Dealing with the ashes
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Part I - 05/2011

It is almost a year since Doug passed away, and I need to deal with the ashes. Doug was cremated. Neither of us wanted to use up land for a grave.

Some folks keep the "cremains" in an urn in their house. That seems pretty dreary to me. Some folks add them to an existing grave. Some spread them to the four winds.

My family took my father's ashes out on a boat and scattered them in the ocean while drinking Dom Perignon in his honor. Unfortunately, it was a really windy day and the ashes blew back into their faces and their champagne glasses. (Apparently you are supposed to put them in a baggie and cut a hole in the bottom corner to avoid this.)

The funeral director told me that over the years he has received several interesting requests regarding disposition of ashes. One guy wanted his ashes mixed with cement and made into a doorstop. Another man wanted his wife to keep them in the trunk of her car so she could use them for traction in case she ever got stuck in the snow. I heard of a woman who went to China with her husband, to realize their lifelong vacation dream. Her husband had a heart attack shortly after they arrived. She had him cremated, packed the remains into her suitcase and lugged him to the Great Wall of China with her.

Doug's ashes have been sitting on a bookshelf for the past 11 months, inside a handsome mahogany box. I brought them downstairs the night of the wake. A bunch of people were at the house drinking, and I thought Doug would want to be a part of it. I hid the box behind a photo of him that night, so as not to freak folks out.

About a month or two after Doug died, I was lying on the sofa and looking up at the bookcase at his picture. I suddenly realized that all that was left of Doug's physical being was inside that box. I fell apart. I still haven't put the pieces back together again.

A friend reminded me recently that Doug would want to be outside. But dealing with the ashes means a couple of things:

1. I have to open the box and look inside.

2. I can't keep pretending he isn't really dead.

3. I have to figure out where to put them.

Doug and I did not discuss death much - other than my occasional threats to kill him when he was being uber-annoying. When I asked him what he thought happened after we die, he just smiled his crooked smile, shrugged his shoulders and said "I dunno."

Doug was a practical man, and he loved this old house. He put his heart and soul into it. The only instruction he ever gave me was that, if he should go before me, I was to use his ashes to fill in a low spot in the driveway. I want to honor that wish. But I am worried about storm water runoff - I don't want his ashes to end up in the road. So I will probably put them in a small hole. Maybe I will pour some Molsen red cap beer (his fave) on top, to wash them down.

His best climbing buddy requested some of his ashes to put on a mountain. Doug's family wants that. So some will go there.

I was reluctant to split up his remains at first. It reminds me of Star Trek episodes where the transporter doesn't work and people's molecules end up scattered across the universe. But I guess it really doesn't matter. The ashes are not Doug....any more than the clothes he wore were him.

Anyway, I hope dispositioning the ashes will bring me, his family and his friends a measure of peace.


"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
- The Bible, King James version


Part II - 07/08/2011

I have been dreading this day. But I also wanted it to be over - to cross this threshold. To have survived the worst year. The first year.

The day was exhausting but very special. I think we did right by Doug.

His ashes have been a dilemma for me - I was not sure what to do with them. (More)

I gave a lot of thought to the various options and rituals. I knew his ashes needed to go outside. I thought the one year "anniversary" would be a good time to do this.

PS asked what I needed from him on this day. He would stay with me if I asked, but we both agreed I needed to do this by myself.

I was somewhat afraid to actually open the container and see the ashes.

In the morning, I screwed up my courage and unscrewed the bottom of the mahogany box that held Doug's remains. Inside was a plastic bag, closed with a cable tie that held a metal marker that had gone into the incinerator with Doug.

I was surprised at how heavy the bag was. I opened the bag. The ashes were grayish brown, and sort of chalky looking. There were little granules in there still - I guess they grind things down after the cremation process is complete because the bones don't completely disintegrate.

(If you've ever wondered what cremains look like, there is a pretty good description here on, along with tales of people stealing and supposedly trying to snort them after mistaking them for cocaine.)

