Where will your grief travel to?

In the following excerpt from her newest book, Losing Helen, Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Arts at Columbia University School of the Arts, recounts the death of her mother and her journey to find a peaceful resting place for her mother’s remains.


Years before my mother’s death, she told me that she already had arranged to be cremated by the Dolphin Club. “They turn your body into ash, then throw you from the back of a boat,” she said. At the time, we were setting the table for dinner in her condo in Tamarac, Florida, fanning out the plastic, faux-lace, cream-colored tablecloth we had used for years (even though there were many hand-embroidered linen ones in the breakfront). My knees went weak. I knew I couldn’t have this conversation, not then. When I began to cry and told her I simply wasn’t ready, she sighed and said lovingly, but with exasperation, “Honey, I’m 93 years old. The papers are in the top drawer of your father’s dresser.” We left it at that.

By most people’s standards, my mother was already quite old, but she did not seem old to me. Nor had she ever used that word about herself. She saved “old” for those neighbors fixed in that blank, cloudy, distracted look. Not for her. She still looked glamorous—tall, buxom, zaftig, really. She walked with pride, wore heels every day, and, most important, had “all her marbles,” as in, “Does Helen still have all her marbles?”—a question often asked by my friend Rose, a bit younger than my mother and a Holocaust survivor.

Five years later, my mother, then almost 98, was in hospice at home. I could no longer avoid the brown envelope and the documents inside. As she had advised, they were among the remnants of what had once been my father’s dresser. The top drawer still was cluttered with his miscellaneous objects: cuticle scissors; a leather shaving kit for travel; a key ring with an image of a naked woman stretching, forever lodged in a plastic heart; a photo of me that he always carried in his wallet—my 12-year-old face (bubble hairdo) in a small photo booth shot—positioned next to some college transcripts. We buried one of these straight-A transcripts with him in his right lapel suit pocket. It was my mother’s idea. “He had been so proud,” she said, proud that I went to college and had done so well, having himself been kicked out of high school for “shooting craps.” My mother, needed by her mother to work the farm, never finished fifth grade. My father had carried those transcripts with him for 20 years, and now for eternity.

We had flown his body north from Florida to be buried in Brooklyn. But when the funeral director opened the coffin and asked me to verify who he was, I said, to everyone’s horror, “It’s not my father.” I was sure. It no longer looked anything like him. The frightened man then called in my mother, who said, “That’s George. He’s just swollen from weeks on the ventilator. This is the suit I brought to the funeral home, and those are his shoes.” It was then that she had the idea to put the transcript in his lapel pocket. But his body was already stiff; I could barely wedge the soft, folded paper inside. We were shattered by his death. How did she have the strength to bring anything to the funeral home? Twenty years later, I was still amazed by her composure, and now I was losing her. The documents were in the drawer, as she said. I noted immediately that her contract was actually with a place called the Neptune Society, but dolphins were close. The contract, for $1,684.62, had been paid in full in small installments, almost 10 years before. Clearly my mother didn’t want me bothered. Most startling to me was what had been scribbled by her “policy agent” in pen in the corner of the top sheet. It was a note—an addendum, really—“Wants to be buried in the cemetery next to her husband.” What happened to the boat and the dolphins?

I called the agency immediately to ask some questions and, in truth, to find out if the Neptune Society really existed. I wanted to know if there were people at the other end of the number on the top of the document at all times. After she died, how would it work? We are not a culture familiar with cremation. What, exactly, do they do, and what do we do and when? How long could I keep my mother at home after she died? How much time would it take for someone to come for her? After that, when would she be cremated? When could I get the ashes? It’s remarkable to me now that I could even say any of these words to anyone, but, in the thick of it, you do what you have to do.

One month later, my mother was gone. It was early November, and they had told me I’d have to wait a few weeks to claim the ashes. I knew that I would be back in Miami at the beginning of December for the art fair and hoped that I could pick them up then, combined with a visit to her apartment—now my apartment—and some time with her friends. I wanted the ashes with me, but I knew I could never pick them up alone, so I had asked my dear friend Lisa to accompany me. She’d also be at Art Basel, and I trusted her to understand what this meant to me but also not to collapse with me. We’d have to go back to Fort Lauderdale to get the box, so we planned the trip for the last day of the fair. I rented a car. Fearful of falling apart, I asked her to drive.

We only had a map and the address. I expected the Neptune Society to be in the older part of Fort Lauderdale, on a cool, tree-lined street. I imagined a discreet place with an unassuming bronze plaque on the side of the door, maybe with just a small trident for the logo. But now I wonder why I ever thought such things. Nothing in Florida is discreet and nothing is old, except the Everglades.

We found the building in a small shopping mall right off Interstate 95. Actually, you couldn’t miss it. The huge sign was Neptune himself, embodied as an enormous cutout figure—a barely clad, bearded giant holding an immense plywood trident that towered above the low-rise structures. Here was the god of the sea recast as an anchor-tenant for a depressed mall where half the storefronts were vacant. When we entered the building, however, it was actually quite elegant. It took a moment to discern the dimensions of the room, very somber after the white Florida light. Quiet Muzak surround-sound filled the darkened space. There was a small chapel with velvet chairs to the right of the entrance. To the left, near the reception desk, was a shelf balancing an array of expensive boxes and urns. I had already chosen the simplest metal one, since I knew it would be my mother’s preference. “Save your money,” she would have said. And it was closest to the Jewish pine coffin.

