07/26/2012 09:19 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2012

A Bucket of Ashes

"I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays." --Carl Sandburg

I recently got custody of my father's remains. They'd been residing with my stepmother for the past 20 years, mostly on the mantelpiece, although occasionally buckled into the front seat of her Mercedes for a Sunday afternoon drive. But she hasn't been well lately, and she started worrying that someone would donate them to the Salvation Army while she was away. So she asked me to give them a good home.

This is a challenge for several reasons. First, the urn itself is two feet high, even though its contents would fit neatly in a half-gallon paint can. My stepmother felt that "a big man should have a big urn," and no one was in the mood to contradict her.

In fact, neither my brother nor I were present when my father died. He'd been on life support for several weeks after a major stroke; the consensus was that his brain no longer functioned. I went to Europe on a travel assignment and got the news of his death one early morning in Amsterdam.

I remember the shock, and not immediately knowing what to do with myself. I got dressed and wandered down the street next to the Keizersgracht. It was a misty morning in early August, and no one was around.

Somehow I ended up at a crumbling synagogue. The sanctuary was dusty and covered in drop cloths, but I found a prayer book and said Kaddish (the prayer for the dead). Then I went back to the hotel, packed, and caught an afternoon flight home.

According to Jewish tradition, my father shouldn't have been cremated at all. He should have been buried in a pine box, wearing a simple cotton shroud, at our family plot out on Long Island. Those big burial plots are going to give the genealogists heartburn. Ours housed my mother's father -- her mother was buried with cousins in Seattle, where she died -- next to my father's mother. On her other side, my ex-husband's father rested in a plot my mother had purchased but decided not to use.

My father would have hated it there. Anyway, by the time we had the discussion he was already reposing in his oversized urn.

It's not that I am opposed to cremation. We had our beloved Boxer cremated after he died; the plan was to distribute his ashes at a local park, but somehow they ended up in a wooden box on top of the microwave. A few months later, I heard my youngest son explaining to a friend, "That's our dog, Cassius. He turned to gravel and now he lives in the kitchen."

I tried keeping the blue porcelain receptacle next to the couch, but after two near-collisions with family pets I moved it to the dining room sideboard. For the first time, my father is silent during family dinners. When we were small, he cracked us up with corny jokes ("We're the Fukawi!") and made-up advertising slogans. Here is one of his favorites, which I learned to chant earnestly when I was six:

Carnation milk comes in a can

It is the best milk in the land

No hay to pitch

No tits to twitch

Just poke a hole in the son of a bitch.

Eventually, I plan to scatter my father's ashes over his beloved Manhattan -- preferably somewhere expensive where we can sneak in without paying. But for now, they're fine right here. I might even take him for a drive.


Photo credit: Heidi Niemala