On a clear, sunny day exactly eight years ago, my brother and I picked up our mother’s ashes from Steele’s, the funeral directors on Chesil Street, at the bottom of Winchester High Street, just past King Alfie’s statue, over the bridge by the City Mill, and up the hill to the left. Mum died on Sunday 8th April, which also happened to be Easter. Her memorial service, cremation and jolly wake took place on Wednesday 2nd May, rather late because I was in Steel Magnolias at the Austin Playhouse and before I could make it back to England, I had to coach an understudy take my place. And so it was that on Friday 4th May, we carried a big plastic urn up the High Street to our family home in Elm Road.
We were rather surprised at the amount of ash Mum had provided when she was such a little woman who’d shrunk considerably in her later years. Surely these were the remains of a giant. Nevertheless, here was Mum in a big, plastic urn so Bro and I decided that we would take her to some of her favorite coffee houses on the way home. After she retired, it was her habit to walk down town every day, even if she didn’t need to, for the exercise, don’t you know, and treat herself to a good cup of coffee at one of Winchester’s more salubrious establishments. I always liked that routine; I hope I do the same when I retire.
First, since she’d been a tour guide for many years, we held up her ashes as we went by the Winchester Tourist Office by the Guildhall, so she could say goodbye. We lifted the urn as we passed C&H Fabrics which I believe had a little coffee shop upstairs. We visited the cathedral refectory which would’ve been number one on her list–she spent a lot of time there, after taking tourists around Winchester Cathedral. Finally, we went to what used to be the Spinning Wheel Cafe in the middle of the pedestrian precinct. All of us had loved that little upstairs cafe, right next to the Buttercross. In fact, we had always met outside, before going up the ancient wooden staircase to get our tea and cake. Now we sat on the Buttercross for a brief moment so she could say her last farewell.
When we got home, our sister was there to meet us. We climbed into Bro’s car with the urn, also bringing Mum’s funeral flowers, and made our way out of town to a particular place in the countryside. Here was the bluebell wood that Mum loved so much, where she’d requested we scatter her ashes. We weren’t sure it was legal–in fact, we were pretty sure it was illegal– but it was Mum’s wish and it was too late to try and change her mind now.
We used plastic cups and set to work, scattering and sprinkling far and wide. It took ages, there was so much of it. We were crying in our grief, and laughing at the absurdity. Crying and laughing. Tears and laughter. A Nason family habit. However sad we are, we always find the joy and humor. However happy, we always laugh until tears stream.
Every now and then, we came together in a central place to re-connect with one another, and compare our work areas—areas that were becoming increasingly grey with ash. When there was just enough of Mum left to take a small amount away with us (Mum’s ashes are in the ground beneath a tree I planted in her memory outside our Austin home), we separated out the flowers and spread them all over: on tree trunks, up in branches, and along the natural pathways.
We stood back to survey our work. If we had hoped to carry out our task surreptitiously, we’d failed. There was SO MUCH ash, it was as if a small volcano had erupted and coated everything with its tangible tantrum, then fairies had come along and strewn flowers on top. What should we do? we wondered.
Then with a clap of thunder, it started to rain. We’d been so focused on our task that we hadn’t noticed the grim clouds gathering overhead. At first, the rain came down a few drops at a time so we could see each one land upon a leaf or a branch, polka dots on Mum’s ash coat. Then it came down more heavily and her white remains slowly disappeared into the earth. In no time at all, she had gone. We ran to the car, knowing that Mum was where she wanted to be. And that we wouldn’t get into trouble for leaving her there.
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be like to his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
“Book of common prayer 1599”