Authors: Eve Joseph
In addition to holding tree burials, the Salish constructed cairns beneath which the body was placed in a shallow grave
lined with stones. Later, when these burial practices were outlawed, the elders were said to be distraught at the thought of the spirit having to dig its way out from under six feet of dirt. My mother, too, was distraught at the thought of her son so far underground.
There are graveyards everywhere. In the middle of an old-growth forest on Haida Gwaii, I came across moss-covered tombstones that were sinking into the earth. The inscription on Chief Skedan’s headstone, dated 1890, reads, “He tried to be a Christian.” Right around the time he was trying his best, a census by the Hudson’s Bay Company estimated that 95 percent of the Haida population had been wiped out by disease following first contact. By 1915, the population had dropped from 30,000 to 588. The chief would have grasped the idea of a wrathful God with no problem; it was the concept of a merciful one that must have caused him no end of trouble.
The earth is always giving up little treasures: plastic horses, Dinky Toys, marbles, coins, odd bones, buttons, arrowheads, tarnished spoons and rusty metal soldiers. It is the boneyard of our childhood. In the backyard of the home I grew up in are four cats in shoeboxes, numerous birds in holes lined with grass, and something—I can’t remember what—in a matchbox.
On the prairies, family plots are often hidden by tall grasses. Patrick’s grandmother is buried in one of them somewhere near Blumenort, “the place of flowers.” These graves feel as if they hold the history of this country, from the unmarked white crosses grouped like clumps of wild daisies in empty fields where family farms once thrived, to the
churchyards that buried local people close to home. Bodies are seeded in the land in forgotten cemeteries where wooden fences have fallen down and markers are long gone. How can we not think, standing in an open field, of the multitudinous dead beneath our feet and of the problems this potentially raises in terms of real estate. In 1914, San Francisco passed an ordinance forbidding further burials and evicted the dead from local cemeteries located on prime land. Bodies were relocated to the south, to Colma, a city with an area of 2.2 square miles on which seventeen cemeteries are housed. Colma, or the City of Souls as it is known, has a population of 1,500 above ground and 1.5 million underground.
In the heat of a summer day, the earth gives up its hiding places; a pervasive stench alerts us to an animal’s death. We sense the visible evidence of the thousands upon thousands of invisible things that live and die amongst us every moment of the day. For some, the smell of death is repellent; for others, it is an elixir. Along the northern gas pipelines, engineers trying to figure out where there are leaks pump in the smell of decaying meat and wait for the turkey vultures to gather. Without fail, the birds of prey zero in on every leak every time. In South Africa, flies are attracted to orchids that mimic the smell of carrion. The smell of death, it would seem, is sometimes intricately linked to the art of deception.
A few years ago, when I went with my daughters to Chile, we drove around the Cementerio General de Santiago in the back of a beat-up van listening to U2 on the radio singing about forgiveness and raising the dead. When babies die in Chile, they are buried with a pair of white wings, made from chicken feathers glued onto a cardboard base. The babies, not
having committed any sins, are thought to be
and the wings, attached with elastic bands, help them fly straight to heaven. In 1992, the bodies of Pablo Neruda and his wife, Matilde Urrutia, were dug up from the cemetery and reburied at their home on Isla Negra. In 1926, he wrote,
There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness …
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs.
One day not long ago, I went with my youngest daughter, Salia, and her dad, Floyd, to a small graveyard in North Vancouver. Located on an urban reserve, Eslhá7an, or the Mission Reserve, is a resting place for city ghosts. Just down the dirt road, St. Paul’s Indian Church sits on the inlet a few yards from where the canoes used to pull up. At night, the two blue neon crosses on top of the church spires light up like freshly cracked Glow Sticks and can be seen by the skiers on top of Grouse Mountain. We passed beneath a carved cedar canoe suspended over the entrance and made our way, as my daughter commented, “into a sea of crosses.”