I took a tiny sterling spoon PS loaned me, and scooped some of the ashes into two small urns. They are actually urns made for pet ashes I think. One was made of brass, and engraved with leaves. The other was a simple granite urn. Doug's climbing buddy will be bringing it onto a mountaintop sometime soon.

There was still quite a bit left.

I took some and put them in a small silk mesh bag tied with a ribbon. Then I went outside and walked around the entire perimeter of the house and the barn and his shop, letting them fall out and waft into the wind. We were so happy in this house, and he worked so hard on it.

It was hot out - approaching 100 degrees, and bug-gy. At 1:00 p.m. - a year to the hour from when the call came - our neighbors - young and old - arrived.

We walked in a little procession down to DH's Christmas Tree field. Doug and I picked out our Christmas tree there every year...hung bluebird boxes there...cut through that field on the way to various neighborhood parties...and stood around the "ring of fire" during the holidays, warming our cockles and toasting the end of the workday.

I had told our neighbors about a tradition I saw in China when I visited a Buddhist temple. People wrote messages on a piece of paper and burned them, believing their thoughts and prayers would then waft heavenward.

Some had written something for or to Doug. Some read their note, some gave it to me to read aloud, and some asked that it be kept private. See Joe's below (it is also posted on his RequiredReading blog.)

This is how I will remember you, Doug...

A real man
Filled with vigor,
a zest for living,
and a never-ending sense of adventure
Fearless, sometimes to a fault

You worked hard,
but you played harder
Always in search of a new adventure
But always happy to come home

Thank you, Doug, for always giving
We knew we could count on you to share good things:
A helping hand or some special problem-solving wisdom
A tasty beverage at the end of the day
Your smile, jokes and laughter
A story made funnier simply because you were telling it

The way you lived life was an inspiration to all of us
Filled with joy and passion
Dedicated to your work
But devoted to family and friends
Especially your one true love

Gone too soon
But never forgotten
I consider myself lucky to have called you a friend.

I read the notes and wept. The pain still feels so fresh.

Then some other neighbors each read a passage from a book BN gave me, called "Healing After Loss." I asked them to pick something at random, kind of like you can do with a Bible reading. The ones they landed on were unbelievably relevant. When RJ read one that said that even though we may wish it so, the grief doesn't end at the end of the year, I said "oh CRAP" out loud.

The last one read was about the "middle miles" by Henry E. Woodruff.

"Hikers refer to them as the "middle-miles." These are the most exhausting, challenging miles on the path, when the exhilaration of beginning the journey has evaporated into drudgery and the promise of the path's end has not yet given new energy for the stepping." Martha Whitmore Hickman then wrote
" We wonder whether we shall ever feel our old energy and hunger for life again....Liek the climbers in the "middle miles," we must keep going, knowing that one day we will get on top of our lives again. Looking back, we'll marvel at how far we've come."

More tears and hugs.

Doug's friend DH had prepared a spot, with an iris brought down from NH, a Molson red cap beer and Doug's favorite bottle opener (a screwdriver) and a lovely flat rock from NH. After the readings, I placed a small brass urn with some of Doug's ashes into a hole and DH put the rock on top.

Then we walked up to the barn at our house. Each person took a trowel and took a shovelful of dirt to form a hole in the driveway. I put a poem I wrote for Doug on one of our wedding anniversaries on the bottom of the hole, and then put the remaining ashes in it. I covered them gently with dirt. Then we each toasted to Doug with a Molson red cap. I took the caps and made a little "Z" on top of the ashes.

On his way home, DH lit off some firecrackers by the ashes in the field.

It was done. I hope it was as healing for our friends as it was for me.

Later in the day, I went over to Doug's parents to visit, cry, tell stories, feel the love, and share a meal.


Part III - 08/08/2011

BP climbed and hiked with Doug for three decades. One of BP's dreams is to summit Mt. Robson - a huge, dangerous mountain in the Canadian Rockies that is also known as "The Great White Fright." Some years no one summits it. Some years climbers die on it. But it is a spectacular challenge.

