Ashes to Ashes – Remembering Those No longer With Us

| March 14, 2011 | Comments (2)


I stared blankly at the white sheet of paper before me: INSTRUCTIONS  FOR DISPOSAL OF BODY, the University Anatomy Department form said.

There were four choices: cremation and return of remains to designated recipient; cremation and scatter at sea; return of body for burial; and retention of remains for further research by Institute.

It seemed like yesterday but as I counted days and weeks on the calendar I realized it had been exactly  seven months since I stood by Jack’s corpse, my hand on his still warm forehead. 

It was  Saturday 11 September 2010 when my phone rang at 530 AM and a barely audible female  voice said in a whispery rasp, “Jack has passed.” The voice belonged to Mara, a woman I had known for several years, an acquaintance of Jack’s.

Jack, at 89 had spent nearly a month in hospital and a nursing home. He  had been transferred back to his apartment on Riverside Drive to spend his final days in familiar surroundings, looking out on his beloved Hudson River from the 14th floor window of his living room.

The two weeks before Jack’s passing had been a tug-of-war between myself and Mara. Jack’s affairs were rather tangled. I was his executor, but Mara was his medical proxy. I felt he should remain in the nursing home, but Mara thought he should spent the end of his life at home and she prevailed. While she was right and compassionate in principle, I knew that sending him home would end his life quickly. Hospice care simply did not carry with it the level of medical intervention that he had been needing in the days before he went home. I felt going home was a death sentence, but that is what the hospice option is all about – ending life in the best possible surroundings with no thought about life prolongation. And that’s what happened: he spent less than 24 hours at home before he died. 

Death and the planning that should precede it are often confusing and ill-conceived. Yes, Jack had a will and yes, I was aware of what he wanted to be done with his limited assets. But faced with his corpse, I realized I had been lax, to say the least in making the necessary preparations for his departure.

As we sat in the dim early morning light of his living room, the kindly Caribbean night attendant asked me  what arrangements had been made for the funeral. I was shocked to hear my reply,  “Oh nothing has been done about that yet…I guess he wanted to be cremated.”

As his body became cold and stiff, I realized it was my responsibility  as executor to have Jack removed. Mara had been responsible for his coming home, but once he had expired the buck passed to me.  I found myself wondering: where would he go and how could I get him there? The motherly Jamaican matron came to my rescue, discretely suggesting that I might want to call a certain funeral parlor in the neighborhood. I knew that Jack abhorred the idea of an expensive, maudlin arrangement, but “get rid of the body” hit me with a mixture of panic and black humor.

We called the funeral home and within an hour Jack was gone. A dignified young, tuxedo-clad couple – a man and a woman – arrived and requested we all leave the room. I’m not sure what transpired in the two or three minutes we were huddled in the bedroom while they were alone with the corpse, but soon  I found myself on the street with Mr. and Mrs. Morticia as they loaded him into the hearse. I imparted my need to them – that Jack wanted a simple cremation, not a smoke and mirrors burial – and Mr. Morticia slipped me a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it and whispered, “I’m not supposed to do this, but call them, it’s a university body donation center. They will take care of him.” And they did. With that discrete action of insubordination, Mr. Morticia had just cost his employer $15,000.

I put the form away for a few days before making my decision about Jack’s final destination. I ended up selecting  “cremation and scatter at sea.” The University had had the benefit of Jack’s remains for over six months. I felt the least I could do was see that his remains would have a dignified final journey.

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  1. Jim Arrigan says:

    Jack made a good decision in choosing you as his executor and you made a good decision too. For a long time the thought of a burial at sea appealed to me, but hadnot thought of the medical research part. Sounds like a real plan. Please save the address for me. Really liked the way you put the story together, you should be teaching.

  2. Roger Cranse says:

    Sam, lovely. The turn in your story is the note from the attendant. That gesture, which you relate so well, shows the hopeful side of humankind. Bon. RC

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