My father died of lung cancer in 1996 - I still miss him, every day. Still, life goes on, and many situations, including loss, have their more surreal, if not funny side.
You see, my father asked to be cremated, and have his ashes scattered through what is truly the armpit of the US - Toddville, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland - a small town on the East Coast south of the Mason Dixon Line. And there the story begins.
Cremation is done differently in the US (or, at least in my part of it). Since my father was atheist, we had a small memorial service led by the family, which was lovely, poignant and just right. Poetry written by my Dad was read, and poems he loved. Stories were told, and memories re-lived. It was touching without over-doing the pathos. It was as perfect for Dad as any funeral ever can be.
You don't get the conveyor belt and the curtain here (and boy, did that shock me when I went to my first British funeral). Instead, he was cremated 'industrially' - they took his body away after we'd signed the consent form. Now, I was the only person to have read the consent form - amongst other dire possibilities it warned you of was that they could not guarantee that (a), you'd get all of your loved one's ashes or (b) that you wouldn't get a wee bit of someone's Great Aunt Mabel, or whoever came before your dearly departed. Whilst that makes sense, it's a little disconcerting, to say the least.
So, off he went. After the procedure was completed, my mother receives a tasteful heavy black plastic box containing his remains. Now, this town where my father wished to be scattered is a four-hour drive from my mother's. Furthermore, she really did want myself and my brother there. So there was an inevitable delay before the scattering took place.
And here is where it gets surreal.
Mum's not one to get an urn and display the ashes on a mantelpiece. Nope. Instead, the box was placed inside (an admittedly tasteful) shopping bag (the paper type with handles - we're not talking Safeway here).
The shopping bag went into the bottom of a closet in the computer room. And there is stayed. For really quite some time.
My daughter was five when my father died. She came to the memorial service (remember, wailing and gnashing of teeth was kept to a minimum). She asked me, in all innocence, in the style of a five year old, where Pop-Pop was.
Now of course, what she meant to ask was whether her grandfather was in Heaven or in Hell (and I could kill the person, whoever that was, who told her about Hell). Keep in mind, we're not a religious family. Indeed, we're just the opposite.
So, believing in honesty at all times...no, I lie...answering simply automatically without thinking, I replied, "Pop-Pop is in the bottom of the wardrobe."
(She accepted that answer to a point - but did, as an aside, press the matter - not wishing to be cruel, I finally reassured her that Pop-Pop would indeed be in heaven.)
A year, or maybe two passes. A friend of mine, who is a retired teacher, looks after my daughter for the day. They take a trip to the coast to look at headstones for my friend's recently deceased mother.
They are now in the back of the stonemason's car, with the mason driving. Imagine the scene. My friend, being a retired teacher, explains very carefully and thoughtfully that HER mother was having a headstone because she was buried, whereas Pop-Pop didn't have a headstone because he was cremated; and that the lack of a headstone in no way indicated a lack of love or caring for her Pop-Pop.
My friend concludes this little chat by asking, (remember, they are in the back of a car, being driven...) "So, do you know where your Pop-Pop is?"
Daughter, in all innocence and honesty, replies "Oh yes, he's in the bottom of the wardrobe."
At this point, the stonemason, who is, if you recall, driving, nearly crashes the car in shock and surprise, thus requiring a wee bit of explanation on my friend's part.
MORE Time Passes...
(As the screen goes wibbly to indicate the passage of time)...
A little while later, mum's dog died. She (the dog) was very old - nearly 17. Her time had come. Mum tells my daughter over the phone that Jols had died.
Can you guess what comes next? Yup - darling daughter's first question was:
"Is she at the bottom of the wardrobe with Pop-Pop"?
Finally (and this is after two, maybe three years), the time comes to make the trip down to south to scatter Dad's ashes. We are all there - myself, husband, daughter, brother, and mother.
We drive down to the Toddille - a mosquito invested little town, in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, this place is below sea level, so has drainage ditches running along the sides of the roads. It's main industry is crab-fishing - I have no idea what anyone does for a living there if they don't crab fish. It's near no major centres of population. For that matter, it's near no minor centres of population.
Because of these drainage ditches, there is a lot of standing water. The climate in the summer is very hot, and very humid. Add these things together and what do you get? Mosquitoes. Lots and lots of them. I hope this paints a picture for you of what this town is like.
To make matters worse, it seems that the scattering of ashes is illegal in Maryland. This means we have to be a bit surreptitious about it. Shame we brought the big foreign car, then. Every other vehicle in this town was old, and it was American. Mostly pick-up trucks dating, by the looks of them, from 1970 and earlier.
Did we stand out? You bet.
So we drive around the town for a bit, finally stopping along the side of the road. What's at the side of the road? A drainage ditch (these are open - look like little creeks).
You may be able to guess what comes next. The box is pulled out of the boot, and opened. Inside the box we find a surprisingly heavy plastic bag. Inside the bag are the ashes.
After a quick, shifty look around, the bag is opened, and the contents solemnly emptied into the water. Did you know that they mostly sink? No time for long speeches - just a minute or two of quiet contemplation before leaving the scene. Quickly.
Well...we drove back. Stopped next to a portaloo, feeling badly out of place, but badly in need of a wee (must be all that water).
We had lunch on the way back, swatting mosquitoes on the skin, and waving wasps away continually (though the crab was lovely).
We went home - sad, yet seeing the humour in the situation. After all, you have to laugh. And it WAS absurd.
And Finally...Mark II - Matty's Advice
Does this all sound disrespectful? It's what he wanted. It's (mostly) what we wanted (OK, we could have done without the trip to Drainage Ditch USA, but still...)
All of us miss Dad tremendously, though we don't feel 'cheated' by the lack of a headstone or place to mourn. The best advice I can give is to respect the dying wishes of the deceased, and, most importantly, to do what is right for the grieving family - for yourself, and for the rest of the family. Whether you go for the four black horses, for a church service, or for a simple memorial, do what feels right for the bereaved (including, of course, yourself). Remember, funerals are really for those left behind.
You see, Dad is in my heart. The location of his remains is irrelevant. He's remembered by my family, his friends, his colleagues and me.
And no ditch can ever take that away.
This piece is dedicated to all those who insisted I write this up. When told the story, one person I told it to was in hysterics, and mentioned the word 'wardrobe' randomly for the rest of the evening. After all, it IS funny!
And, of course, to my father. And to my daughter, who asked the right questions.