Ashes don’t sink. They form a ghostly swath and float away.

The Cremains of the Day

There’s a pinch of my Mom’s cremains laying in my jewelry box, tucked inside a tiny gold-colored tear drop suspended from a chain. When she passed away nine years ago, I thought a necklace containing a little part of her would keep her memory close to my heart.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

My Mom asked to be cremated and sprinkled on the James River. It seemed a simple request, until I found myself left with the task of fulfilling it. When it came time to pick up Mom’s ashes from the funeral home, my out-of-state siblings had all returned home. Carey, the funeral director, handed me a maroon, velveteen bag, it’s drawstring closure pulled tight and the name of the funeral home staring up at me in gold lettering. I thanked him and headed back to my car, where I placed the ashes in the front passenger seat for the short trip back to my house — sans seatbelt (though I briefly considered strapping them in).

During the 10-minute drive to my house, I kept glancing over at the bag. This isn’t Mom, I told myself, but there I was, making small talk to fill the awkward silence. “Is it hot in that bag, Mom? Probably not compared to the cremation, right?” I said, my uneasiness unleashing itself in wholly inappropriate humor, as it usually did.

That should have been my first clue that I was ill-equipped for this job, but this was my first rodeo. Had I known better, I would have turned around and driven straight to the UPS store and mailed Mom to my eldest sibling Susie, with a jotted note slid into the bag. “Here. Mom said you’re supposed to do this.”

“Mommy, is this Grandma on the table?”

Back at home I set the ashes on my dining room table and tugged at the draw string to pull out its contents, a white cardboard box with a label that read Cremated remains #5673. Did this mean 5,672 people were cremated before her? My mind formed a mental image of thousands of cremation invoices, labeled, tucked into manila folders, and filed away in the basement of the crematorium. Mom’s was probably still in the inbox waiting to be filed.

Sucking in a deep breath, I opened the box. Inside was a heavy-duty, clear (and by clear, I mean completely see-through) plastic bag, secured with a zip tie. No one told me it would be clear. There was no reason for it to be clear. They should have put a disclaimer on the box, because now I could no longer unsee my Mom as a bag of unbleached flour.

I closed the box, slipped it back into its velveteen pouch and walked away.

“Mommy, is this Grandma on the table?” my son asked when he got home from school.

I added another $5 to Liam’s future therapy jar and carried Mom’s box upstairs to my closet to await dispersion, which wouldn’t happen until my siblings were together again. More than a year’s worth of dust and guilt collected on that box until until my sisters came in for a long Labor Day weekend visit. We took the opportunity to go through Mom’s stuff, each laying claim to the things that would remind us of her — jewelry, photos, Christmas ornaments.

On Sunday, after unpacking Mom’s life and repacking it for the move to our own homes, we four girls jammed into my Honda fit and made the 20-minute trip to the foot of the James River Bridge to spread Mom’s ashes. My brother Jeff and his wife Connie would meet us there. My other three brothers weren’t with us, but I didn’t want to wait any longer. A majority representation would have to do.

At that very moment, a gust of wind hit us, swirling some of the ashes back up and coating our hair and clothes with a fine layer of Mom.

On the way over, my sister Tee looked in the box and saw the zip tie. I’d forgotten we would need tools to get into the bag, but she dug around in her purse and found a pair of fingernail clippers and started chipping away at the thick loop of plastic. Then she hid the bag in an oversized beach tote because we were about to embark on an illegal endeavor. The EPA said scattering human remains at sea was okay, but there were regulations to follow, like being at least three nautical miles from land. We were going to be, at best, 200 feet from shore, standing on a pier surrounded by folks casting out fishing lines. Some discretion was necessary.

Dusk was settling and dark rain clouds were headed our way, so we hustled down the pier, found an open spot, and being as unassuming as we could muster, started pouring Mom’s ashes into the river. At that very moment, a gust of wind hit us, swirling some of the ashes back up and coating our hair and clothes with a fine layer of Mom.

Blowback. We hadn’t accounted for that.

Ashes don’t sink, by the way. I know that now. They form a ghostly swath on the water’s surface and slowly float away, and if all of Mom had drifted down the James that day, the story would have ended there, like it should have.

But it didn’t.

Since Dad announced at the last minute he didn’t want to go with us to the pier, we saved some of the ashes to put in an urn for him. Come Monday, when everyone boarded their planes, I was once again left holding the bag. It was lighter than before, but the guilt was heavier. Mom still wasn’t at peace. Or at least, not all of her was.

Despite topping it off as much as I could, there was quite a bit of Mom left in the bag. I should have listened to the woman with the cat.

The next day I went online to find a keepsake urn, landing on a simple, yet tasteful one I thought Dad might like, if there was anything to like about an urn. I read the mostly positive reviews, not because I cared whether it had a 3- or 5-star rating, but because curiosity drove my need to know why people had taken time to write urn reviews.

One was disappointed in the size. It didn’t hold all of her cat’s ashes. Another was so pleased they ordered more — a review I found alarming. Someone else said they would buy another one if the need arose, and I wondered if they’d bookmarked the page.

When the urn arrived 5–7 business days later, I took Mom’s leftover cremains and started filling it myself, because I couldn’t go back to the funeral home a year later and ask them to do it for me. Not to say I didn’t consider it, but I decided that seemed tacky. So, I stood at my kitchen island using my smallest plastic funnel to pour the remaining cremains into the tiny urn, but the chunkier bits were getting stuck. How damn hot did it need to be for all of it to turn to powder? I grabbed a chopstick, left over from Chinese takeout to push the bigger pieces through the funnel hole. This made some unpleasant, gritty, grinding sounds, to which Liam, in the next room doing his homework, called out to me.

