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I’m Not Making an Ash of Myself!

By Merrill Lynn Hansen

Cremation, Hollywood Style: John Goodman accidentally throws a friend's ashes on Jeff Bridges

I was eight years old when I first heard of a dead body having been turned into ashes, but I had no idea how it was done. I overheard my parents and other relatives discussing why they thought a recently deceased distant cousin Sarah (not her real name) had been a "very nervous person."

One of my relatives said, "Oh, she's been nervous since she was a little girl and accidentally knocked over the urn that had the ashes of her grandmother's lover in it. When her grandmother saw the ashes all over the rug and furniture, she became hysterical, started screaming at Sarah and never forgave her."

When I heard this story, I was horrified. How was a person turned to ashes? I didn't dare ask anyone because clearly it was not intended that I hear what they were discussing, and the fact that the ashes belonged to the elderly woman's lover was far more interesting to them than how he had been reduced to ash and stored for safekeeping.

Several years later, my mother had me accompany her to a memorial service for a cousin I'd met only a few times. Prior to the service, people were whispering, and while I couldn't hear what their whispers were about, there were more scornful faces than sad ones in the room. My mother whispered to me that my cousin had been cremated.

"A shanda," she said. That’s Yiddish for something scandalously shameful.

Mom was among the many there who couldn't believe that a "nice Jewish boy" (he was in his 40's) would have wanted to be cremated, and they decided among themselves that my cousin's wife, who wasn't Jewish, was responsible for this horrible sin. It’s worth noting, though, that since 2015, cremation has been America’s most popular form of disposal. Pandemic precautions and restrictions have boosted the rate to 56 percent of all send-offs.

Personally, I have never really considered cremation an option. When I was battling cancer in 1998, and my prognosis was nothing short of horrible, my mother called me the night before I was going into the hospital for several weeks.

"Guess what Daddy and I bought today?" she said.

I immediately thought it must have been a rotisserie chicken or cans of tuna fish because my mother was always stopping by my house and dropping off food. But she cheerfully announced that she and my father had gone "shopping" with one of her sisters and her husband, and they had bought cemetery plots. Mom mentioned that she and my father bought two extra spaces — one for me and one for my then-husband, as if it was a "buy two, get two for free" sale.

She then immediately told me that the purchases had nothing to do with my being ill. This was simply "something Daddy and I have always wanted to do."

I knew right away that buying cemetery plots was not on my father's wish list because I heard him in the background yelling, "God dammit Ruthie, I told you not to tell her! Now she's going to be scared!" (I was.)

My father and uncle have since passed away and I've been to the cemetery many times. Every time I'm there, I notice people standing on my plot while they look at the cemetery map to see where their loved ones are buried. "Milton is right around here. I think he's near that tree."

It is a very eerie feeling.

But who knows where I’ll end up if I don’t end up six feet under?

I recently read that Truman Capote's ashes were sold at an auction for $45,000 after the dear friend he’d willed his remains to died. I have no idea what the going rate is for an iconic author's ashes, but $45,000 seems rather cheap to me, considering that a lock of Marilyn Monroe's hair sold for $70,000.

The ashes of planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker are buried on the moon. The ashes of Keith Richards’ father are buried in his famous son’s nose. (The Rolling Stones guitarist, an unabashed drug enthusiast, admitted snorting them during a cocaine binge.)

“He was cremated and I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow,” Richards told New Musical Express in 2007. “My dad wouldn't have cared, he didn't give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I'm still alive.”

Ben Stiller manages to destroy a family urn while dining with his new girlfriend's parents

Never one to be conventional, Hunter S. Thompson's ashes were left with actor Johnny Depp, who spent $3 million dollars shooting them out of a cannon as part of a fireworks display.

While not everyone can have a big bang send off like Hunter Thompson’s, I never realized that there are worse ash mishaps than being left in a stranger's file drawer for years the way author Dorothy Parker was.

For example, the U.S Postal Service is your only choice to ship cremations, and it promotes its service in a video that says, "Trust the USPS." But if you think it's stressful waiting for a loved one's letter that is lost en route, that's nothing compared to when your loved one is lost in the mail.

I read one woman’s lament about waiting weeks for the Postal Service to locate the package of her father's remains. When it finally arrived, the box was cracked, the bubble wrap was popped, and the container was broken. Her Papa's ashes spilled out onto her granite countertop and all over her hands. She later learned that the package had been run over and dragged at the airport by the transfer trailer.

Honestly, if I were to consider cremation I'd much prefer that I be in someone's carry-on luggage.