The graveyard holds the stories, the history, lost languages, songs; it holds the hereditary chiefs and the elected, the Indian dancers and the Christians. It holds the body of Floyd’s seventeen-year-old brother, Ben, who drowned one summer day when he jumped off the silver train bridge, yelling
“Geronimo,” and never came back up. It holds the memory of his mother, Rose, throwing herself on his grave every night and sleeping there until morning, when Floyd would come and bring her home.
It holds the name of the elder who welcomed Captain George Vancouver into Burrard Inlet on June 13, 1792, when the mud flats were rich with clams and salmon climbed out of the river as men.
One thing it doesn’t hold is the body of Floyd’s great-grandfather, Chief Moses. When the Church wanted to appropriate more land for its own uses, Moses refused. The bishop made good on his promise and the chief was buried somewhere outside the cemetery, without a marker.
Many burial parks now offer “natural” or “green” burials at which unembalmed bodies, clothed or wrapped in biodegradable garments, are placed in caskets made of wicker, recycled cardboard or natural fibre and buried in unmarked graves, where they decompose naturally and become part of the natural landscape. Damp, rich soil—containing billions of soil organisms—will reduce an unembalmed corpse to bones in just nine months. A perfect gestation. On a list of burial options ranging from elaborate to the very basic, it is now possible, in a number of places, to choose composting.
I am a relatively new gardener with the zealous commitment of an ex-smoker. I love how the things we compost break down and feed the garden. I have trouble, though, with the red wigglers—the workers of rot. As Voltaire observes,
To numerous insects shall my corpse give birth,
When once it mixes with its mother earth:
Small comfort ’tis that when Death’s ruthless power
Closes my life, worms shall my flesh devour.
Bears, wolves and eagles drag salmon from streams into the forest, where the nitrogen-rich remains of the fish fertilize the flora. The ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest grow tall on the blood and flesh of fish. The great canopies are fertilized by the dead.
My brother has been underground for half a century. What, then, of him lives in the verdant green grass and wildflowers that grow above his grave?
In North America, we don’t know what to do with our dead. We call the cremated remains of our loved ones
, which, to my way of thinking, sounds far too much like
to be taken seriously. We plant trees and engrave the names of our loved ones on memorial benches overlooking the ocean; we gather as families to scatter the ashes but are not quite prepared for their weight and texture, or for the way the wind doesn’t disperse them as
we had imagined. In movies, human ashes seem more like stardust—the bright dust in the night sky we imagined as children.
The reality is somewhat different. In
The Big Lebowski
, Jeff Bridges ends up covered in Donny’s ashes when the wind, off the Pacific, whips them backwards just as John Goodman intones, “Goodbye, sweet prince,” and pours them out of a Folgers coffee tin. When we scattered my mother’s ashes off the dock in front of the Cannery Seafood Restaurant on Burrard Inlet, they didn’t lift in an ethereal manner; rather, they turned a luminescent green as they sank and swirled downwards. It appeared to me as if my mother had turned into a fish and left us abruptly with a flash of her new emerald scales.
My mother loved the Cannery. She loved sitting at a window table with a carafe of white wine and watching the working harbour: the freighters loading and unloading cargo, the Cates tugs, and Seaspan barges with pyramids of sawdust piled on their decks. She watched the orange SeaBus scuttling between North Van and the city, and she waited, every time, to see Ralph, the massive sea lion who hung around the restaurant waiting for scraps. When she told me she wanted her ashes scattered off the dock, she said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll end up inside of Ralph.” A thought which seemed to amuse her no end.
Some of us are more pragmatic than others. Herodotus tells us that the Callatians ate their dead as a way of honouring them. Queen Artemisia is said to have mixed the ashes of her beloved with wine and drunk them. One woman, a
potter, whose father died at hospice, mixed his ashes into wet clay and shaped him into a set of coffee mugs.
