Shelf Life


My father passed away almost 7 years ago.

Before he passed away he decided to donate his body to “science” which I have come to learn means allowing college students to pick and prod his body after it had been formaldihded and given a generic nondescript name. After his body had been “studied” it was then cremated and the remains (which is a pretty horrible way to put it its as if in the cremation of the body something was taken and the family gets what went unused) were sent to us.

It was our plan, or someone’s plan, to spread his ashes or bury them under a tree with a shiny plaque and his name. It seemed like it took quite a few years for them, the scientists I presume are to blame, to send us his ashes. My grandmother, who isn’t an impatient person, decided to have the tree planted and the plaque placed before the ashes arrived.

In our case they sent a box covered in sturdy brown paper much like what paper grocery bags are made of with a standard white packaging label. The box was smaller than a shoe-box, but heavier. It looked so ordinary. The box could have contained anything Christmas presents, seeds for the garden, wind up toys from the Lilliput Motor Company magazine…etc. I could hardly believe it contained my father.

Our family isn’t very good at accomplishing tasks, even ones as seemingly important as tending to a loved ones ashes.

The ashes set on a shelf in our house for years. For the entire time I was away at  school his ashes, in the smaller than shoe box box, sat unwrapped in our living room. Occasionally, I would notice the box when I was home for a holiday or a weekend and would ask mom when we were going to do bury or spread his ashes. We would sit down and come up with a date every time. But the next time I’d be home the box would still be there.

Its like keeping him in the brown paper box on a shelf will somehow delay what has already happened. Its like the mail piling up week after week, not to be taken care of,  not out of lack of care or want or denial but repressive avoidance. It is a duty that you know needs to be done, but if you avoid it long and persistently enough it wont go away but it’ll become invisible even if its staring you in the face.

Sometimes I think we are intentionally avoiding it. Other times it angers me that no one makes it a priority. In some ways it doesn’t really matter. I’m not sure he would mind much knowing that we haven’t buried him or tossed his ashes to the wind.

Symbolically, it matters a lot to me. Somehow it seems to be an analogy for my family’s inability to deal with death in a way that makes sense to me. I, and many of my cousins and my sister, are more prone to wanting to “process” family deaths openly and together. The act of dispersing his ashes would be, in a sense, part of that process.

Emotionally, it matters because it means he is still in the house. No, he isn’t alive but my ability to healthily “move on” is greatly hindered by a form of his physical dead self residing in our home.

I’m not resentful or angry, just anxious to continue to learn how to process his passing in new ways that I think will strengthen my memory of him and my ability to appreciate who he was when he was.

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