Wissot: Who decides where we place our remains?
The 8-year-old boy lifted the shovel and sent dirt down the hole where his 33-year-old mother’s cremated remains were contained in a small delicate box. I hope I never have to attend another graveside service as sorrowful as the one I witnessed that day.
I can’t imagine what his hopefully long life will be like after losing his mother at such a young age. I lost my mother when she was 81 and I was 53; her death still disturbs me. She was with me for almost two thirds of my life.
What must it be like for an 8-year-old to spend the remainder of his childhood and all of his adulthood without his mother’s actual presence? I was fortunate enough not to know; It saddens me that he will.
I always thought that where we are laid to rest was a decision made by a party of one. We honor those wishes whether that means a grave, an urn, ashes scattered on a mountainside, or tenderly tossed into the sea. But I’m not so sure now. I think having a place for that 8-year-old boy to visit his mother’s remains should be taken into consideration no matter whatever her wishes before dying might have been.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, is our collective fate. We evolve into spiritual beings for those we leave behind. But having a site, a marker, a physical location where the remains can be found, may help our loved ones adjust to how they relate to us after we are gone.
Years ago I visited the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. for the the first time. I will never forget how seeing it up close effected me. The Memorial is a haunting tribute to the 58,220 American men and women who sacrificed their lives in that terrible war.
The low-slung wall where their names are etched on its black marble surface isn’t very high.
It was designed with human touch and reach in mind. All during the day and late into the night, relatives, friends and strangers make their pilgrimage to stand, gaze, kneel, leave notes and flowers. The Memorial serves as a symbolic cemetery, a remembrance wall, a hallowed place, made sacred by the names frozen in time on this cherished shrine.
I remember those names on the Vietnam Memorial wall and think about that 8-year-old boy when I consider what I want to be done with my remains. For several years my intent was to be cremated and have my ashes spread on the grass near the Guggenheim Museum entrance to Central Park in Manhattan. I’ve run the park hundreds of times during my many visits to the city. I was also born at what was once Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital which is 10 blocks away from the entrance. I figured this was close as I could get to bringing the cycle of my life full circle.
Now I am not so sure that the decision is entirely mine to make. My choice may provide comfort to me while I am alive but will that be true afterward for my wife and two daughters?
I’ve never asked them. I know they don’t want me laid to rest in a Brooklyn cemetery where most of my relatives are. Nobody would want to shlep to Brooklyn to see me. Hell, I wouldn’t shlep to Brooklyn to see me.
But maybe they would prefer another repository for my ashes rather than the grass at Central Park? I’ve just assumed they didn’t care. But I won’t know that for sure until I ask them. As I write this, it troubles me that I haven’t.
I wish I could end this column by giving you a definitive answer as to whose wishes should prevail once our life on earth ends. I can’t.
What I do know is that the issue is too important to leave to chance. Telling your loved ones what you want done with your remains is not the same as asking them how they feel about your decision. That’s a discussion that can only take place while you are still alive.
This column is dedicated to my mother, Rita Audrey Wissot, who died on this date 22 years ago.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.