In 1865, adventurers Milton and Cheadle noted that: "On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson's Peak. This magnificent mountain is of conical form, glacier clothed, and rugged. When we first caught site of it, a shroud of mist partially enveloped the summit, but this presently rolled away, and we saw its upper portion dimmed by a necklace of light feathery clouds, beyond which its apex of ice, glittering in the morning sun, shot up far into the blue heaven above, to a height of probably 10,000 or 15,000 feet. It was a glorious sight, and one which the Shuswaps of The Cache assured us had rarely been seen by human eyes, the summit being generally hidden by clouds." (Note: Robson is actually 12,972 feet, and is the second highest peak in British Columbia.)

BP and Doug were together on four failed attempts. Doug's last try ended after being stuck in a tent for 105 hours in a blinding blizzard. Their choice was to die on the mountain or go down. Doug - ever the Voice of Reason - voted to descend. It was a disappointment, but after that, Doug said "no more." He did not feel it was meant to be, and preferred other, more achievable peaks. Not so for BP. He has been back two more times. In 2010, the team of three had to turn back due to bad weather and a hernia. Unbeknownst to them, they were within 450 feet of the summit.

Doug's family had asked that some of Doug's ashes be placed on a mountain of his choosing. BP agreed to take a small granite urn and get it to the top of some scenic part of the planet. He said: "The Columbia Icefield where we first climbed together back in1980 may be a fitting location. DJ and I would be happy to document the event for you with some pictures and cold beer (Molson or Labatts)."

Later, BP and DJ made plans to go to Canada, and "get some roadside peaks in to get our mountain legs and then if things look good, perhaps go to Robson. Should this occur, my plan would to be to leave the ashes on the summit."

As Woody Allen said "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."

Dale on Mt. Fay.  Photo by Bob Plucenik
Dale climbing up Mt. Fay, August 2011.

BP and DJ arrived in Canada late on August 7, exhausted. The next day they made their way to Mt. Fay. The climb involved about 800 feet of snow, rock and ice. Unfortunately, on the fourth pitch, some rock came loose, and one piece hit DJ's leg hard. Unbeknownst to them both, it fractured his fibula.

An agonizing descent followed. BP carried both packs, and helped lower DJ down the slope, alternately rappelling, hobbling and ass-sliding.

Then the hail started. Followed by an electrical storm that sent sparks off DJ's helmet and a shock up BP's butt. Next impenetrable fog rolled in. All of this was punctuated by DJ's dry heaves, which if you ask me, are worse than a broken leg. (Not that I've ever had a broken leg. I do vividly recall a bout of dry heaves after a severe case of merlot poisoning :-)

Ten hours later, at around 10 p.m., they arrived back at the hut. A normal descent from where they were would have taken about an hour. Fortunately, two climbers and their guides were at the hut with a radio. They called for a rescue helicopter, but it could not come in until daylight. Meanwhile, they washed out the wound, and DJ tapped his stash of painkillers. After a visit to the hospital the following day, they headed back home, along with Doug's ashes.

BP says DJ is on mend, getting around with the help of ski poles. I am sorry they were unable to conquer Robson. I'm sure it is terribly disappointing. However, I am grateful it was not worse - it certainly could have been. BP's daughter said perhaps Doug's spirit helped them stay safe. I would like to think that was the case.

When BP arrived back home to rejoin his family, the American Alpine Club journal was waiting for him. Inside is the wonderful memoriam he wrote for Doug.


"...her transformation would never cease, for her cremains would eventually be subjected to wind and rain and snow and sun and ice, becoming finer and finer particles of dust, dispersed and tumbling through all the careless whims of nature, but always a trace of Claudia, somewhere in the universe always a trace of Claudia. In this way, we never totally disappear, and thus death is never a full disposition."
~ Patrick McKenna Lynch Smith, Leaving the Life: A true story of love, loss and gratitude


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