send Email  copyright 2013


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 his aunt.

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 the living.