My friend at work told me about spreading his uncle's ashes -- below is exactly what he told me. More or less. Kind of. Okay, I made a lot of it up, but the essentials are true...
ASHES TO ASHES
Next time, they can just get somebody else. I mean, maybe they thought just because I’m the oldest nephew, I’m supposed to know all about this kind of thing. Well, I don’t. I mean, I liked Uncle Barney a lot, and I was glad to do it, but I don’t spend every weekend practicing a burial at sea, okay, so as far as I’m concerned, everybody can just lay off.
So Uncle B wanted his ashes spread out in the bay. Fine. He was a big fisherman and sailboat addict, and it’s only right that his last resting place would be out on the water, where he spent so many hours avoiding Aunt Sarah. But he didn’t leave any instructions about who was supposed to do it, or how, so when Auntie S asked me to arrange the whole thing, I was pretty much winging it from the start. I’m not saying it was a chore, or that I didn’t want to help; I’m just saying that there’s more to this ashes-spreading business than a person might see at first glance.
For example, if I were more experienced, I would have chosen a dry day with not much wind. I realize that on the San Francisco Bay there aren’t that many calm clear days, but I suggest that they’re worth waiting for.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. My point is that there are some guidelines that a person should follow in this kind of project, and I wish I’d known what they were beforehand. At this point, all I can do is offer a few tips that might help someone else.
The first insight that I would offer is if your instincts tell you sneak out one night, drive over the San Mateo bridge, and just heave your uncle or whatever over the rail, this is a good instinct to follow. It won’t make any difference to your uncle, and will be a lot less trouble all around.
The way we did it, of course, was not the easy way. Aunt Sarah told me to invite everyone who wanted to come, which meant about 20 people. Originally Auntie thought we would all fit on Uncle Harold’s sailboat, but I convinced her that with my cousin Edward captaining, the majority of the funeral party was sure to drown, and I was fairly sure Uncle Barney would have wanted the whole thing to proceed with a minimum of death and inconvenience. So Uncle Harold and I went down and rented a boat -- the non-sail kind -- that would hold everyone. Edward ended up as the captain anyway, but I figured it would be harder for him to sink a 40-footer, and at least no one would be lost at sea after being swept off the deck by the boom. When Edward sails, it's to a different drummer, so to speak. His decisions on when to change tack are based on some mysterious logic of his own, and all the cousins have at one time or another caught the boom in the back of the neck. I’m definitely no sailor myself, so I’m not sure, but I think sometimes the sail coming over is a complete surprise even to Edward. You stand there patiently holding onto one of the sheets or halyards or jibs or something, and the next thing you know, you’re under water. Cousin Albert managed to save Aunt Sadie one time by knocking her down the steps into the galley; she didn’t even thank him.
But I’m getting sidetracked again. The point is, in terms of water-based funerals, to keep it simple, or to get out of the job entirely if you can.
If you can’t get out of it, one thing you might consider is an advance scouting trip to select the spot for the burial to take place. This could avoid a potential 45-minute argument about (as my cousin Jennifer put it) a spot of “maximum symbolism and beauty” vs. a spot that allows the uncles to make it back to shore in time to catch the A’s-Mariners game on TV. While no one actually punched anybody else on our little outing, it was touch and go for a while between Uncle Ralph and Aunt Louise. It kind of started with Auntie L’s refusal to let the men watch the game on the TV in the boat. She insisted we were there “to pay our last respects to Uncle Barney, not to watch touchdowns, or goals, or whatever.” The uncles pointed out that Uncle Barney would understand as well as anyone the importance of fan support in a pennant race, but this point was ignored. When Aunt Louise threw the TV cable over the side, I could tell Uncle Ralph was weighing the consequences of doing the same to her, but in the end he just gritted his teeth and stalked below to get a drink. He came back a short time later, and asked why we couldn’t just have the memorial right where we were, about 200 feet from the docks. It was at this point that the Relatives for Symbolism and Beauty camp was formed, and the long argument began. We eventually compromised (Aunt Louise’s word for getting her way) on a spot near the Golden Gate. The uncles resigned themselves to reading about the game in the paper.
At this point, I feel I should briefly mention seasickness. There may not be much one can do about it, but if there are members of the funeral party who are prone to it, you might encourage them to remain on shore. A seasick person will add little to your event, other than to contribute to a general atmosphere of gloom. In our case, Aunt Martha was the only sufferer, but most of us felt she was plenty. As we headed for the mouth of the bay, the water got a little choppier. Before long, Aunt Martha took what turned out to be the first of several trips to the rail, where she urped daintily over the side. This was pretty much right above the portholes looking out of the galley; there were snacks down there, but nobody seemed too hungry after that.
Another item that warrants consideration is the issue of children. I am pretty well convinced that children should not be brought to funerals. In fact, I question whether they should be brought anywhere at all before they become human. When Uncle Ralph’s oldest kid Joey told his little brother Zachary that Uncle Barney was dead, Zack began to wail, thinking he meant Barney the Dinosaur. Joey immediately began to dance around singing
I love you, you love me,
I’m the deadest dinosaur on TV
until Uncle Ralph threatened to throw him over the side. Eventually Zack stopped crying, Joey shut up, and the uncles went back to watching Aunt Martha Throws Up, A Short Play In Several Acts.
Finally we arrived at a spot that satisfied the poetical souls of Jennifer and the Aunts. Cousin Edward “hove to” and did some other nautical things. We all gathered at the rail (on the non-vomit side), where Uncle Ralph read a psalm and said a short prayer. Then Aunt Sarah handed me a plastic box containing the ashes, and everyone waited expectantly.
