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Aunt Margie always said she wanted to be buried in a plain pine box. But when she died, just short of her 90th birthday, there wasn’t a pine casket to be found anywhere in the city.
Undeterred, her grandson Christopher and neighbour Matthew set about making one. They downloaded plans from the Web, bought $200 worth of lumber, and in Matthew’s garage built a beautiful pine coffin for a beloved grandmother and friend.
During the prayers and funeral mass, I meditated on the simple, clean lines of the coffin and recalled other memorials in my experience that resonated with a similar do-it-yourself pragmatism.
My father’s death at 82 came 10 years after a stroke left him speechless and frail. We knew he wanted to be cremated, but none of the family knew what exactly he wanted done with his “cremains,” a neologism that unfailingly jars me.
My siblings are spread over three continents, but a couple of summers after Dad’s death, four of the five of us arranged to meet in Alberta. A plan emerged.
It turned out that Dad had given our younger brother his shotgun – a huge surprise to me, given that our surgeon father was not a seasoned hunter. We surmised that he’d bought the gun to go goose hunting with the local men, but that it was likely a one-off affair.
Our elder brother offered to load Dad’s ashes into emptied-out shotgun shells.
We loaded up kids and camping gear, and headed off to Corkscrew Mountain on a forestry trunk road on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. We were going to blast Dad into eternity.
We knew exactly the spot. In 1961, at Easter, Dad had hooked up the holiday trailer to our Pontiac Parisienne for a camping weekend in the mountains. On an icy hairpin turn on the rough Corkscrew Mountain road, the car had skidded, fishtailing vertiginously. To our right was a craggy, dynamite-blasted mountainside; to our left, a terrifying drop and sure death. Thankfully, we hit the mountain.
It was madness even to be on this road in early April, but we were used to our father’s crazy risk-taking. Until his stroke, he lived life largely and robustly. His rallying cry was always, “Push things to the full!”
At sunset on a late-summer evening, at the exact spot where our family narrowly escaped death some 30 years earlier, the low slant of the sun turned the Clearwater River golden. It looked like God’s open heart spread out before us.
Each of the siblings took a turn to offer words appropriate to the gravitas of the ceremony and the splendour of the setting.
Spiritually, we are a mixed bunch. Our elder sister is eccentric, exhibitionist; a teacher of circle dancing and founding mother of a madcap neo-pagan dance camp in Wales. Our elder brother is an extremely devout Catholic, the youngest brother a disciplined seeker of enlightenment and judo practitioner. Me, I’m not just a lapsed but a collapsed Catholic, somewhat floundering spiritually, drawn to Buddhism.
There was one tense moment. I felt my very Catholic brother clench as our sister referred to “God, our Mother.” But then it was time to send our dad off with a bang. Literally. We took turns blasting Dad off the side of the mountain.
Reeling from the impact of my first-ever firing of a gun, I was lost in the echoes ricocheting through that beautiful valley.
In spite of our spiritual differences, we congratulated ourselves, heartily agreeing that Dad would have loved this send-off, that we did his memory and legacy proud.
Around the campfire that night, we told story after story of our colourful, adventurous pater familias. The grandchildren, who had known him mostly as a frail, speechless old man, were suitably impressed. It was grand.
It occurs to me that as the shadows lengthen for the baby boom generation, more of us are going to be drawn to create customized memorials for family members, our friends – and even ourselves.
When my father-in-law, Bernie, died at 86, my husband Mark organized a traditional Catholic funeral mass, but he felt it wasn’t a fully satisfying memorial for him or his dad. Bernie had spent a lot of time with our family after his wife died, and over poker games and holiday dinners he’d cultivated friendships with many of our friends.
Mark built a memorial log bench for his dad, and when it was ready we invited our friends who knew Bernie. We shared a meal, then retired to the garage, where Mark had carefully chosen something from his dad’s life collection of tools and garage stuff for each friend.
With each presentation, a symbolic connection and a story. Kathy, who tangos with chronic illness and works hard for spiritual balance in her life, got a well-worn wooden spirit level.
Our old friend Mac got the late-1950s stainless steel toaster missing a plug. The story? Bernie took 10-year-old Mark to Woodward’s in Calgary to buy a new toaster. Along with his kid, Bernie took a loaf of bread and an extension cord. To Mark’s chagrin, Bernie plugged in each toaster and snapped down two slices of bread. When confronted by an irate salesman, Bernie tried to negotiate price, insisting the toaster he wanted to buy was now “used.”
Mac was happy to get the toaster. He was sure he had a plug somewhere in his old garage that would exactly fit.