As my mother lay quietly on her final day, we carried on the little rituals familiar in her life—afternoon tea, cocktail hour, acerbic wit, storytelling, chatting about family and friends. Mom began to develop a rattle in her breathing around midday, which increased into the evening. She died at 1 a.m., a month shy of ninety-eight years old.
Adam, the funeral home driver, came slightly before eight, in a converted minivan, which is what passes for a hearse these days. There would be a full-blown Catholic funeral later on that the whole family would fly in for, but I told the funeral director that some of her children were Buddhist, and my mother had some appreciation for that, so I would like to wait three days and then perform a Buddhist funeral service as my mother’s body was cremated. He said the crematorium was at the back of the funeral home in an extension that looked like a garage, with a concrete floor. I said that would be okay.
That night I felt very close to my mother and was aware that my anxiously hanging on to her previous form was counterproductive. I needed to forthrightly let go, and as she was leaving this world let her sense a feeling of freedom, rather than anxiety, in my whole being. Holding on to what was denies the truth of what is. It’s necessary to embrace uncertainty and possibility, and linger on the brink.
I got up on the day of her cremation with the resolve to give Mom a proper bon voyage, including laying out a favorite food and drink, part of the ceremony I’ve conducted many times for others. My brother Bob still had the glass that Mom always took her wine in, and some wine left that she had not drunk. On the way to the funeral home, we stopped at a country store and I had them prepare a hot dog just the way my mother liked it, with a toasted bun.
The crematorium had a garage door. There was lots of funeral home stuff stored in the room and a gunmetal gray oven about eight feet high and wide and twenty feet deep.
Mom was there in a cardboard box. I asked the funeral director to take the cover off. She was quite cold, but her silver hair was still lovely. Bob gave her a kiss. He and I and the two friends gathered there began the ceremony by saying a few words of appreciation. Everyone was eloquent and heartfelt, succinct, and humorous in places. At one point, Bob thanked Mom for occasionally “keeping your opinion to yourself and for not driving the cart over the green too many times” when he took her out to the golf course in her final year of life, when she was nearly deaf and blind.
A key part of the ceremony was doing the meditation practice called sending and taking. On the in-breath we took in fear and clinging and on the out-breath we sent out letting go, confidence, and peace. I gave the funeral director the signal to light the fire and we chanted a mantra with the same attitude of letting go as my mom was slid into the oven, the door was shut, and the massive roar of the flames began.
There’s a real power to being with death without encasing it in satin-lined mahogany. You appreciate just how natural it is, without denying the loss. Outside, singing an Irish air to cap things off, we noticed in the grass beyond the parking lot the shadow of the chimney, and of the smoke coming out of it. Not so long ago that smoke had been my mother. It was more than a metaphor.
Before I left to make my way back home, I took a statue of a piper in a kilt that I’d bought for Mom the year I lived with her after Dad died. When I got home, I set it next to a little statue of a buddha I have in my office. I look at it often. I always will.