(5 minute read)
From my journal – September 6, 2018
Today my fingernails are filled with soil and the ashes of people I’ve known. I have an unusual job. As a minister, I have the honor on a regular basis of helping to scatter people’s ash, the remains of church members and their loved ones. Sometimes it is out in nature or at a family’s house. Often, it is in a small memorial garden on the property of the congregation I serve.
What most people probably don’t realize is that there is always some leftover ash. Sometimes, it is left in the bottom of the container where our hands reach in to pass the remains along to family and friends before we let them slip onto the earth. That moment is one of the most meaningful I ever get to take part in. Palms outstretched, a handful of ash and bone placed into the hands of someone’s sibling, friend, partner, child, or parent. It’s like an odd, beautiful communion. And, at the end, there is often some left over.
Today was one of those days. There was more ash than usual. The family of some church members had brought the ashes of both their parents, having held onto some for decades, until both had died and could be scattered together. They didn’t want to scatter the ash themselves, just for us to have them. More was left over from when we scattered the remains of another beloved member – plans had changed, and so there they were, waiting for us. My colleague, Beth, and I decided that today, we would attend to the ash that had been left waiting too long. Three people.
In the middle of our work day, we quietly got the ash and some small tools to scatter them, and we went out together to lay them to rest. We went to the garden, named each person whose ash we held in our hands, let what was left slip to the earth, and we prayed over them each.
Scattering human ash isn’t like it is often portrayed in the movies, with gentle, fine grains being carried on the wind. It is heavier, grittier than that, more substantial. There are small fragments of bone that rub against your fingers, ash that clings and sticks to your skin and clothes. Today was gritter. It is early September in Texas, which means it is still really hot. The ash mixed with sweat and clung to our hands. One person’s remains had larger pieces of bone than we’re used to, and so we silently stared at the pieces in our hands, feeling the weight.
I have no idea what a person watching us out of context might have thought. How odd we must’ve looked – the two of us in dress clothes in the garden, sweating in the Texas heat, silently standing over the soil and muttering prayers over the remains of people gone.
But I have to tell you, it was good medicine for me. I was feeling pretty low today, about myself and the world. It was a day where everything had seemingly gone wrong already, and the day wasn’t half over. I had gotten in my own way and other people’s at work. My kids woke up at an unimaginable hour, and so did I, with what seemed liked non-stop whining from all of us. I felt unproductive in important tasks, and I was just in a bad mood overall, feeling low. Placing that ash into the earth, their ash, did me good. It was, as it usually is, a shot of instant perspective. So little matters. What does matter, matters so much. It’s an unusual job I have, but one that comes with these amazing blessings.
You and I are temporary, like everyone you’ve ever met and loved. The perspective gained from holding human ash in your hands is hard to replicate. The symbolism that comes with letting physical evidence of your finitude slip through your fingers and stick to you all at the same time is hard to miss.
In her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver says:
“…To Live in this world
You must be able to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Those words are true in my experience, but they are easier said than done. This being temporary business – this ash and bone, recycled over and over – it is beautiful, but it isn’t easy. It’s not like some office inspirational poster that says, “Hang in there, you’re temporary!” It’s not like just the knowledge of being finite fixes anything once and for all. But something about the tangible experience works. Having the ash, the remains of people I’ve known, and some I haven’t, mixed with soil under my fingernails on a sweltering day in the Texas heat – it was good medicine. The intimacy with life and death that comes with holding the ash of other people is good practice. One of the people who we scattered today had no idea that I would one day hold their remains in my hands, and yet there we were, connected in this intimate way.
I wonder whose hands will have my ash under their fingernails? Will they place what’s left of me into the earth with the same care we took today? More? Less?
I hope that you get to do this for someone. I hope that someday, someone feels the grit of my ash and bone slip between their fingers and into the soil. Maybe my children will do it, or others I love. Perhaps a stranger. Not because it will be good for me, but because it will be good for whoever holds them.
None of this is new insight, but it helps me to remember. You are temporary. So is every person you’ve ever met or loved. Each moment passes. This whole thing is a blessing, and a short one.
In the biggest sense, so little matters. What does matter, matters so much.