As we watched our young children reverently scatter my mother’s fake ashes on the sand dunes surrounding the beach cabin, clutching the powdery mix in their small hands first to their hearts, and then releasing it, I knew that someday I might have to tell them what happened to the real ashes. Earlier that morning, my sisters Susan and Sheila and I had held our own ceremony by the ocean’s edge to honor Mom. None of us had ever seen or dealt with anyone’s ashes. My father, who had died 12 years earlier, seemingly thought he was going to live forever — he had no will. Believe me, all kinds of hell can break out when there isn’t a will. When some of Dad’s fishing buddies wanted to take his ashes out on a boat and scatter them in Monterey Bay, in her grief, Mom agreed. The family hadn’t gone. Why ever that decision was made, I certainly regret it now. At our urging, soon after Dad’s death, Mom created a living trust, which was a great gift to us. Yet she hadn’t expressed her desires as to her “remains.” When her health began to decline, I asked her if she had any ideas on the subject. She didn’t like the question and turned it on me. I said: “Just like Dad, I want my ashes to be scattered in Monterey Bay. Unlike Dad, I want my loved ones to do the scattering.” She nodded. “That’s what I want too.”
Not long after that conversation, Mom died. The following Valentine’s Day, our small family gathered at the beach cabin to honor her wishes. It was a two-fold plan. We daughters would have an early morning private ceremony at the beach, scattering some of the ashes there, and the grandkids would have one later in the day, to scatter the remaining ashes around our beloved cabin. Just before dawn, we sisters made the short trek down to the shore, carrying the box with mom’s ashes, my guitar, our journals, a candle, matches. The sun’s arrival over the pines and cypresses turned the sea every shade of iridescent blue and green. We sang “Amazing Grace,” recited poetry, and from our rocky perch above the waves, took turns scattering the ashes. The barest of offshore breezes rose with each handful, gently carrying the ashes away from us, to the west, to the sea. We could not have asked for a lovelier ceremony–until I noticed Sheila holding up the box and shaking the last of the ashes into the air and water. “Wait! Stop!” I yelled. In the moment, full of emotion, she had forgotten to save some of the ashes for the kids’ ceremony. She quickly turned the box upright, but it was too late. Barely a half teaspoon remained. Stunned, we stood for a minute, staring at the waves and shoreline stretching out southward to Carmel. Then, inspiration hit me. “The ashes! They looked like fireplace ashes, right? Fireplace ashes mixed with…sand, almost. We’ll mix our own, and just put it in the box. I don’t think the kids will be able to tell the difference. I don’t think I could.” We quickly gathered everything up, and hightailed it back to the cabin, hoping the kids would still be sleeping. Our luck held. Taking two cupfuls of fireplace ashes, we added a half cup of sand, shook it up, poured it into the box. A few minutes later the kids emerged from their bedrooms. They asked how our ceremony went. It was beautiful, we replied. Really beautiful. Now, let’s all have some breakfast, and then you can make your ceremony for Grandma’s ashes.
–Writer Maggie McKaig is a singer/songwriter/instrumentalist who makes her home outside of Nevada City, California.