“Is that noise from grandma?”

The absurdity of the moment caught up with me and I started laughing, snorting even, having to cross my legs so as not to pee on myself, all the while praying Mom wasn’t watching what I was doing to her.

Recovering from my temporary manic episode, I finished filling the urn. Despite topping it off as much as I could, there was quite a bit of Mom left in the bag. I should have listened to the woman with the cat.

Now what? I couldn’t throw them away like some moldy leftover food, and I didn’t want to go back to the bridge by myself. So, with no small amount of shame, I grabbed a bread tie, closed up the bag and put it back into the box. I comforted myself with the idea that tomorrow might bring a solution I could live with. Great ideas never came. Mom remained in my closet until she got packed into a larger box to be moved to our new house.

That was when she went missing. For three years.

I would eventually find her again in a far corner of the basement, wedged in a box of random stuff we hadn’t bothered to unpack. I could have walked to China and back on that guilt trip. I’d packed her cardboard box into another cardboard box and forgotten about it. My relationship with cardboard was never the same after that. With every Amazon delivery to our house, my husband would ask me, “Wanna save that box? It’s a nice size.”

And I’d respond, “No. Put it in the recycle bin, please.”

“Are you sure?” he would prod. “We might need it for something.”

“Yes,” I would answer, tamping down the urge to scream, “Just get rid of the damn box!”

A few days later I walked out on my neighbor’s dock and poured the last of Mom’s ashes onto the river that ran behind our home. Sitting there on that cool day in March, I watched the remainder of her ashes float away, doing the math in my head. It had taken me six years to put her to rest, her ashes divided up among four necklaces, squeezed into a miniature urn, and sprinkled on not one, but two rivers.

Leslie was lying in a box. Not a mahogany one lined in silk padding. She was lying in a cardboard box.

Sadly, my cremains saga doesn’t end there. When my sister Leslie died, my brother-in-law Bud announced she would be cremated with no funeral. That meant no gathering of mourners, no final party of finger sandwiches and green punch; no slideshow set to a Celine Dion song; and no cousin Claudia rounding up family units for photos. Leslie had opted out of her family’s last opportunity for closure and casseroles.

The idea was mind blowing at first. Like when your adult ears process an old song with new clarity. “Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls. It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world, except for Lola,” and you finally understand why Lola was the exception.

But if anyone in my family could escape a funeral, it was Leslie. She had secret superpowers honed during her years with the CIA. To me, she was Wonder Woman. Behind her wall flower demeanor was an amazon who could drive through Central American countries dodging street litter from guerrilla attacks, sleep on tarmacs protecting pouches of state secrets, and spend her evenings with a rum and coke while Uzi fire crackled a few streets away. It’s why some sliver of me didn’t really believe cancer would ever take her, and she would be the exception to the stage 4 inevitability rule. She would simply outwit it or tell cancer to fuck off, and it would.

But Leslie had the last say. No funeral.

It didn’t take me long to get on board with the idea, except for one glitch. When we got the call that Leslie had taken a sudden turn for the worse, my sister Tee and I rushed to Florida, me from Virginia and she from California, but Leslie died before we could get there. With cremation set for the next day, Tee and I had missed our last chance to see her. So, against Leslie’s carefully laid plans, Bud arranged a last-minute, private visitation.

The funeral director did the best he could in the short time he had to prepare. He placed Leslie in a quiet room with a vase of fake flowers and a single lit table lamp. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, the reason for the low wattage became abundantly clear. Leslie was lying in a box. Not a mahogany one lined in silk padding. She was lying in a cardboard box.

I thought I had learned the worst cremation had to teach me, but apparently not. Here was yet another lesson I didn’t want to learn. If your next stop was the kiln, there was no need for an expensive coffin.

But cardboard?? Really??

My years of visitation experience had not prepared me for this. I was used to seeing the deceased wearing makeup, coiffed hair, and reclining in a padded coffin like it was a happenstance nap in uncomfortable church clothes. Nothing had prepared me to see my sister, bald head and no makeup, lying in something that should house a large appliance for delivery.

Still reeling from the shock, I walked over and looked down at Leslie. Her lips were forming what I could only describe as resting bitch face. Bud used to joke that Leslie had invented the look. It’s like she knew we had thwarted her plans of having no plans and was really pissed off. She may have been able to laugh off the cardboard box and missing wig, by my sister was a woman who never, ever left the house without eyeshadow. Even as Bud was rushing her to the emergency room on the day she died, she asked for her makeup case. I’d never wished I had eye shadow in my purse until that moment.

After the viewing we exited the room and walked the short distance to the lobby where the funeral director had laid out catalogues showing us options for keepsake urns.

Oh no! I thought. Not again!

I wanted to say no thanks, but instead, I picked a blue, heart-shaped cloisonné box that I later put on the shelf next to the jewelry box where I kept Mom’s necklace.

“Do you think we should have asked for “Euthanasia, medium?”

Two years later, we had to put down our 14-year-old schnauzer, Jet. When the vet asked if we’d like to have him cremated, I quickly said “No.” But Liam said, “Mom, wait…”

Jet’s ashes arrived a couple of weeks later, along with an invoice for his Euthanasia, small. Liam, now all grown up, was looking over my shoulder at the vet bill.

“Do you think we should have asked for “Euthanasia, medium?” I asked him with more of my ill-timed humor. I put Jet’s cremains next to Leslie’s and Mom’s and realized I had three sets of ashes, and that three of anything constitutes a collection.

“Well, shit,” I said out loud to no one, just before I started laughing.



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Kelly Barlow

Kelly Barlow

A writer for public relations, small town news and technical pubs. For 25 years I’ve written everyone else’s stories. Now it’s time to write my own.