Ashes to Ashes
Our chairs were comfortable, dark green leather, his mahogany desk wide with a dark finish. He sat behind the desk in a leather chair of his own and leaned across it to speak with us. He looked to be in his early 60s, hair dyed a dark brown to cover up the gray. He was balding a little on top and wore a charcoal suit, tailored impeccably well to his long, thin physique. His way of speaking was crisp, matter-of-fact, but not at all curt. He spoke in a perpetual whisper, which seemed appropriate to the setting of a funeral home. I wondered if he spoke in these hushed tones when he was out with friends, though he didn’t really look like the type of person you’d run into later at the bar.
After the condolences, he inquired as to the nature of the arrangements that needed to be made for Grandma’s body. You got the sense he was silently tabulating prices as we spoke, that inside his head there was a tiny cartoon version of himself, sitting in front of an old-school calculating machine with a spool of paper churning out of it, a bell ringing each time he upsold us on one more product.
Dying is the only activity you can do as an adult and not be held financially responsible for its ramifications. All you have to do is die, and they hand the tab to someone else. If you’re broke, as many in my family are when they kick off into the great beyond, the departed’s “estate” is either insufficiently in the black to cover funeral expenses, or is already so far in the red, that there’s no way the credit card companies are getting paid, much less there being enough money to get the corpse properly pickled and buried in the red dirt, with a tasteful stone monument marking the spot.
If you die and you’re broke, and your family has any sense of fidelity or love to your memory and life, then, they are bound by guilt, honor, and the threat of communal shaming to give you something that might be considered a “proper burial.”
Grandma was broke, had been for years. At her apartment in Spartanburg, when I was a kid, by the time I was seven, I’d been instructed not to under any circumstances, answer the phone. These were the perilous days before caller ID. At Grandma’s, all calls had to be screened by the answering machine, lest we unwittingly pick up the receiver for MasterCard, Visa, Discover Card, or worse, some collection agency that was pursuing Grandma like the hounds of hell.
Grandma had financial stability and a good job for years, keeping the books for a textile company. Then, unfortunately, she felt called by God to become a foreign missionary for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Once she was far along in the process, she was belatedly informed that the Southern Baptist Convention did not send divorcees into the mission field. Apparently, the Southern Baptists felt that the “heathen” could only be properly saved from eternal damnation by married people or by the perpetually single. By the time it was made clear to her that the Southern Baptist Convention had such personnel policies, Grandma had already trained her replacement at work and left the lucrative job, in preparation for taking the Gospel, as construed by the Southern Baptist Convention, to the far reaches of wherever it was they had told her she might get sent to. Her old boss, the owner of the textile company, an agnostic Jewish man, hated what the Southern Baptists had done to Grandma, and offered her the old job back, but she didn’t want her replacement to lose such a great gig; so, Grandma just moved on. In order to show her disdain for the Southern Baptists, she became Methodist. “There,” she thought, “that’ll teach them.”
If there has ever been a person in the world, whose needs were small, it was Grandma. Give her a carton of cigarettes, a case of beer, and a book of crossword puzzles—and she’d be happy for a week. Well, maybe two cartons of cigarettes, if it was for a week. She smoked Moore 120s when I was a kid, those long, dark brown cigarettes that came in a burgundy pack, with gold writing on it. I used to call them “cancer canes,” when she’d smoke them, driving me down the road or sitting in the living room of our house, when she’d come over after church for Sunday lunch. At school, I’d learned the dangers of cigarettes and was always eager to remind Grandma of the macabre outcomes likely to happen, due to her love of those “cancer canes.” Grandma loved us; that’s for sure, spoiled her grandsons something fierce, but if fate had placed the undesirable choice before her, of giving up ever seeing us or giving up ever smoking cigarettes, I’m not sure which side of that Devil’s bargain she would’ve landed on.
In the house in Florence, South Carolina, where Grandma lived with Mama before they moved to Ohio, Grandma initially took over the dining room as her very own smoking room. By this time, she’d changed her brand to Virginia Slims. After a while, Mama got so tired of smelling cigarettes in the house, she banished all smoking activity to the back porch, where Grandma would sit for hours on end, sipping a beer, smoking cigarettes, and working a crossword.
Grandma settled into life in Ohio better than I thought she would. Blacklick was a suburb of Columbus, where Mama rented a townhouse, after she got a job with Victoria’s Secret store headquarters. Most mornings in Blacklick, Grandma had a routine of driving to the local Meijer, doing what shopping might need doing, and having a cup of coffee at the café. It was only a few miles from the townhouse. When they’d been there a year and a half, Grandma got lost one day, coming home. On that day in August, she took one wrong turn, then another and another. She drove in circles for hours, around and around the same roads, sure the house was there, no, maybe there or there. After this scare, Grandma’s doctor sent her for scans. That’s when they found the tumor in her brain.
