Copyright 1999, Lois June Wickstrom
Final Resting Place
Before my husband's mother died, she seemed healthy, but she sent us several
sets of seemingly contradictory instructions. She wanted a permanent plaque
somewhere with her ashes near by. A few weeks later, she called saying she
wanted her ashes in her rose garden. Then we got the phone call. She'd had a
fatal heart attack in a bar. When we finally arrived in California to take care
of the details, her friends were at her house wanting mementos. Not just books
and paintings. They'd brought houseplants to receive a spoonful of her ashes.
I didn't ask what last wishes my mother-in-law had given them. And from my
own years of living in California, I've learned not to question people's unusual
but harmless wishes. In fact, I learn from them. After giving away spoonfuls of
the ashes, I learned that the ashes weren't a unit that had to go in one place,
like a body. We could put half in the rose garden and keep half for a permanent
location near a plaque.
But nothing is ever simple. My husband's aunt and uncle came along to help.
They were so pleased with the friendly way in which we were handling all these
details, they decided that they wanted their ashes with her ashes and their
names on her plaque. So, that permanent location wasn't going to happen soon.
When my husband's uncle died, his daughter from his first marriage called to
ask us where the permanent location would be. We didn't know, but we offered her
half of her dad's ashes. She was thrilled to get them. And when my husband's
aunt died, we were moving again. Frankly, it looked like we might never settle
down in one place long enough to put up that plaque. When we moved, we took with
us a brass box with ashes of half of his mother, half of his uncle, and all of
Now, after six years at the same address, Philadelphia feels permanent. I
called a funeral home and asked the going rate to put up a permanent plaque.
They wanted $1000. I thought about it. I was willing to pay $1000, but not to a
funeral home that means nothing to me or them.
The three of them used to live in Chicago, where they loved the Museum of
Science and Industry. My husband called the museum and asked if they'd let us
put up a plaque honoring his three deceased relatives if we gave them $1000.
They responded that for $1000 they would list the three names one time in their
annual donors list in their annual report. That wasn't what they'd asked for.
Both my husband's mother and his aunt were teachers. My husband called his
old high school in Chicago to see if they'd let us put up the plaque in exchange
for a $1000 donation. They never got back with him.
I'm on the board of directors of the Memorial Society of Greater
Philadelphia. That's a political advocacy group that tries to keep funeral costs
down for its members and educate the public about low-cost ways to honor their
dead. After some discussion, my husband and I decided to ask them if we could
put the plaque on their office wall in exchange for the donation. They were
surprised. One member of the board suggested I put the plaque on a park bench.
Or maybe a church or synagogue.
My husband's relatives were activists. His mother was a progressive. They
were not park bench sitters. They would have approved of the Memorial Society.
So the Memorial Society accepted the donation.
One of the other members of the board told me that her mother has given her
explicit directions to a cherry bush in Central Park NY where she wants her
ashes scattered. The board member's brother wants the ashes on some family land,
but she promised her mother she'd do it, with no intention of keeping that
promise. I suggested she take a symbolic spoonful to Central Park. She's not
interested. The idea of dividing the ashes doesn't appeal to her. Other members
said they're glad I'm not their daughter-in-law.
But they did accept the donation and they are politically committed to
helping people honor their dead in ways that they choose. We talked about the
legality of scattering ashes in Central Park, and concluded that the best answer
is "Don't ask. Don't tell." They're clean pulverized ashes. Many
people put fireplace ashes on plants for the nutrient value. The only reason not
to do it would be to avoid upsetting other park visitors.
We'll be putting the ashes of my husband's mother, aunt, and
uncle on our garden this Spring. Last year, we buried a neighbor's cat there.
Some day, if we really do stay here, our ashes will be scattered there. It's
nice feeling like we are settling down somewhere. I finally understand the
meaning of a permanent place for the dead. It also means a permanent place for