My father’s final wish was that his body be cremated.
When he wrote that request in his empty office half an hour before he died, it had been nine months since I’d seen him. Nine months since I’d felt his arms wrap around me. Nine months since I held his rough, dry hands. Then, never again. Before I had even booked a plane to the West Coast, the autopsy was performed, his remains transported to the crematorium, and his body reduced to ash.
But, I paid for the process, and so the ashes came into my possession. Shipped first by US post to my mother’s house, they held the place of honor at a memorial service in my hometown to honor my father’s life. With cracking voice and red-rimmed eyes, I lit a candle and said good-bye.
My aunt found the box that we placed them him in. Brown leather, it reminded us both of his favorite couch, the one that travelled with our family from state to state, job to job, and eventually took up residence in the office of the company he began. Back in those days when he was so proud, so full of hope. So alive.
“I can’t believe I’m putting my big brother into a box,” she said that day when she brought it over for my inspection and approval. The words sounded a bit absurd. The whole thing seemed hugely absurd. How could this man, my daddy, the lover of leather couches, the entrepreneur, the big brother possible fit in this tiny box? And yet, we lifted the heavy container of ashes and together, we placed it into the little leather box. A perfect fit. A final resting place. We lowered the lid.
When the service was over and it was time for my family to board a plane and return to our West Coast life, the box came with us. Many people don’t realize that you can travel by plane with a box of cremated ashes. We showed the certificate at the security checkpoint. For once, the TSA officials were deferential, apologetic, patient. They asked permission to examine the box, to examine what was left of my father. Ashes. Just ashes in a box.
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. Today, my priest burns the palms from last year’s Passion Sunday service. He dips his thumb in the soft, gray remains and marks my forehead with a cross. The dusty smudge itches my skin. I do not wipe it away. I do not wash it off. It will stay there, a reminder to me and to all who see that this is what it comes down to.
And yet, we are more than ash.
My father’s wish to be cremated, I obliged, but he had one other wish. May he forgive me, I shall never fulfill his request to have his ashes scattered. I think it was my father’s desperate hope that this life was all there was, and that by ending his life, he could escape from everything. But, we are more than ash. One day, Scripture teaches, even the very bodies of the redeemed shall be raised to new life. This is why the Catholic Church rejects the scattering of ashes. It is one way we acknowledge that our bodies have value, that we are ever-lasting though this world is not, that there is more to come.
We are nothing but ash. Yet, we are also phoenixes, and from the ashes, we will one day rise.
The leather box sits on the piano for now, until the day when we finally make the arrangements to bury my father. I like to think that Da hears his grandchildren bang away at the keys and sing out of tune to words of their own creation. Sometimes, when the house is quiet and I am alone, I sing to him. I write him letters. I slip a birthday card beneath the leather lid. I am saddened that his warm arms, his rough hands are reduced to these itchy, gray particles in a heavy box. I am hopeful that, one day, his arms will hold me again.
For this I pray.
And, I am humbled in hope.