don’t believe we disappear when we die. In fact, I think we are still ourselves, perhaps short one body, but still growing and developing. Of course, there are those few who don’t choose to take advantage of Christ’s atonement, thereby electing to pay for their sins themselves, which seems a massive waste of a fabulous gift, but by and large, to me the Spirit World is not a fearsome or terrifying place. It’s simply a time of learning between mortal death and our eventual resurrection, the rejoining of our body and spirit. However, there is that third of the host of heaven who inexplicably figured Satan offered them a better deal, and having sketchy data on their whereabouts and agenda, I’m in no hurry to invite one for dinner and a screech. I mean, what’s the point of installing a video doorbell in the front then knocking down the back wall and yelling “Victim Here!” Consequently, I would never, ever allow a Ouija board or a séance in my house, and if someone got up to such in my vicinity, I’d run like a strip-ed haint. For those rusty on their American southern, a “haint” is a ghost, and apparently a ghost with stripes can run with astonishing speed, at least according to my Tennessee-born grandfather who said it all the time.
My dad and stepmom, Linda, now spend half the year in their cabin in Tennessee on ten acres just up the road from where dad’s daddy was born and raised. Last summer my son, Porter, and I spent an idyllic week with them, roaming the mountains, going to Dollywood, and eating that famously delicious southern cuisine. Uncle Homer was not yet in residence on the mantel, so I could rest easy. However, when I accompanied my dad to the mechanic working on his lawn tractor, we did not pull into a large urban garage. Instead, we wound and twisted over mountain roads until we pulled onto a long dirt track leading past a vast front lawn to a little white clapboard family home that backed up to a cinderblock mechanics garage and a veritable forest of douglas Fords and decaying sycaChevys. The metal timberland was no surprise in the mountains as automobile graveyards are as common as poison ivy. What pulled me up short was the family cemetery in the front yard, granite headstones and everything, and not one of them said “Rover.”
To be fair it was an enormous front yard, at least an acre, so it wasn’t as if they were stepping onto the porch and shaking the tablecloth crumbs onto Aunt Edna, but it seemed mighty strange to me. But once again, I am being very unfair and judging a culture different from my own. My father, who is a southerner born and bred, remembers attending many a swinging wake as a kid. That is not to say they were being disrespectful of the dead, talking and enjoying each other with the body laid out in the living room. These occasions were like celebrations of the life of the departed.
I didn’t understand that until we were all faced with the sudden and devastating loss of our own mother. I remember feeling such a dread and terror of the viewing at the funeral home the evening before. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything more barbaric than to have a grieving husband and his six heartbroken daughters queued up in a receiving line to speak with our guests after they filed past the casket. I was a grown woman, but I admit, it took all my courage to go that night. I could not have been more wrong.
People came in droves, and for three solid hours the line snaked clear out the door as people waited to pay their respects. There they all were, my beloved English teacher, Mrs. Barton, who I didn’t even know knew my mother. The president of BYU-Idaho stood by as his wife told me about a recent lunch she and my mother had shared, and there were so many friends and neighbors I hadn’t seen since I’d left home years before, all with something kind to say about my mom, all of which I knew to be true. I’ll never forget one young boy who came to me with tears pouring down his face. I didn’t know him, but my mother was a certified and highly gifted teacher, and the district had asked her to tutor two boys who had had a rough go. Here was one of those boys standing with his foster father, crying because he had lost his teacher. I don’t remember whether I hugged him, but I hope I did because I had lost my teacher too and I knew exactly how he felt. That night I had been so terrified to walk into the funeral home, having no concept of how I was going to keep my composure standing there next to my mother’s too still body. And yet that experience stands out in my memory as a celebration of a generous, unassuming woman who walked the world quietly leaving her mark on so many, many people.
I suppose I don’t have any room to judge anybody’s views on where their loved ones rest. I never knew my Great Uncle Homer, but my dad did and he loved him. That matters. Dad called me the one day to say Linda had spearheaded the effort to get Homer in the urn. “Did you lose any of him?” I asked, because I’m sensitive like that. Apparently, it all went off without a hitch, so when Gabriel blows his trump, I guess Homer will be climbing down from the mantel with both his feet and all his hair.
When I go, I don’t know whether I’ll be buried or cremated, laid in a fancy casket or a plain box. I don’t suppose it matters because I won’t really be there. After I die, I’ll attend my funeral having lost a ton of weight, and later I’ll make sure to check in on my family periodically, in case there’s anybody who needs my help. But that leaves me plenty of time, so I figure I’ll ask God for a job that doesn’t involve plucking a harp. I’m certain my mom’s already got one, and I know I can count on her to teach me the ropes.