Ashes to Ashes
Susan P. Blevins
Before my mother died, she told my father she wanted her ashes scattered in a location in the New Forest, in the county of Hampshire, England, where they used to go regularly to picnic and enjoy the open spaces of trees, a small lake, and the gentle hillsides which once a year were covered in purple heather.
After her cremation, my father drove us to the special place they had shared, and we selected a magnificent oak tree as the anchor for the ceremony. We walked round the tree slowly, pouring the ashes from the urn, while I read the prayers for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer. My heart was close to breaking, and I could hardly intone the words, so great was my grief at losing my mother.
During the ensuing years, my father requested that his ashes be scattered in the same place as my motherís. I of course said yes, and it was only after he died that I realized I had no idea where that special place was, deep in the New Forest, accessed by very minor country roads. I had been living in Italy for many years at the time. Thirteen years had elapsed since my motherís death, I had been to that location just the one time, and now I was supposed to find my way back there so I could keep my word to my father. A challenging proposition, to put it mildly.
A few days after my fatherís cremation, I told my childhood friend Carol that I was going to try to locate that sacred place, and would she come with me. She assented immediately, so we set off one morning in my fatherís battered and battle-weary old Volkswagen. I knew only to head north out of Southampton, where they had lived for many years, and then make a right turn at some point along the way which I hoped to recognize. The details were very hazy in my memory, but I trusted that I would find the place.
We hiccuped our way along, stopping every time we reached one of the many crossroads, which to my anxious eyes all looked the same, as I prayed for guidance. Left, right or straight on? Each time I received a prompting and went forward on faith, because after a short time I had no idea where we were. We passed cottages with flower-filled gardens down country lanes, fields with cows and sheep, farmland, and not once did I make a single wrong turn. Miraculously, we arrived at the beautiful clearing in the forest that I remembered well when I saw it. I felt a presence leading me unerringly to this place.
When we arrived, there was one problem though. There were hoards of people around the little lake, on their folding chairs, eating, laughing, children playing, everyone enjoying the unusually warm and sunny July weather. There was absolutely no way I could scatter my fatherís ashes with so many people around. Human ashes are easily identifiable by their granular substance, and visible bits of bone. I parked, and we mulled over this complication. I got out of the car and went off on my own to pray. I found a quiet spot, sat on the ground and closed my eyes. I donít know how long I sat there, but after what seemed to be a very short time, I realized that all noise had ceased around me, and all I could hear was birdsong and the rustle of leaves. I opened my eyes, and to my amazement, everybody had left! No one was there, all cars gone. Silence reigned.
I went to the VW and pulled out the urn. Carol stayed seated in the car so as not to intrude in my ritual in any way.
I easily identified the mighty oak where thirteen years earlier my father and I had scattered my motherís ashes, so I began to walk around it again, reverently tipping his ashes onto the ground, saying the prayers, making a trail that just for a brief and irreverent moment reminded me of the story of Hansel and Gretel.
There was a herd of cattle grazing nearby in the forest, and as I walked slowly around the tree saying prayers, they came closer, until they were standing in a circle, watching me. As if on a silent command, they all knelt down. They became the congregation while I performed my priestly task in a setting as magnificent as any cathedral. A gentle mantle of holiness settled over the place, and I felt the presence of angels all around me.
When I had finished I returned to the car, the cows stood up, and Carol told me she felt as though she had witnessed the enactment of something biblical.
My parents had made their marriage vows so many years earlier, to stay together in sickness and in health, until death should part them. Now in death also, they lay together, earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
The circle was complete, and my heart rested easy as I drove away from that consecrated patch of earth, secure in the knowledge that I had fulfilled their wishes, and I had been comforted in my loss by the spirit-filled beauty of that moment.