I decided that I should let a few weeks pass between the day of Marlene’s death and her funeral. Since she was being cremated this was not a problem. It is now common for the funeral (Celebration of Life as its often called these days) to follow some weeks, or even months after the actual death. I didn’t want to wait through months of mourning – I wanted to get on with re-assembling my shattered life. But I wanted to allow time for people who would be coming some distance to be able to make reasonable travel arrangements. I also didn’t want the funeral to disturb people’s Labour Day Weekend plans, the last long weekend of the summer. I decided on three weeks.
Labour Day weekend arrived and the visitation Saturday Night went predictably well: sadness, surprise, a few laughs. I didn’t want a traditional receiving line so I had the room set up like a cocktail lounge with high tables and refreshments and a sandwich bar along the walls. In the background a TV monitor played a digital carousel of photos of Marlene’s life. Each of the family members occupied a different location around the room. In this way friends and family could gravitate to the members they most needed to see. But everyone needed to see me and so the line was long leading to me and Marlene’s beautiful engraved urn set on the table behind me.
The funeral itself was on Sunday, noon. The family assembled in the reception room and at the appointed hour, paraded to the service hall. If my goal was to reduce the assembled mourners to tears I certainly met my goal. Music and the moment could have moved stone. As I struggled through my eulogy I gazed at the congregation but I couldn’t see anyone in that sea of faces. I looked into the family pews and rested his eyes on a close friend. She gave me an encouraging smile, though she herself was in tears.
The reception followed; people visited quietly over tea and minced ham sandwiches while the grandchildren played tag amongst the tombstones. Guests dispersed gradually, and the family finally left the funeral home, leaving the urn in safe hands with the Funeral Director. We reassembled at my home, relaxing and reflecting in the pastoral warmth of the backyard gardens. The kids fished frogs in the garden pond.
Daughter Shannon had arranged for an evening of cocktails and dinner at a fine local restaurant for a gathering of forty family members and close friends. It wasn’t exactly a party, but it was a celebration. We had exclusive use of the lounge and then most of the dining room to ourselves.
I admit, I was now in my element; I assumed the role of master of ceremonies and told the guests that I wanted them to regard the evening like a wedding dinner, it was a celebration of Marlene’s life. I said I was sure many of them had stories they wanted to tell but didn’t have the opportunity at the funeral service. Well now was their chance. I said I would tinkle a glass from time to time and ask for volunteers, and if there were none forthcoming I would co-opt someone, or anyone could call attention by tinkling their own glass. At least a half dozen friends gave their special memories of Marlene.
The next few weeks passed in a seeming blur. The family gathered over Thanksgiving weekend to inter a portion of Marlene’s ashes in her grave. The engraving on the tombstone was complete: Marlene’s name of course, with the dates; my name beside hers, date of birth (date of death not yet determined); on the top left corner, a laser etching of Marlene’s ‘heart dog’, the redoubtable Champion Standard Poodle, Max, who had died four years previously. On the bottom, two roses and between them the words, Never Alone.
I had arranged for a smaller urn and divided her remains between the two. This satisfied my need for ‘permanence’. The smaller of the urns was to be buried in the grave. It fell to granddaughter Erin to place the urn in the hole.
Marlene of course had never wanted a traditional burial: She only asked that her son scatter her ashes on water. But she never said which water she had in mind, I doubted she even took her thoughts that far. But I had an inspiration one day: Blakeney Rapids, a little-known secluded picnic area amongst tall pine trees on the Mississippi River near the village of Blakeney, one of Marlene’s favourite places; we would often swim below the rapids and dine on cold Kentucky Fried Chicken, with usually no one else around. I’m sure Marlene would have been pleased.
Following the funeral service Son Ryan and I traveled with the urn and the bulk of Marlene’s ashes to Blakeney. We walked silently through the shimmering trees along the rocky and slippery path and over the footbridge to the picnic area. We savoured the memories. We struggled down the rocky, slippery slope to the edge of the fast-moving water. I unscrewed the bottom of the urn and untied the plastic bag inside containing the ashes. I passed the urn to Ryan.
“Wow, it’s heavy!” he exclaimed. The ashes were not eager to escape the confines of the urn. I joined Ryan to help shake the contents.
“Damn,” he said, “I’m getting Mom all over my leg!”
“And not just your Mom,” I said. Ryan looked at me, puzzled. Finally we had deposited all of the ashes on the water as she had wished. We watched for a while as they floated downstream.
But as we scrambled up that slippery slope, I slipped, and almost fumbled the urn. And that would have been a shame. I saved that urn like falling football player, but banged up my free hand and elbow. With only one arm I couldn’t regain my feet until Ryan rescued the urn.
I had another purpose for that vessel. I asked the Pinecrest people to remove the top lid so I could fill it now with the flotsam and jetsam of Marlene’s life: her passports, her graduation photo from Wellesley Hospital, a lock of her hair as a one-year-old, a lock of her hair at the end of her life, a rose from her funeral. This time capsule now occupies a place on my bookshelves, beside her copies of The Maxim Chronicles, and The Hallelujah Chorus.