This is another area where I was entirely unprepared. It was the first time I had seen the box that funeral home had given Aunt Sarah, and I had no idea how to open it. The box was gray plastic, about the size of a large brick. It seemed to have a snap enclosure on one end, but I bent two fingernails back trying to get it open, and finally asked my cousin Albert to go below and try to find a screwdriver. He brought me a phillips; I sent him back for a standard. Albert is nice, but he is not an intellectual giant. Anyway, when we finally got the box open, we found that the ashes were also encased in a thick plastic bag, which was closed with a twisty-tie, like a loaf of bread. Albert had the bag at this point, and he twisted the tie back and forth randomly until the ends of the wire broke off. Albert immediately punctured his thumb on sharp ends of the wire and began to bleed like a stuck pig. It might not be something that comes up a lot in these situations, but I’ll just mention that wire cutters could be a useful part of an amateur funeral director’s equipment. Since we had no wire cutters, we decided that cutting open the bag was our best option; we slid the bag out of the box and hacked at the top for a while with the screwdriver. When we finally got it open, Albert deftly dropped the bag, the box, and the screwdriver onto the deck. The screwdriver skittered across the deck and through one of those holes that let water out when a big wave comes onto the deck. Albert, apparently thinking that the little bag of ashes was going to be next, quickly put his foot down on top of it. I’m not really sure about all the spiritual ramifications about stomping on the deceased, but my guess is it’s not the usual practice, and is not recommended. Eventually, we got all of the ashes scraped up and back in the bag; then I stepped to the rail with the open bag and started to turn it over.
Let me just reiterate at this point, that a dry calm day is definitely your best bet for dispersing relatives who are in ash form. While the wind was mostly blowing out away from the boat, gusts are a fact of life, and must be taken into account. The main percentage of Uncle Barney’s remains were in a clump in the middle of the bag, compressed into an irregular brick, and full of chips and chunks which I did not examine too closely. But there was also a fair volume of loose ash, which was the first thing out when I tipped the bag. My bag tipping coincided exactly with the arrival of a fairly strong gust, which blew directly back into my face and across the deck, taking with it some of the dry ash. I guess to be honest, I should say pretty much all of it. I didn’t have the nerve to look around, but Albert said later that he’s sure most people took a fair amount of Uncle Barney home with them. If it hadn’t been so misty, I imagine most of it would have just brushed off, but as I say, there were a lot of things I didn’t know then. The bitter pill of experience was mine to swallow, and I did, along with some of Uncle Barney.
Anyway, with my relatives glaring and coughing around me, I let go of the main clump of ash, and it fell straight down toward the sea.
Now from a rowboat, I’m confident this technique would work. Or from a sailboat. From just about anything, I suspect, except a yacht like the one we were on. This type of boat has a little ledge that sticks out just above the water level; the large lump of ash landed directly on this ledge and sat there like… well, like a wet gob of ashes.
I’m not really sure what I should have done. My guess is that some type of tossing or flicking motion might be the traditional method for clearing a ledge like that, but I really don’t know. I’m pretty confident it’s not right to take the dear departed and wing him out over the water like a frisbee; even a gentle shot-put action seems a little irreverent. I’m guessing ministers and other professionals go with the flicking method in that situation. Whatever the technique, the optimum procedure would have been to practice the whole thing a time or two on people I didn’t know, so as to be ready when it counted. But that’s hindsight, as they say; if there’s a next time, I’ll know better.
Anyway, the ashes sat there on their little ledge. Albert, with a flash of intelligence entirely unlike him, positioned himself so Auntie Sarah wouldn’t see. Uncle Ralph gently turned her away from the rail, and everyone else stood and shifted uncomfortably and gazed off at the horizon.
I stared at the little glob, and willed it to slide off into the sea, but it did not cooperate.
I remember thinking that if Uncle Barney were there to see this situation, he would be roaring with laughter, but that didn’t help me much. The Aunts weren’t laughing, and the uncles either; if looks could kill, Aunt Martha would be on trial right now. I stood there and sweated, and tried to think.
Uncle Herman went below, and returned with a fishing pole; he began trying to flick the mess off the ledge with the tip, but without much success. He flailed at it for what seemed like 10 minutes, getting more and more frustrated, and more and more aggressive. When he finally leaned out too far and went over the rail, it seemed both unbelievable and inevitable.
Uncle Herman at least missed the ledge, which is more than Uncle Barney had done. I was feeling a little annoyed with old Uncle Barney at that moment, to tell the truth; I had a major disaster on my hands, and all he could do was sit up there laughing.
Albert and Uncle Harold threw a life preserver to spluttering Uncle Herman, and dragged him around to the stern, where there was a ladder that extended down to the water. At first they tried to get him to swim in next to the boat and swipe Uncle Barney into the water, but he just glared at them and held on to the ring. He eventually sloshed back onto the deck, and went below to change. The little brick of ashes clung stubbornly to the ledge.
Finally, Uncle Harold came up and whispered that he had found a hose, which must have been used for cleaning the boat. This was not a time to be fussy, was my thinking. We dragged the nozzle over to the rail, aimed it at the ledge, and shot Uncle Barney into the bay.
So that’s pretty much the story as it happened, along with a little advice from me, Uncle Barney’s sadder-but-wiser nephew. The business with the police boat and our lack of a permit, et cetera, just shows that bureaucracy is everywhere and it doesn’t hurt to listen to the advice of the funeral home. And I feel the issue of the ruined dock and subsequent explosion is not really relevant to the subject of funerals. It will be expunged from Edward’s record when he turns 21 anyway, so no big deal there, I say.
As far as Auntie Sarah is concerned, everything went fine, so I think it’s irresponsible of some to be bandying about words like “debacle” and “fiasco”. Like I said: I never asked for this job in the first place. Next time they can definitely get somebody else.