Sunday, May 21, 2017

Rituals of Death, Burying Mom’s Ashes & Remembering the Past

Before Mom died I never really focused on the rituals surrounding death in Western society beyond how to accurately portray mourning in the mid-19th Century as a Civil War Living Historian. While I experienced the loss of innumerable friends and family members over the years, I often grieved at a distance because of geographical distance, money, time, the passage of years separating us, thoughtlessness, not knowing what to say, or psychological inertia.

Funerals provide us with a ritual that allows us to publicly acknowledge a loved one has died, bring together the community of those who want to give love and support, to remember a life, to process the death, and give an opportunity to openly grieve. People come together to console one another and share remembrances.

Because Mom chose to be cremated and my dad didn’t want Mom to be buried in the cold, we waited until Mother’s Day to bury her ashes — approximately 4 1/2 months after the funeral. We had learned many years ago never to forget Mother’s Day; so it was appropriate to celebrate her life on this day. I was fearful the burial would serve to rip the scabs off the gaping wound in my heart and return my heartache to ground zero. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, my Dad, my brother, my sister, my husband, my parents’ neighbors of 58 years and a close family friend gathered at Mount Hope Cemetery in Logansport, Indiana to bury the urn that contained her ashes. We scattered rose petals on her grave and the beloved relatives nearby, including my baby brother Bruce, Grandpa & Grandma Conroy, Aunt Lerna and Aunt Esther. There were no tears. Dad placed the urn in the ground. I tossed a bit of earth into the hole. But we ultimately concluded that Mom wasn’t there. She wasn’t in the urn. She wasn’t in the hole. Instead she was living in our hearts and at one with the Universe. 

Over Mother’s Day weekend she gave us signs that she was in a good place. Pennies on the sidewalk or a chair; a Black Hills gold bracelet appearing on the dresser; the owner of the house next door that Mom had wanted to buy and tear down for decades coming by to offer the property for sale; and even a sign that she was looking out for the little girls who had been murdered 20 miles away in February.

The next day my husband, my sister and I went back to the cemetery to look for the graves of family members who had passed many years before — my maternal great grandparents, Aunt Kate, Uncle Mart, Uncle Al and Aunt Marguerite. That is when it struck me that the rituals of death, burial, headstones and  memorials provide us not only with solace, but also a window into the past, a reminder of those who came before. There is something peaceful and fascinating about looking at tombstones of those who walked this earth in another time, reminding us of the continuum of time, the power of the Universe, the vagaries of life, the knowledge that life is finite and to celebrate each moment we have. I am reminded to be grateful for each day. Perhaps that is the gift of the ritual. 

I love you Mom and miss you every moment of every day. But we are better for having had you in our lives and know you will be with us in our hearts as long as we live. 

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