I also read the story of a woman who’d received an urn with her father's ashes and kept it on her fireplace mantle. One day, ten years later, she picked up the urn and as she was looking at the bottom of it, she realized that the name there was not her father's. She had a stranger’s ashes.

I have to admit that my first reaction was one of horror — not because the ashes weren’t her father’s but because the woman obviously hadn't picked up the urn and dusted her fireplace mantle in ten years. I dust every week!

I have read stories that had happy endings, although I was a bit baffled by one:

The ashes of a grandfather had blown away in a hurricane, but four months later "he" was miraculously found in another city, still in the original bag that had been given to his family hours before their home was completely leveled.

How could that happen?

I’ve searched everywhere in my car for the last two years trying to find the bag of sugar-free candy that fell off my front seat when I had to make a sudden stop. That bag is still missing. Yet, a bag of someone's ashes were blown away in a hurricane and later found miles away?

But the story that really upset me was about a cremation service employee who accidentally went up in smoke while napping on a stretcher after working 16 hours straight. Supposedly, another employee mistook him for a corpse, took him into the crematory, turned the heat up to between 1400 and 1800 degrees, "and no one noticed the mistake until coworkers heard [the unfortunate slumbering gentleman] scream for about 15 seconds." By then, it was too late to correct it. (Ya think?)

An embarrassing ashes moment at the Oscars, thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen

I later read that the story may have been a hoax, but I swear I've been hearing that man screaming in my head for weeks.

Prior to my pursuit of information about cremation, I had no idea how many creative ways there are for people to commemorate their loved ones by using their cremains. After reading that tattoo ink can be made with human ashes, I will never again be able to look at someone with a tattoo that says "MOM" without wondering if that tattoo really is Mom.

I also read that ashes can be mixed with paint to create a portrait of a deceased loved one. That would make an interesting subject for a conversation.

"That's a beautiful portrait of your husband. He looks so lifelike."

"Thank you. All he needed was to be mixed with a little firehouse red."

I also came across an advertisement and learned that "the ashes of your loved one can be integrated into a unique handcrafted glass memorial." The selling feature was that a glass blower only needs less than a teaspoon of cremains; just enough ashes "to maintain the integrity of each piece."

Reading about a designer who creates dinnerware, coffee mugs, and other ceramic pieces "glazed with the cremated ashes of dead loved ones" made me queasy. I realize that some people might think that eating off a plate or drinking from a coffee cup glazed with a loved one will infuse their memory into everyday life, but I will no longer eat a meal at the home of anyone who has custom-made dinnerware.

"Oh, your plates are beautiful! Who are they?"

At some point, the list of things that could be made from cremation ashes started to read like a Martha Stewart book of centerpieces you can create for every holiday , until I read about businesses that can turn half a cup of cremains into stunning and elegant diamonds by a process that mimics how the earth creates natural gems.

The photographs that accompanied the ads were beautiful.

I immediately thought about my ex-husband, who during our years of marriage was never one to spoil me with jewelry. While I hadn't previously wished him any harm, had I known that his ashes could be turned into diamonds ,I would have negotiated during our divorce for half a cup of his "future" remains in the hope he’d someday become the beautiful diamond ring and pendant I always wanted.

But it is the practical advice that spoiled the illusion I had of a beautiful and serene scattering of a beloved one's ashes upon a favorite lake or the ocean.

Hopefully, no one will ask me to take part in that ritual, as loving and beautiful as it may be, because I have no idea how to tell what direction "upwind" is and will probably be the one the ashes blow back on, sticking to my hair, eyes, skin and lipstick. (I always wear lipstick.)

I am not even going to consider talking to my son and daughter about the prospect of cremation and whether they would want to keep my ashes near and dear to them. Surely they would tease me unmercifully, although lovingly.

"Oh, thank you, Mom, but I think it would be nice if Ken had your ashes. You've always loved New York, and I can be with you whenever I visit Ken."

"Oh, thank you, Mom, but i think Shayna should have your ashes. Any urn she picks out will look beautiful by her fireplace, especially since her decor is so eclectic."

However, I do think I'll keep the cemetery plot my parents bought me — just so I won't wind up being sold at a garage sale.


Merrill Hansen
Merrill Hansen

Merrill Hansen is a legal assistant, living in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She describes herself as a frustrated writer, who wishes she could be Nora Ephron (when she was alive), if only for a day. She is a news-, political- and FB-junkie, a combination that requires a constant reminder that she needs to take deep cleansing breaths when responding to people who don't agree with her.

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