The funeral director led us from his office to the coffin showroom, the funeral home equivalent of a car lot. Instead of kicking the tires and taking a test drive, customers here imagine the sight of their beloved’s corpse inside the different coffins on offer. The room was long and narrow, dark gray, almost black walls, with dim lighting that had a bluish tint, which made the atmosphere feel like the appropriate setting for a high-class, uppity Gothic rave. One full wall, the length of the room, had sections of sample coffins attached, similar to how the bathroom tiles are displayed at Home Depot. Two complete coffins sat against the wall opposite the samples—a metal coffin and a wooden one, either of which were fit for royalty, with prices north of $10,000 each. The wooden one was gorgeous—hardwood stained a medium shade, with layers of urethane, which gave it a smooth finish. The fittings were faux brass, solid feeling. The metal coffin was even nicer—the Cadillac of coffins. The outside, platinum colored, the inside was thickly padded, the fabric luxurious, plush and pleated along the interior walls, and tufted on the bottom, to ensure the corpse lay in maximum comfort. The pallbearer handles were themselves elegant, their hinged motion would’ve made the bearers of the enclosed pall as comfortable as they could’ve been, carrying their loved one’s remains towards a hole in the ground. The metal coffin was so nice, Elvis himself would’ve been proud to bury his mama in it.
Most of the displays were irrelevant for our purposes. We were going to have Grandma’s remains cremated. She knew this was her corpse’s fate long before she kicked off. She’d been uneasy with it at first but had grown comfortable with the idea. She smoked so many cigarettes in her lifetime, that in some ways, it felt appropriate and only fitting that she ultimately be transfigured into one great big heap of ashes.
Grandma’s funeral would be back home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. We couldn’t decide if we should wait for the cremation to happen before the funeral or not. Even though we were planning the funeral, we had no idea what we were going to do with Grandma’s ashes. She’d never told us what she wanted us to do, and somehow, we’d forgotten to ask. Bodies get buried; we knew that, but Grandma’s would be the first set of ashes our family had ever had to deal with; so, we weren’t exactly clear on protocol.
The funeral director called our attention to the urns in the room and to the coffins that were made for cremation. For cremation, there were two main options. The first was a simple wooden coffin, priced at around $2000. Made to burn, literally, the idea being, at least you want your loved one’s dead body to burn in style. The wood was a lighter finish. The inside wasn’t terribly comfortable looking, the padding minimal. That said, your loved one’s body would be on fire shortly; so, at least the uncomfortable trip to the incinerator wouldn’t be a long one.
Mama felt bad about our choice, which was the second, cheaper option, a $150 cardboard box coffin for Grandma. Mama was doing alright with money by this point. She had a solid income, but even still, the idea of buying a wooden box for $2000, only to burn it shortly thereafter, seemed a little extravagant. To call our $150 choice a cardboard box felt crass; so, I came to think of it as our $150 triple-layered corrugated cremation receptacle.
Mama couldn’t get over the fact that she was having her mother’s remains burned in a cardboard box, no matter how many times I called it a corrugated cremation receptacle. She compensated for this by purchasing a $900 cloisonné urn. Coisonné is a type of ceramic and metal-work. This urn was one of the most expensive on offer that day, and it was beautiful. In fact, if he’d been into cremation, Elvis might have even considered putting his mama’s remains in such an urn. The ceramic and metal design was floral, shades of blue interwoven with bluish whites. It looked like one of those Ming Dynasty Chinese ceramics from The Antiques Roadshow, one that some guy inherits from his great-aunt that ends up being worth enough money to buy a fancy house and a swanky metal coffin.
In her prime, Grandma dressed to impress—sharply-tailored ladies’ suits—skirts and jackets—elegant leather boots—makeup and hair always done to perfection—lipstick constantly reapplied throughout the day, to look her best at each and every moment. After the Southern Baptists jilted her from the missionary position, Grandma’s financial situation rapidly declined. In time, and no fault of the Southern Baptists, her health started going downhill too—back issues and circulatory problems. It took too much energy to keep up her appearance. When I was home from college once, in Florence, we all went to the mall one day. Grandma parked herself on a bench outside, while Mama and I went inside to shop. This served the double purpose of giving Grandma a place to rest, as well as a perch from which to smoke some cigarettes. Even in South Carolina in the late 90s, smoking in-doors at the mall had been banned. That day, Grandma’s appearance struck me, as she sat there in a sweat suit, wearing her white canvas Keds tennis shoes. When she was healthy, she wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the house in sweats, but there she was, waiting outside the mall in a sweat suit, puffing away on a cigarette.