In modern Japan, where cremation is predominant, it is common for the close relatives of the deceased to remove the bones from the ashes with chopsticks. In her essay “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium,” Marie Mutsuki Mockett describes how her uncle and grandfather picked her grandmother’s bones out of the ashes stretched out on a steel table. “They started with the feet first so my grandmother would not be upside down in her rectangular urn.” An attendant in the background identified each bone. “Here is the second joint of the big toe. Here is a fragment of the femur.” The last pieces of bone to be placed in the urn were those of the skull and jaw, and the hyoid bone, from the Adam’s apple, which rests in a separate box. This is the only time that two people will hold anything together using chopsticks, Mockett says, “hence the reason the Japanese flinch if two people inadvertently reach down to pick up the same morsel of food from a plate.”
Cremation in North America is a two-step process. First the body is burned for several hours, after which the dry bone fragments are swept out of the incinerator and pulverized by a bone crusher until they look like grains of sand. We do not pick out bone fragments or place the ashes feet first in urns; we want fire, with its voracious appetite, to transform flesh and bone to dust.
Pacemakers have to be removed before cremation, as they can explode. Tooth fillings are sometimes buried in consecrated ground, sometimes sold as scrap metal.
Keith Richards claims that he snorted his father’s ashes mixed with a bit of cocaine: “The strangest thing I’ve tried to snort? My father. I snorted my father,” Richards was quoted as saying by British music magazine
Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were shot from a very large cannon placed atop a 153-foot tower in Colorado to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Go online and you’ll find no shortage of things made from human ashes: pencils, photographs, diamonds, sculptures, vinyl records, glass beads, and ink for tattoos for those who want to wear their loved ones on their skin. Three miles off Key Largo, the Atlantis Reef, an underwater mausoleum made of human ashes mixed with concrete, stretches across sixteen acres of ocean floor. Brightly coloured fish dart in and out of the sculptures of this sunken city just the way they did in the castle in my fish tank when I was a child.
When my mother died, a friend, Louie John, offered to sit with her body the night before the funeral. The funeral director said that would be impossible. “We’d have to hire a security guard,” she said. “We can’t just have somebody sitting here all night.” A guard to watch over the man watching over the dead. I should have insisted. The bereaved are weak. I was acquiescent in my sorrow, compliant in my grief.
I wish I had accompanied my mother’s casket to the crematorium, maybe even pushed the button to open the heavy door of the fiery vault. I was afraid to see her body consumed by fire, to see her disappear so completely. I left her in the chapel in her casket. I don’t know where she went
or who took her there. It’s not rational to think I let her down, but then grief is not rational. Sometimes we need permission or direction—someone to take baby steps with us. Someone to say, Have you thought of
, have you thought of
If, as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai believed, the air above Jerusalem was heavy with prayers, then surely the air we breathe must be saturated with the dead. Over one million pounds of human ashes are produced every day: four pounds of ash per human female and six pounds per human male. It’s amazing we aren’t knee-deep in ash.
In British Columbia the rate of cremation is 80 percent—the highest in Canada—and, remarkably, 5 percent of the ashes are never claimed.
I phone Lorraine Fracy at Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria to ask what happens to those ashes. Lorraine’s background is in physical education. When she was twenty-eight, she was running a women’s fitness club but feeling that something was missing. When her sister, a funeral director, asked her to help out with the funeral of a young man, Lorraine thought, Why not? and ended up standing beside the open casket as the mourners filed past. It was as if she’d come home. She remembers bowing her head as a child and saying a prayer whenever a funeral procession passed by, and she says it was this respect for the dead that led her to become a funeral director and cemeterian.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Lorraine tells me.
When I ask her what she means, she explains that there
are unclaimed urns in funeral homes all over the city. In 2001, when Lorraine started working at the burial park, there were 125 unclaimed remains. I’m confounded by this. How, I wonder, could people not pick up their relatives? Over the years, she tracked down families—some of whom didn’t know where the ashes were, some who had estranged relationships and didn’t want the ashes, a few who said, “Flush them.”
“For some people,” she says, “grief is just too raw and they can’t face it.” There are now forty urns remaining, and no leads left to family members.