In my experience, the most difficult time in the difficult process of burying a loved one occurs just before the funeral when everyone except the family is asked to leave the room where the body lies in state and the family says its last good-byes.
Family members gather together around the open casket. They often hold to one another. Often there is weeping that intensifies as one of the directors slowly and respectfully closes the casket. The family is ushered out for the service and the casket is rolled into the chapel sanctuary for the funeral..
The whole process is carried out with dignity, respect, and attention to the gravity of the moment.
Linda died on December 8th.
She was cremated on December 16th.
Today, I went to the funeral home to pick up her ashes alone.
I had called the funeral home and was told that I could come by at any time to pick them up.
I parked, opened the door, and walked into the large, well-appointed building. This was the very funeral home which had served Linda’s family over the years. Her grandmother, her dad, and her sister all were prepared for burial here.
I entered into the corridor. Large rooms with beautiful antique furniture and lovely art work opened their doors on either side of hallway. A grandfather clock stood watch over the facility reminding all that entered into his dignified presence that time was passing by one tick, one tock at a time.
I walked until I came to what I thought was the business office.
No one was there.
I walked a little further down the hallway.
I heard a voice behind me: “May I help you?”
“Yes. I am James Street. I am here to collect my wife’s ashes.”
The man who had spoken stood just outside the business office in the hallway. He was dressed in a suit and tie. Every hair was in place. He coat buttoned.
“Linda. Linda Street.”
“Oh…yes. You called earlier.”
“One moment please.”
The man disappeared through a door in the back of the office.
While he was gone, the young woman who had helped me when I came on the 9th of December entered the room. She and I had sat at a large mahogany table. I told her that my wife, Linda, was to be cremated. She immediately stood and retrieved all sorts of memorial kitsch for my consideration. A tear drop pendant containing ashes on a chain. A blue glass globe that resembled a large glass marble which also contained ashes. She showed me other memorial items for the disposition of at least part of my loved one’s ashes.
I felt a bit stunned that the memorial items sales pitch began so quickly, so abruptly.
“No,” I said. “I am not interested in that.”
She then showed me several urns that I might consider. When I told her I wasn’t sure about urns yet, she showed me slides of other available urns.
The prices of the urns began at $250 and the prices went much higher as she displayed each one.
I explained to her that I was not sure where the urn would be placed or when. I told her that since I was not sure that I had better wait before I purchased an urn.
She stopped showing me ‘items’ and produced a stack of papers for me to sign.
Along the way, she informed me as to the cost of cremation.
She told me that I could pay by check or credit card.
I produced my MasterCard.
Following the procedures, she told me I could pick up Linda’s remains after the 16th of December. They would hold them for 30 days.
We shook hands and I left.
Today, she entered the office, glanced at me, and didn’t speak to me at all before she left.
A couple of minutes later, the man reentered the office.
He carried a shopping bag. Hunter green. The name of the funeral home was printed in gold ink on the side of the bag. He set it on the counter that separated me from the business office. He laid some papers on the counter and told me to sign them.
“Excuse me. I have a phone call.”
He stepped away to the phone.
I signed the papers.
He hung up the phone.
“Is there anything else?” I asked.
“No. That’s it.”
I took the shopping bag..
He said nothing.
I turned, walked out of the door and about ten feet down the hall I thought to myself: “I will not carry her ashes as if I were leaving Macy’s with a new shirt and some underwear.”
I lifted the bag and glanced into it.
There was a black plastic box inside.
I lifted the bag to my chest.
I wrapped my arms around it.
I had read that the ashes of an adult woman weighs about 4 pounds.
It felt as if it weighed 1000.
When I got to the car, I set the bag in the passenger’s seat.
That’s where she always sat. Linda didn’t drive.
That’s where she had sat when I drove her home from the hospital on December 5th.
She seemed so content that day.
She was going home. To her bed. To her Peanuts sheets and her dogs. And me.
“Well, bud,” I said. “I’m taking you back home again.”
I started the car and drove into the large parking lot behind the funeral home.
I parked the car..
I had the wretched stretch of asphalt to myself.