Grandma spent so much time those last few years in sweatshirts and -pants, that Mama decided to have Grandma cremated in clothes that mimicked the comfort of sweats but that also possessed the elegant flare of Grandma when she was younger. We went to a nearby mall that day, after our meeting with the funeral director. Mama dropped a couple of hundred dollars on a pair of silk pajamas, with an elegant silk gown. The gown was gray, with a flowery, vine pattern, the pajamas under it, a solid darker gray color.
At the funeral home, inside her triple-layered corrugated cremation receptacle, Grandma’s body lay, replete in silk pajama and silk gown elegance. We looked at what remained of her, at the wrinkles in her face—she was only 66 years old—it seemed like her and not like her. I could still hear her labored breathing from the nights before, was thinking of the pain she’d been in, especially that last night, the nurse refusing additional doses of morphine to a cancer patient under hospice care. I’d had to nearly threaten the nurse to get her to call the on-call doctor, who ok’d more doses of morphine. Grandma’s face didn’t look peaceful, but at least it didn’t show any more signs of struggle.
A doctor told Mama in August that Grandma had 6-12 months to live. We prepared ourselves for our last holiday season with her; we figured we’d make Christmas extra special, treasure each moment, take more pictures than usual. So, I was shocked at the call I got from Mama, mid-September, that Grandma had been rushed to the hospital via ambulance, mostly unresponsive. She’d not been eating well or drinking and had become dehydrated. Because of the tumor in her brain, Grandma had put in place a DNR, or a “Do Not Resuscitate” order, which meant the ER doctor couldn’t take any extreme actions to keep her alive. Since he knew she had family out of town, who might want to see her one last time, the ER doctor pushed bags of glucose into her and got her hydrated, telling Mama this might buy Grandma a little time to say goodbye. When Mama called, I packed my car immediately and started the trip from central Texas, where I was living at the time, to Ohio.
From the hospital bed, Grandma held court. She couldn’t stand not having her cigarettes. They’d been what would kill her. Her brain tumor was a secondary site for lung cancer, no surprise in that. She was too far gone for chemotherapy or radiation to help. Since I was the super-religious one in the family, at least the only one who at that time planned on becoming a minister, it was up to me to talk about God and eternity with Grandma. After the Southern Baptist debacle and a few years as a Methodist, Grandma stopped going to church. Sometimes, she was working on Sundays, selling mobile homes, or those years she spent behind the counter at a convenient store, selling gas, lotto tickets, and cheap beer.
I asked Grandma how she felt about dying. “Are you ok with it?” “Oh yeah,” she assured me. She was ready to go. She got “saved,” she told me several times, when she was a teenager, at a Billy Graham Crusade, at one of his early revival meetings. More than salvation, she kept talking about how good-looking the young Billy Graham had been. She’d say, “That man, he came down from the mountains to preach, and he was good-looking, a good-looking man.” She stretched out “good-looking” in a way that made me uncomfortable hearing those words come from my grandmother’s mouth. “And you’re comfortable with death?” I’d ask again, trying to play the role of a wizened, 21-year-old spiritual advisor to my dying grandmother. “Yes,” she’d respond, and then return to her extended meditation on the comeliness of young Billy Graham, “That man was something else, good-looking, and he could preach, hmmm, that man that came down from the mountains.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Graham was from Charlotte and not really the mountains, but he’d lived so long outside Asheville, that somehow, in Grandma’s mind, as she lay on her deathbed, lusting after her image of the young Southern Baptist evangelist, that “good-looking man, who could preach,” it made him more attractive to have come down from the mountains to deliver his Gospel message. He’d been her very own youthful missionary, sent to save her soul.
More than talk about salvation—maybe even more than feeling a little lust for that evangelist from the mountains, Grandma wanted only three things in that hospital room—cigarettes, beer, and potato soup. All the medicines she was on clouded her mind, so a crossword puzzle was out of the question. We’d never known Grandma to be so much a fan of potato soup, but apparently, in her final days on earth, she developed a deep and abiding love for that staple crop from Ireland, cooked and mashed and pureed with cheddar cheese, bacon, and chives. Cigarettes, beer, and potato soup, her triumvirate of beauty. The doctor okayed us sneaking in a beer for Grandma here and there. My sister-in-law, who’d driven up from South Carolina with my brother and their two-year old daughter, kept Grandma supplied with potato soup, but as for smoking in the hospital, we were told that was out of the question.
