Thursday, September 19, 2013

Meditation: On My Mother's Ashes

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.

--Sir Thomas Browne, "Urne-Burial"

I picked up my mother's ashes from the post office the other day; they came in a priority mail box, certified (not registered, as the post office employee told me was mandatory). "It's because they need to be under lock and key at all times," my own mail carrier told me later. The man at Georgetown University's Anatomical Donor section told me on the phone that UPS and FedEx do not deliver cremains. He was checking my address, which he (like everyone who calls with from another time zone) could not pronounce. According to a certificate, which came in a plain envelope, my mother's body--she died on June 14, 2011--was cremated on September 2, 2012. Her remains arrived, then, a full year later to the Kāne`ohe Post Office.

The lead story in the Star-Advertiser on September 16 was "Rights clash amid dispute over mural." The mural, "Forgotten Inheritance," by Hans Ladislaus, was installed at the Convention Center 16 years ago. Since the 4th of September of this year, it's been covered over by a black cloth. Native Hawaiians, including those who protect bones against construction, asserted that "they were offended by the depiction of bones in the sand [left exposed to the elements] at the edge of the mural." According to Native American Legal Corporation lawyer, Moses Haia, "iwi [bones] of our ancestors provide us with our foundation. It's what makes us who we are."

A few weeks ago, an artist at Na Mea Hawai`i told me about a group of native Hawaiians who very secretly bury the iwi in isolated locations on the Islands. In the old days, the person who hid the bones was killed, so that his secret could never be revealed. Many of these iwi are repatriated from museums, others from sites where rampant development is taking place--hotels, highrises, highways. In his law review essay on the iwi, Matthew Kekoa Keiley describes the burial of a young man's bones, and explains that "Nā iwi kūpuna represent the immortality of our ancestors. After the flesh decays, the bones remain. The bones of our Native Hawaiian ancestors symbolize an important link between our past, present, and future." From the sublime to the ridiculous, my google search also locates an episode of the new Hawaii 5-0 called "Ka Iwi Kapu (The Sacred Bones).

When my friend Charmaine Crockett, who has a beautiful new website on issues of death and dying, saw the date on my mother's ashes (I sent her the photos that were posted to this blog yesterday), she said that the delay is grounds to sue, that there has been disrespect paid to my mother's remains. When I tell a non-native colleague that my mother's ashes arrived, he says most people apparently never pick them up. Never could there be a starker difference between cultural notions of human remains and the way they represent (or fail to) our connections to the past, and to each other. She notes that I do not sound upset by this, but reminds me that remains are sacred to native Hawaiians. I respond that I'm not upset by the delay, that what is sacred in these remains is my memory of my mother. My sense of ancestry resonates not as belonging to a larger community, but of the small unit of daughter and mother.

My mother was never one to hold anything sacred; she would not have had much interest in her own remains, or anyone else's for that matter. A vicious combination of cynicism and fear, along with a healthier dose of realism, governed her notion of death, though occasionally she'd let on that she believed in reincarnation. That belief, such as it might have been, came divorced from any spiritual tradition and seemed to be the least of what she could take from traditions she otherwise admired not. "Can Martha go to heaven?" her Catholic school friends had asked of their one proto-Protestant class-mate. I gather the answer had been no, and that no had decided her against that spiritual path.


My mother's ashes. There's pathos in the apostrophe. She's no longer in possession of them. She never was in possession of them. "How the bulk of a man should sink into so few pounds of bones and ashes, may seem strange unto any who considers not its constitution, and how slender a masse will remain upon an open and urging fire of the carnall composition": Sir Thomas Browne. Their weight is literal; there appears to be no spiritual heft to these ashes as they sit on the floor beside my computer desk. Proust describes the world of Celtic belief as one where material objects hide spirits that escape when someone walks by later. He shifts that magic to memory in his study of how the past emerges (like new life) from odd encounters with the material world (a tea cup, a madeleine). So I might say that these ashes, sitting as quietly as my mother did in the years before she died, contain memories yet to be dislodged.

Her ashes sit beside me, not in the suburban chair she sat in at Arden Courts Alzheimer's home, her elbow slipping off the arm rest, right shoulder slumped lower than her left, but in a black box inside which a plastic bag holds visible gray ash. The box's label tells me where the remains were cremated (Beltsville, MD), when (9/2/12), her name (Martha J. Schultz) and includes a "cremation ID": 026518. The last line reads "Georgetown University School of Medicine." This is her epitaph.

My husband wonders why I did not have the ashes sent to Arlington National Cemetery, where my father's ashes are interred (after quite a fight between my mother and me). That would have been more practical, I admit. But to have them here, not quite knowing how to feel about them; not yet summoning involuntary memories; unsure of what to do with the undifferentiated material that was my mother's body; this means something. Meaning must await its unfolding. Perhaps it will be stored in a warehouse with other boxes of latent memory, or maybe it will never unfold. But these ashes, if not quite sacred to me, if not quite the Christian "dust to dust," sit still as possibility, containing a future not of their own making, but of ours.

"If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death, our life is a sad composition; We live with death, and die not in a moment."

--Sir Thomas Browne

"Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot turn back into firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and it has its own before and after. Although there is before and after, past and future are cut off. Ash stays at the position of ash and it has its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it is burned and becomes ash, after person dies, there is no return to living. However, in buddha dharma, it is a never-changing tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the laid-down way of buddha's turning the dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position at one time; death is also a position at one time. For instance, this is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer."


With thanks to Jeneva Burroughs Stone for introducing me to Sir Thomas Browne's essay (after hearing John Ashbery recite part of it) and to Charmaine Crockett, for offering another perspective on human remains, and for her beautiful virtual talking circle on death and dying.

Later in the day, I received this "breaking news" from the newspaper: "The mural, 'Forgotten Inheritance,' by Hans Ladislaus will be unveiled again for public viewing at the Hawai'i Convention Center after having been shrouded in black cloth since Sept. 4."

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