Scattered thoughts

My mom’s ashes are finally where they belong
Illustration by Peter Arkle

Funny thing: When you donate your body to science, they don’t actually keep it. For me this was a surprise. I thought that was the whole point. When my mother donated her body to science back before she died in 1991, she did it so she wouldn’t be a burden, she said. And I get it. She died way too young, and we, her idiot spawn, were unequipped to deal with the bureaucracy of burial and such. Our heads were not in the right place. Imagine having to deal with funeral arrangements in your twenties. My mother imagined it, and rightly understood we’d be inept at it. So upon her diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer, she arranged for her body to be collected by “science” within minutes of her death.

Looking back, I have to marvel at the flawless execution. She died at home, and “science” swept in immediately after the hospice volunteer placed the call. We, her children, never had to risk failure about what to do with her remains. My father, who died younger even than my mother, was buried in a beautiful cemetery in San Diego. The process had been executed flawlessly, of course, because my mother had executed it.

Then recently I found her ashes on my sister’s bookshelf.

“What’s that package?” I asked. It was wrapped in plain brown packing paper.

“Mom’s ashes,” Kim said.

Let me explain that my little sister is like the human hair trap of all our family crap. When I moved to Atlanta more than two decades ago, I brought nothing but what would fit in my ’69 Volkswagen Bug. The rest I packed up and left inside the toolshed my mother kept behind her trailer. As far as personal belongings go, it was a pitiful hoard, combined with all the other pitiful hoards of my siblings. When my mother moved from the trailer to the beachside cottage where she’d eventually pass away, the nonessential portion of these hoards was left behind. What survived were forgotten family mementos, all of which ended up in my little sister’s possession. Occasionally she delights me by sending me packets of my old photographs. Slowly she is divesting herself of the yoke of family archivist and is entrusting us with our own history again. I appreciate that, because after all these years, I feel I’m finally in the right place to care for it.

But back to science and how they don’t keep the bodies donated to it. Instead they cremate them and send them back to you—or in this case, to the family member listed on the contact sheet. They send the remains back with a nice note informing you of the studies to which the body contributed. My mother, it turned out, contributed to the treatment of tennis elbow. I found this ironic, because only recently I had my first bout of tennis elbow, which hurt like I’d shoved my arm into a wood chipper.

I took the ashes, along with my sister, to the airport. Another funny thing: A box of ashes in a suitcase under an X-ray machine looks exactly like a big block of plastic explosives. We had to actually open the ashes for airport security to prove that they were ashes. And since they were opened, we decided to stop in Las Vegas on our way to San Diego to sprinkle some of my mother’s ashes at the foot of her favorite slot machine on Fremont Street. Gambling was a family pastime for us. As kids we used to stand next to our mother as she played blackjack at the Golden Nugget. “Don’t be afraid to put your chips on the table,” she’d say. But to this day I’m still a little afraid to put my chips on the table.

Then it was on to San Diego. Another funny thing: You can’t just all-on-your-own bury the remains of your mother on top of your father’s grave. There’s bureaucracy involved. First we had to get a copy of her death certificate, then a burial permit. In my twenties I would have met friends for margaritas halfway through that list and never completed it. I was constantly, gloriously failing at things, and my mother would tell me, “At least your heart is in the right place.”

Once we got the paperwork together, we presented it to a cemetery lady named Paulette, who liked to tell us about the cosmic significance of certain itchy body parts. (“If my right foot itches, it means something good’s gonna happen. If my right eye itches, it means someone’s gonna get hurt.”) We paid a hefty fee to have my mother’s “cremains” interred in the ground above our father’s casket. I told Kim I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop, and we laughed. People don’t usually laugh at cemeteries, but our mother had been dead more than twenty years, her remains carted around to countless locations in a plain paper package, dusty, cobweb-ridden. It was just such a relief, I tell you, to have everything—our heads, our hearts, our mother—finally in the right place.

This article originally appeared in our July 2014 issue.