I left my family at my mother’s home to meet my sister and brother-in-law at the crematorium. Even though I knew the box with my mother’s body would be there, it still surprised me when I walked in and saw it.
Two men in suits stood with their hands folded and greeted us. One asked if we wanted to view the body, and we said no. We had already said our goodbyes, and it was a week since Maggie had died. I thought of what she might look like.
The mortician who had been taking care of the details of her memorial service told us exactly what to expect: a flame in the rear of the chamber, the sound the door would make when it closed, and the swoosh of the initial blast of the fire consuming the box.
As we stood and watched the box enter the chamber and heard the sounds of the fire beginning the process of turning my mother’s body to ashes, we cried. We sat on the bench opposite the chamber, talked about Maggie, and watched the thermometer rise. After some time I asked my sister and brother-in-law to let me sleep, and I lay down on the bench, covering myself with the coral meditation shawl that had covered my mother in the last three days of her life. I curled my body and felt warm.
After I had dozed for some time, the mortician returned to the room to check if it was time to turn down the heat. The temperature had reached 1,965 degrees. He asked if I wanted to stay, and I said yes. As I watched, he opened the chamber door. I then saw the most amazing sight of my life. The chamber was aglow, and my mother’s skeleton was intact. Flames leaped from the pelvis, the skull was bright light and flame, and the heart-shaped stone my daughter had given my mother was on fire next to her skull, facing in the same direction. I could only say, “Amazing, it’s amazing,” as I watched in awe.
The mortician closed the door and said it was time to turn down the flame. I went to tell my sister and brother-in-law, who waited in another room, what I had seen and asked if they wanted to see also. We returned to the cremation room and asked if the door could be opened again. This time I noticed the flames and glow had dimmed, and there was more definition to the skeleton, with crumbling of bone. We all stood in awe at the sight of the burning skeleton, then we waited together as the temperature decreased. The door was opened again. Our next sight was of the small flames remaining in the pelvis—the largest bone of the body and the one most intact—the lit skull, and smoldering skeletal bones and ash.
The young mortician tied on an apron over his coat and tie and started the process of sweeping the bones and ash into the receptacle below the door. The broom he used was eight feet long and reached to the back of the oven. With one pass the bones on the left side disintegrated and turned to ash; the second pass moved the right side. After most of the bones and ash had been swept, he used another broom with a sharp, round head to scrub away the remainder. For the final phase he put on large heat-resistant gloves. One at a time, he picked up three bone fragments that had fallen inside the door.
We walked with him out of the room and watched him place the receptacle on a table. He sifted through the bone and ash with his hands and removed my mother’s teeth bridges, then used a magnet to pick up staples from the cardboard box that had contained her body. We saw the stone heart my daughter had given me to place alongside my mother before she died; it had broken in half. My sister and I took a vertebra, a small wrist bone, the broken heart, and the upper bridge.
We then entered another room where the final process was completed. We were given gowns and masks to wear while the remaining bones were ground into smaller ash. We saw the refrigerator where our mother’s body had lain for one week. There was a white board with names corresponding to the placement of the bodies within. We asked where our mother’s body had been; the mortician said it had been the top left of the four places.
We moved to the finishing table, where the process was explained. The ashes would go in a container, there would be a whirring sound, and a vacuum would be used for any ash that escaped from the blender. After the blender started, a fine ash dust spread across the table, into the air, and onto the cabinets to the right of the table. My mouth and eyes opened in shock behind my mask, and I looked into my sister’s eyes. I watched as she used her finger to write “Maggie” on the cabinet door. When the blender stopped, the vacuum inhaled the remaining ash, commingling it with ash from all the others that clung to its surface in a thick coat.
The mortician then took out four plastic bags: one for the bones and teeth bridge, one for ashes we would scatter the next evening, one for ashes we would spread at the one-year anniversary, and the largest for ashes we would bring to Rockport, Massachusetts, in two month’s time. Each of the bags was labeled with my mother’s name, Margaret O’Brien, and placed in a white plastic container he gave us. The box was placed in a purple velvet pouch.
We left with my mother’s ashes, returned to my sister’s home, and put a silk cloth with a Buddha image over the container.
The next evening my sister and I brought the box to the Santa Barbara beach apartment where my mother had lived. I remembered talking with Maggie right after she had moved there. She told me that she hated its location by the railroad tracks and missed her cottage in the trees. I told her to think of it as temporary; she lived there for twelve years before moving to the Shifco senior living apartments, where she died one week after her eightieth birthday.
I wrapped myself in the shawl, walked with my sister, and left handfuls of small bone and ash in plants and grass. We passed the Pavilion Building, where we had danced as teenagers at night and lain in the sun all day long, where Maggie had dropped us off and picked us up. We traveled past the volleyball nets on East Beach to the Child’s Estate Zoo and Bird Refuge, where Maggie had taken her grandchildren, always the consummate grandmother. We left ashes in the trees and brush she loved, and never near the water, as she had requested.
We walked two miles to the pier and returned to the apartment on the same journey Maggie had taken every day for many years. The gritty ash left silk on our hands and returned to our hair and faces as it blew back in the wind. I wiped my hands on the shawl and added ash to ash as the song that often accompanies me on retreat played in my head: “Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.”