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28 – Watch out for your Dad!

“Watch out for your dad!”


I’m very confused by this. I think that’s understandable, given the circumstances, so I remain standing in the middle of the RV and wait for enlightenment to cast its golden glow upon my brow.

“Careful! Your dad’s going to fall on you!”

Mom stabs her finger toward the air above me, and I look up just in time to realize that, never mind about the glow of enlightenment, dad’s cremains are about to bean me. My reflexes finally kick in and I catch him before he crashes into either my head or the floor, which is a damn good thing, because no one tells you this, but cremains are heavy.

There are a lot of things they don’t tell you.

I went to pick up dad’s ashes and death certificate by myself because the world was still in Covid lockdown and mom was still in senior living at the time, so she was unable to leave the premises unless she wanted to isolate alone in her apartment for two weeks afterward. It was very strange. I pulled into the parking lot on a prototypical sunny California day. Traffic was still pandemic-light and you could hear the birds celebrating the lack of human interference. The breeze smelled like flowers.

I felt a jangly reluctance at the thought of carrying my father’s ashes around, a little itch of anxiety over handling them properly, an irrational fear that they might somehow take offense or launch themselves from my grasp with mortifying results. It didn’t help that the hall monitor in the back of my mind kept insisting on reviewing every urban legend I’ve ever heard about mishaps with cremains. The reality is, they’re packaged to prevent that sort of thing, and as long as no one decides to scatter them dramatically into a headwind or an updraft everything should be fine. But that really doesn’t help with the mental images of catastrophe.

Dad RVing
A very nice woman welcomed me into the crematorium office.

“You’re here to pick up your father’s cremains? I’m so sorry for your loss.”

This was when I learned they really are officially called cremains. Sometimes portmanteau words truly fall short.

“You asked for the most basic container, so the cremains are in a temporary plastic urn.”

She pulled out a black, rectangular box that looked like it was constructed of thick PVC. Then she pulled out a letter opener and pried it open.

“When you need to open the urn you can use a letter opener or screwdriver or something like that. You’ll have to press hard to get the top off, but don’t worry, the cremains are in a heavy gauge plastic bag inside so nothing will spill accidentally.”

She showed me.

“Make sure you hit the top pretty hard to close it again.”

She showed me.

I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. She was giving me information that I needed, as gently as she could. After all, the whole idea was that the urn would be temporary, so clearly we would be opening it at some point. She was kind as she explained the paperwork and went over the myriad details involved in making a death official. But still, it was a surreal experience. What had once been my dad – a smart, funny, loving, maddening, complicated human being with a big laugh, a Santa Claus beard, and increasingly questionable politics as he grew older – was now 10 pounds of cremains in a plastic box. It was him, but it wasn’t him. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Human remains are kind of eerie and unsettling. It’s hard to know what to do with them, or even how to feel about them. Goodness knows, when you’re first confronted with them you’re not likely in the best frame of mind to decide what to do about groceries, much less how to manage the earthly remains of a loved one. It’s hard. It’s weird and it’s hard. We’re not given a playbook for this sort of thing. Hell, we can barely even say the word “dead.” Managing the physical presence of someone we’ve loved, minus their animating spirit, requires the kind of “holding two opposing beliefs in mind simultaneously” balancing act that we don’t get a lot of practice with. The emotional impact is hard to predict.

Let’s just say the moment was a little fraught, but we all got through it.

So I took dad home with me and spent some time carrying him around the house and tearing my hair out over where to put him until it was time to pack him into the RV for mom’s eastward migration. Was he supposed to be part of the household decor now? Was I supposed to display him? Was it disrespectful to put him out of sight? I didn’t really know. He was there, but he wasn’t there. More cognitive dissonance.

Sun peeking through trees
“What do you think dad? Pride of place on the mantel? No, you’re right. We would both hate that. Bookshelf? Nope. No room, and it would still be weird. Would a closet be wrong? Doesn’t matter, they’re too small. Hmm… Well, I’m certainly not putting you in the kitchen cabinet.”

Dad, of course, remained silent.

“Why am I even having this conversation with you?” I burst out. “You’re not helping at all! You don’t care where I put this thing. You’re not even here.”

It was all too fresh.

Finally I decided to put him on a table near my writing desk. He was always so proud of my writing that I thought he would have liked that. Maybe he would inspire me. But something had to be done about the black plastic cube if we were going to share office space. It was just too sad to see him in a little box every time I looked up from my desk.

After several days of being monitored by a black box that felt like a mashup of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an Ingmar Bergman film and something from Monty Python, we had a solution. Turns out the temporary plastic urn fit pretty nicely into a rather dignified black champagne box saved from an anniversary celebration. When I topped it with the leather hat I gave dad years ago that Mom had given back to me, it seemed worthy of him – a little gravitas, a little celebratory wake, and a distinct touch of idiosyncrasy.

So this is what nearly beaned me – my father in a champagne box wearing a leather crusher hat. How he would have laughed. He wouldn’t have laughed if it had hit me, of course, but he probably would have if it had hit the floor and flung a cloud of ash everywhere.

Mom and I, on the other hand, would not have laughed if it had hit the floor and flung a cloud of ash everywhere. Particularly since it would probably have set off that damn carbon monoxide alarm again.

Lizzie and Skeeter the cats


  1. Diane

    And now, the rest of the story…

    Once she arrived in Pennsylvania and we got Mom settled into her new apartment, she passed Dad’s cremains to Walter and me. This meant it was now my job to find a place.

    For a few months, disguised as a bottle of Dom Perignon, the cremains sat next to the entertainment center. It’s a happy place where our family plays games and laughs a lot. During Christmas, Mom felt he should be accompanied by his favorite treats: a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a bag of bite-sized Snickers bars. After the holidays, I was once again faced with, “Where does he go now?” Not that he cares. It’s weird. The cremains sat in the corner of the Walter’s office until late summer.

    It was decided that Dad’s cremains would be transferred to a biodegradable urn. Next, Walter would take a solo motorcycle ride to send him on his way down the Ohio River, which borders his home state of West Virginia, flow into the Mississippi River, and finally to the warm waters of the gulf. Sounded peaceful and easy enough at the time.

    Our son, Daniel, and I were in charge of transferring the cremains from the plastic box to the new urn. The garage was chosen as the best place because if we did the pouring of cremains in the house, I may have to vacuum the sprinkles up. At least in the garage I could sweep the sprinkles into the wind and sunshine.

    Here we go. It looked like grit and dust. Face masks on. Daniel was designated to gently pour 10 pounds of cremains from the plastic bag into the decorative, cardboard, biodegradable tube I was holding. There was quite a bit of dust among the grit. Halfway through he looks at me and says, “I taste Grandpa.”

    At that point, I laughed, I cried, I steadied the tube. Then we both started giggling which made pouring cremains more challenging. However, the transfer was successful and Grandpa was sent on his way.

  2. Kerry

    Love this, Amber! I pictured every moment and sensed your dad’s personality as I read your words. So funny and full of pathos. “Sometimes portmanteau words truly fall short.” Brilliant! He would love this story and the cairn you made him with the champagne box and hat (and Aqua Regia hip flask)! Great to see the photos too.

    • Mia

      Ahhhh this is just a wonderful tribute and beautiful work… my favorite to date ❤️❤️❤️


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