My parents died of cancer, mom (in 2017) just 8 weeks after diagnosis and Dad (in 2014) after being sick for a year. And over these last few years, I have been a student of grief, hungry for ways to express it in a healing way, to seek out others to give me a “how to” manual for life without them. I wanted to connect with others who were further down the grief highway than I was. One of my friends, Lenore who I met at a writing retreat on Madeline Island is one of those teachers. She recently wrote a piece about how writing has helped her grieve. And as you know, my dear readers, I have turned to words as a way to learn about loss. I want to share The Art of Grieving found on her blog Voice Lessons.
The loss of my parents brought a big question. What happens to your body after you die?
It has been five years now since Dad died, and almost two for Mom. They both agreed to cremation of their bodies after death, but never fully discussed their wishes beyond that. Dad’s ashes fit in a small oak cask used to age whiskey, an artifact left over from the family pickle business. We thought the tiny barrel a clever choice, his ashes poured in through the bung hole and secured inside a plastic bag. Mom was kept in a fairy’s house, a steep roofed cottage with window boxes and an angel kneeling by the tiny door.
I no longer wanted to treat them as curios on a shelf. And the idea we once had, to scatter their ashes together in a beloved place didn’t seem right. My sisters and I wanted a way to mark their lives with permanence, and respect the sacredness of their bodies.
We talked through options and agreed that burial felt right. But where? We checked on burial plots on the Bertrand side of the family, and investigated a spot close to our family’s home on the west side of Medicine Lake. They all seemed workable, until our aunt Karen, Mom’s only living sibling, told us about one remaining grave in the Sharratt plot in Prescott, Wisconsin. She had made other plans for herself, to be buried next to her husband, when the time came.
It all started to make sense considering our connection to Prescott, where the Irish ancestors settled to raise their large family back in the mid 1800s. Our beloved dead seemed to be calling to us, to tell us they had room enough for two. Mom would rest next to her great grandparents, grandmother and parents. And Dad? He seemed to follow Mom’s lead, and in life was happiest next to Mom, wherever she was.
When the day came for the burial in early June, the digger had done his work, the sexton greeted us, simple black boxes that held our parents were fit into a covered vault, and lowered into the grave. The family gathered, offered memories and shared words. We tucked flowers and letters, photos, baby shoes, and house keys in with them. Each of us took a turn with the shovel to cover them with earth. Even their great grandson helped. Afterward we had a picnic nearby, overlooking the Mississippi River. It felt peaceful to know they are in a place we can mark and visit.
And I agree with Lenore that writing has helped me grieve, that words can be a vessel to collect emotions to bring meaning. I love the image of holding grief, that may take the form of words, prayer, a memorial service, or a physical container to hold our loved one.
I feel the presence of my parents inside of me. And I can now understand, “Grieving is a holy way to feel the ongoing presence of a loved one who has died.”
I see that containing Mom in a cottage and Dad in a cask was a temporary holding place for their bodies, that in death they had moved beyond the confines of these vessels. And I had outgrown my need for confining grief to sorrow and sadness. The act of placing my parents in sacred ground allowed me to expand my understanding of death, to create a much larger space to hold other emotions that have come. Hope. Joy. Peace. Love.