When they brought out the box, it was larger than I expected. When they handed it to me, it was heavier. Lisa was holding onto my arm. I had to sit down and, of course, immediately began to cry. My beautiful mother—this was all that was left. Nonetheless, I was grateful.

We got into the car, both crying but also laughing—at the place, the rushing traffic, Neptune hovering above us. And there began a new ritual of grief—clutching the metal box, putting it down, picking it up, putting it down, warm tears hitting the cold metal. I did it for months in Chicago—taking the box from my altar, sitting with it in my lap, lighting candles, meditating, then, inevitably, clutching the box again and rocking with it in my arms, crying again, unable to let go. In the hotel room in Miami, I wrapped it in a purple scarf, fearful that it could be stolen—perhaps mistaken for a small jewelry vault. But, really, who would steal such a thing?

The next day I was to leave for Chicago. I knew I could not check the box as luggage. What if it were lost? So, with my carry-on suitcase and the box in a shoulder bag, the letter from the Neptune Society to explain what was in the box in hand, I cautiously approached the security checkpoint. I put the box on the X-ray belt and waited on the other side for it to come through. Of course they stopped me. “What is in this box?” said the guard. “That’s my mother,” I said, “the remains of my mother. Here are the papers from the funeral home.” He turned pale and called others over. Reinforcements? Their faces were bloodless. Had no one ever done this before? “It’s very dense,” one said. “You should put a coin under it as it goes through, so we can see the coin. Then we’ll know it is just dust.” Just dust. And a coin for Charon to ferry her across the River Styx.

I got the box home and surrounded it with flowers and candles. I remember hearing that the ashes of my former teacher, Herbert Marcuse, were found in his son’s closet decades after his cremation. Someone had misplaced them. How could that be? For me the ashes and bits of bones were so alive, so remarkably heavy and “dense.” There would be no forgetting or misplacing them. They now were my mother, all I had. And so I spent several months wrapping and unwrapping that box in various luminous Lao scarves.

Gravity makes things come down, wings make them rise.

Over many years of travel, I had evolved a very elaborate altar in my Chicago house. It had begun quite unselfconsciously with a small Burmese wooden Buddha, a gift from friends Lin and Matthew, installed with some candles and flowers on a low table I had bought at a rummage sale for just that purpose. But soon the objects grew and migrated—first to the mantelpiece, then down the sides and to the base of the fireplace, and, finally, onto another small desk across the room, until the altar became the predominant fixture of the combined living/dining room.

The altar—now a large, chaotic installation—comprises small objects, minuscule in some cases: roughly carved wooden animals from Zimbabwe; bronze miniature tourist “Emerald Buddhas” from Thailand; soft, black-clad warrior dolls from Chiapas holding miniature cloth rifles, their faces masked; a highly polished wooden Buddha from Korea; a transparent blue polyurethane one from Laos; sepia-toned photos of my mother and father—each captured when they were young and beautiful; an old photo of me and my too-early-departed friend, Kathy Acker; a section devoted to all things Mayan, with a flat stone carving of a diving Goddess Ix Chel and small, cross-legged ceramic Mayan statuettes (some in fragments), to whom I pay homage each Friday when they are thought to be on Earth doing good deeds. For all this and more, I light candles, sometimes flooding the whole altar with light or just sparsely illuminating one section at a time. During the period when I still had the ashes, they were its axis.

It wasn’t until some months later, when I was in Rome, that I had a revelation. I had come to the American Academy to write. I knew I could not bring the ashes. But in the sparseness of my room, my dreams were vivid and my sadness uninterrupted. One night I had an auditory dream, or that’s how I have come to think of them—dreams without image but with language. When these occur, there is usually a phrase or sentence that is spoken to me while I am asleep. The meaning of the sentence is usually immediately clear, although the words are never as I would have constructed them when awake. This particular night, I heard my mother say, “Put the ashes to rest.” In this dream state, she and I negotiated when this should occur. My mother wanted me to bury them as soon as I returned. I wanted to wait until it was warmer—preferably summer—when it would not feel so cold and I would not feel so desolate. Not when it was dark and bitter, I insisted. I just couldn’t.

We went back and forth about the date, but I must have won, because after I returned to Chicago in March, I picked a day in July when I would return to New York with the ashes for the burial. 

Sometime later, I came across a story about a woman named Rani, a great devotee of the Goddess Kali. Rani married a man of extreme wealth and, after he died, she took hold of his business, accruing even more riches. Knowing little about finances, she attributed all her success to Kali—the gracious mother of the universe, but also the fierce figure hung with the arms and heads of corpses who helps us all to reconcile death and destruction.

Rani vowed to build a temple to Kali. For its centerpiece, she commissioned a renowned artist to sculpt a very large image of the goddess. He created a magnificent piece out of black basalt for Kali and white marble for Shiva. But Rani procrastinated and did not fix a date for the dedication of her temple. So, although the statue was finished, it remained packed in a crate, waiting. One night Rani had a dream, and Kali spoke to her: “How long will you keep me confined in this way? I feel suffocated.” Needless to say, Rani quickly chose a date to inaugurate the temple. When the workers finally unhinged the crate to remove the image of the goddess, they were astonished to find the statue wet with perspiration.


Losing Helen is available from Red Hen Press of Sept. 22. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. 

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