My hands held to the steering wheel.
I rested my head on my hands.
And I wailed.
After I stopped crying, I drove away. All I could think about was the indifference of those funeral directors. I thought about how the woman had been so cordial when she was trying to sell me something. I thought about how the telephone was more important to the man than I was. I thought about the casual way he set Linda’s ashes on the counter. I thought about the shopping bag printed in gold glowing with the name of the funeral home. I thought about how everything serves the purpose of marketing, well, except human compassion. It occurred to me that our ‘dealings’ had come to an end. So had the feigned concern, the solemn comforting voice, the patience…all of it only served to grease me up for the close. There was nothing more to sell so there was no reason for slimy solicitude, no reason for greasy gratitude.
My tears had turned to anger.
I had been wounded again.
The best guitar store in Atlanta was only a couple fo miles down the street. I decided to go there. I was curious about Martin D-28s. “After everything I’ve been through, I deserve one of those.” I didn’t care what it cost. (Well, not until I would have had to pay for it!)
I crawled along in traffic. Steaming.
I continued to mutter to myself when the Thought that Thinks Itself said, “Are you just going to have Linda wait for you in the car or are you taking her in?”
“Good grief, what am I thinking?” She had been so quiet.
The Thought said, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to a chapel?”
The Thought can be ironic if not caustic.
The guitar store was my chapel.
The Thought won.
Dancing Man (3)
I turned toward home but given my choice (or perhaps I was directed into penance!), I turned down Piedmont Avenue.
Bumper to bumper.
After several minutes, I turned left onto Sidney Marcus Boulevard and crawled toward I-85. At the first red light, I saw a woman wearing red shoes shout at the sky. She waved her right hand in the air in a gesture of anger toward someone up there.
The light changed.
I drove a short way and came to a stop under the 400 bridge. A man stood wrapped in a blanket. He looked like a burrito standing at attention.
It was cold and the wind all but shook the car as it raged.
At the next red light, a man walked toward me. He carried a pasteboard sign a little larger than a business envelope. He was bald and wearing a green t-shirt. His ears protruded from the side of his head. His bottom lip drooped almost to his chin.
As he drew closer I could see the writing on his little sign.
He passed a black SUV two cars ahead of me.
The door to that SUV swung open. The man in the SUV stepped out. He wore a black hat that resembled the hats worn by the cavalry, the ones with the braided gold hat band and tassels on the brim.
I thought he was going to hit the man with the sign.
Instead, he ripped off his own black coat and gave it to the man.
The man with the sign threw his arms around the cavalry man’s neck.
He raised his hands toward the sky, the little sign in his left hand and the black coat in is right. He spun and danced as the light turned green.
As I passed him, I thought, “If I had a hundred dollar bill on me, I would give it to him in exchange for that sign.”
I turned up the volume on my car stereo. Apple Music played. It has about 6 hours of songs I bought years ago. All kinds of music. That was not my preference but I let it go. I crossed Lenox Road and onto Buford Highway. I was in Linda’s old stomping grounds. I drove up to North Druid Hills Road and took a right.
The music played but I wasn’t listening. I was still fuming.
Just as traffic started moving toward the bridge over I-85, I heard that all-too-familiar piano, those tinkling chords…I turned the volume knob up:
“My Jesus, My Savior,
Lord there is none like you
All of my days, I want to praise,
The wonders of your mighty love.”
The tears returned.
Linda, a hymn-girl who was not a fan of contemporary Christian music, LOVED that song. It’s the only CCM song she LOVED or even liked.
“Shout to the Lord…”
Another red-light and then another.
I cranked the volume even louder for the grand finale.
The song ended.
As I turned off onto the entrance ramp onto 85, I could not help but think I had been given a gift right there in the midst of the indifference, kindness, and chaos that is Atlanta traffic.
I pressed the accelerator so that I could hit I 85 at speed.
The radio was still cranked up.
Suddenly, there came a clash and thunder.
I glanced upward for a moment.
“Very funny,” I said as I glanced over at Linda.
Things felt a little warmer.