No Face: Wall of Fire

My mother died of cancer on July 11, 1990, at the age of 68. Cremation decision, by my father, I guess, or she may have specified. Went through the wake, she being embalmed, but closed casket, opened only privately, for immediate family members, her siblings and in-laws. Felt compelled to attend the cremation. She dies on a Wednesday, funeral on Friday, but no cremation until the following Tuesday. Couldn’t explain it, then or now, why I had to be there. There was the later, private ceremony at the Beechwood crematorium, where they lower the casket into the depths; the place where there is to be the burning.

My father, brother and sister didn’t know what to make of my sentiment. I was upset enough that she would be alone between the Friday and the following Tuesday. Wanted somebody to stay with her until the burning, but didn’t express this, and didn’t volunteer.

Showed up on the cremation morning. Room with greyness; coffins around, waiting to be buried or burned. Door opens up to a wall of fire. Push her into the oven, assisted by those who do this every day. Bright, sunny day. The moment after I pushed her in, my father appears, with summer light in the background. Could tell he wanted to be there, but held back. Went to Nates on Rideau Street for breakfast afterwards (now closed, after fifty years), joined by my sister and I can’t remember who else. Can’t remember my brother being there. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t. Also can’t remember the burial of the ashes, or the receipt of the urn, which would have been delivered to my father. She was buried with her mother, father and the her older sister, whom she so much admired, and who drank herself to death at the age of 37, following a failed Rockcliffe marriage.

My father died of heart failure on February 9, 1996, shortly before his 74th birthday. Put over by the emergency room doctor who recommended narcotics to combat the agitation, but which caused him to lose the ability to breathe independently within hours of the shot. Dead by the following early morning. Remember the green bag wrapup. Returned with the funeral home to pick him up from the hospital cold storage. Unmarked van.

Same funeral arrangements. Most of the family goes through the central chapel of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry, in Ottawa. Has to be this particular chapel, at this particular funeral home, always. No logic; just is.

Once again, the thick wooden coffin, to be burned. This time, less delay; he can be cremated as of February 11. He’s still by himself, though for a shorter period. Back to the same crematorium at Beechwood Cemetery. Things different six years later. No cold, grey room. Soft image pictures, and a place to sit. I assume the result of a Hindu influence. This time around, open the casket before he goes in. Look at the face for one last time. One of his favourite hats is with him, plus a missal from childhood. Over door opens again, and once again, the wall of fire. Close the coffin and push him in.

Takes an hour or so. This part I didn’t witness, in terms of the aftermath of my mother, but am seeing it now. Door is raised, and there is no more casket, but pieces of melted metal from the handles. There are also still piece of larger bone. They put his ashes and remaining bone into the pulverizing machine. I hear the ball bearings going over and over what is left.

Then it is done. He is put into a plastic bag, which is in turn put into an urn. It’s February, but I feel compelled to see him buried that day. Around me are all these caskets of people waiting for “spring interment”. Cold, cold, yet my father is warm.

Get out to where my mother is buried with her parents and sister. Suddenly my sister appears. My brother doesn’t. Seems he is in denial. Didn’t show up at the hospital, at the time of death. Showed up at the wake in a multicoloured ski suit, after a day of skiing. Some saying shame, shame. I say everybody close to this is not rational now. Say it at least to myself.

Some backhoe or somebody has broken through the permafrost. There is a cold wind and snow whirling around us. My sister and I both dig, and dig. Three feet down for urns, six feet for caskets. We get down three feet and see the outline of our mother’s urn, and set him down there. He’s still warm. Cover the two of them up.

Can’t remember what happened then. Likely back to Nate’s. The unusual turning into ritual.

At least I had opened that casket. Saw his face, for the last time. Within an hour, that face did not exist, other than in memory. Same with my mother, though opened nothing. No face, but always see your face:

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1 Response to No Face: Wall of Fire

  1. On July 22, 2012, Neil Remington Abramson commented as follows (e-mail correspondence reproduced with permission):

    I wanted to see the body of my mother. It was considered an unusual request. At first, my stepfather Ed didn’t want to, but then he did. My daughter Karen came. The body was on a slab, in a small, refrigerated mortuary. After we saw her, she was cremated. Ed later said that he was glad that he came, because it showed him that she was dead. He was, however, haunted by dreams of her coming back, to ask him to accompany her.

    I was struck at how she barely looked like herself. I think we hold ourselves muscularly to familiar expressions, that I feel relaxing in memory of her, when I am going to sleep. There was a general familiarity. I could see it was her; at least her body.

    I have read this is a good thing to do. I think it would be better, though. to have to body made up familiarly for viewing, like in the movie Departures. If I died in Japan, I could hope for that. Not for me, but for others undeparted.

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