Grandma stayed in the hospital a few more days. Our family members left town, until finally, only Mama and I remained. The hospital soon found a bed for Grandma at a nearby nursing home, on a unit that usually rehabbed people after surgery, but we were told they could accommodate a hospice patient. An ambulance took her there to get set up. We weren’t sure how long she’d be on hospice, days or weeks, a month or two. She was going downhill quickly. She soon lost her taste for potato soup, even stopped asking for beer, but her hankering for cigarettes abided all the vicissitudes of hospice meds and death’s shadow.
By the time she got settled at the nursing home, her brain tumor had paralyzed her below the waist. She couldn’t walk or even sit up in bed. Her arms and hands were weak, and she lived in excruciating pain. At this point, even more than morphine, she wanted a cigarette. The second night we were there, one of the nurses came into the room with an extra bedsheet and a mischievous look on her face. She asked me for help. We rolled Grandma onto her left side and laid out the sheet beside her. We then rolled Grandma onto her right side, to pull the rest of the sheet under the other half of her body. The nurse talked me through lifting Grandma on the bedsheet and lowering her into a rolling recliner the nurse had positioned beside the hospital bed. Grandma groaned in pain with each movement we made. We let her rest in the chair for a little while, to catch her breath. We were going to fulfil her last wish.
Grandma told me there were cigarettes in the console of her car. I’d driven her car to the nursing home that day; so, I went and looked. There they were, right where she said they’d be. Clouded brain and all, like some Jedi mind trick, she could preternaturally sense where cigarettes were. I found a lighter in her purse. The nurse and I rolled Grandma in the recliner down the hall by the nurses’ station, out the sliding glass doors, into the evening air. We felt a chill, that early autumn, with the sun going down, the leaves just starting to change colors in the row of trees behind the nursing home. I got the cigarette lit, then held it to Grandma’s mouth. She was too weak to lift her hand for long; so, I’d hold the cigarette for her to take a puff or two. I’d tip the ashes onto the sidewalk and offer her another drag. Brain tumor, lung cancer be damned, Grandma enjoyed that last cigarette.
Mama and I drove down to South Carolina to have the funeral before Grandma’s ashes were ready. We had the funeral in a little Methodist church outside Spartanburg (Take that, Southern Baptists). My sister-in-law made the programs, complete with a full-color photo of Grandma on the front, in a pre-sweat-suit-in-public photo. In the picture, Grandma looked elegant in a shimmery blouse, with an abstract design of greens and browns—her short haircut, quintessential 1980s business elegant, her makeup impeccable, lipstick applied to perfection.
Mama picked up Grandma’s ashes at the funeral home, once she got back to Ohio. They sat on a shelf in the entertainment center at Mama’s house, first in Blacklick, and then in the house on Long Island in New York, when Mama moved three months later, for her next job. They remained in the cloisonné urn we picked out that day in Columbus. We knew we still needed to decide what to do with Grandma’s ashes, what would be a proper burial. Six months after Grandma died, only three months into living on Long Island, Mama found out that she had cancer—melanoma, not lung cancer, but a terminal diagnosis nonetheless. Those ashes on the shelf became all the more a presence of what was missing and how much more we’d soon be losing.
Finally, we decided what to do with Grandma’s ashes, where they needed to be buried. So, a year and three months after Grandma died, Mama flew with the ashes in her carry-on luggage, back home to South Carolina for Christmas. Thank goodness TSA didn’t check her bag that day. I drove down from New Jersey, where I lived by that time, in the middle of my second year at seminary.
One morning during those holidays, Mama, my brother, and I drove Grandma’s ashes down to a little country church in Jasper, Georgia, where Grandma’s mama and daddy were buried. As we drove through the north Georgia hills, we told stories about Grandma, about her crossword puzzles and her beer, about her sweat suits and Keds, about potato soup, about how much she loved us and how much she loved those damn cigarettes. We dug a hole with posthole diggers, there in the corner of the gravesite, where Grandma’s parents were buried. I read a few verses of Scripture and said a prayer. When I finished, we poured Grandma’s ashes into the ground, covered them up and patted down that red Georgia clay on top of them. We said goodbye again to Grandma and her cigarette-loving life. Ashes to ashes, Grandma, dust to dust.
Donovan McAbee is a poet, songwriter, and essayist. His work has appeared in TIME magazine, The New York Times, The Hudson Review, The Sun (US), and a variety of other places. His poetry chapbook, Sightings, was released as part of the Floodgate Series, Vol 7. His academic monograph Charles Simic and the Poetics of Uncertainty was published in 2020. Donovan lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and their two children.