We are following two black-suited undertakers across the one-hundred-degree parking lot out to a windowless metal building—my dad; my brother, Charlie; his wife, Amelia; me. My husband is at work, our kids at school. It is the day before my mom’s memorial service. My phone is buzzing in my pocket with texts of flight arrivals and last-minute arrangements.
We are all frazzled by the heat and the events of the past week, but I think I look the most haggard. On top of my mom’s cancer and final days, I have been lugging the weight of my own breast cancer around with me for the past eight months—a sneaky aggressive kind that has made everything feel deeply off-kilter since the day I was diagnosed. The hair on my head is a patchy fuzz following months of chemo. I am one-breasted from a mastectomy last month, my T-shirt sagging off my body on that side like a sheet on a windless clothesline. I’m facing another three months of chemo scheduled to start the Monday after the memorial.
“Damnit,” my mom had said a few weeks ago, when she was still coherent. “I can’t believe I’m going to die right when you’re in the middle of all this. It’s killing me.” One of her wry smiles.
The bulk of me is standing here in grief—in that unhinged and unpredictable way we are led toward things after a loss—but I have to admit that part of me is here for some kind of morbid test drive, death hitching a ride in my chest from my mom’s sickbed to this parking lot behind the funeral home.
In the far back corner, in the corrugated metal building: the crematorium. The uglification of America, my mom used to say when she would see this sort of cheap metal structure going up along some rural North Carolina highway, quickly announcing itself as a Dollar General or a liquor store. Now, inside one, her body awaits its final moments.
We know they’ll have her in the hundred-dollar cardboard cremation casket we’d picked out at the funeral home. What we don’t expect is that it will look like a large white cake box.
The morticians seem uncertain about us for wanting to be here—like it’s we who are the creepy ones. Honestly, I’m not sure we want to be here, either, but Charlie feels strongly that we should see this through to the end, and we have agreed to try to support each other through whatever twists and turns our mother’s death takes us.
We kept vigil at her bedside until she died. We kept her body in the house for several days after she was gone—taking turns sitting with her, watching her change and become increasingly less her.
This is the end, I think to myself.
Three days earlier we’d sat in the funeral home office with a different mortician—our next-door neighbor, Joe, a friend and the new father of a baby girl born the very week my mom died—and asked about observing the cremation.
“Uh, sure, that can definitely be arranged,” Joe said. Two of his great gifts: tact and kindness.
On the glossy mahogany table in the funeral parlor was the flowered canister we’d brought from home—her stash can. “And can you put her ashes in this?” Charlie asked. “Sorry—it has kind of a strong smell. It’s where she kept her pot.”
“Oh, definitely,” said Joe, nodding without blinking. “Not a problem.”
I was actually relieved this was the container we’d shown up with. When I’d picked up my dad for the funeral home appointment, he climbed into my car holding the orange Tupperware pitcher we’d been mixing powder lemonade in since the 1970s. “Will this work?” he’d asked.
“I don’t think so, Dad,” I’d said. “Maybe something—not from the kitchen?”
When he ran back inside to get a different vessel, I’d snapped a photo of the pitcher sitting in the passenger seat and texted it to my mom’s number. Please come back, I’d written. Dad wants to put you in this.
The first of a million non-replies.
Inside the Uglification of America, it is one hundred degrees hotter than the hundred-degree parking lot. It looks like a garage, with a large cooler and even larger oven. The oven is, it seems, preheating.
“Do you want to see the body first?” one of the undertakers asks us.
She’s been in their refrigerator for five days. There is a sheet covering her face when they lift the cake box lid. Of the whole thing, I like that part the least. The undertaker pulls it back with some fanfare, and the four of us lean forward and peer in at her.
She is no longer my mother—and that, I think, is part of what I’m supposed to understand by visiting her here in the metal box. Although I knew it already. I knew it the moment my phone rang at 3:00 a.m. and Charlie said “I think you should come,” and I tripped into two different sandals and put my shirt on backwards and ran both of the stop signs between our houses, and I knew it when I skidded into the driveway and a startled rabbit in the grass by the gate stared back at me—unflinching, unmoved—as I slammed the car door and ran past it. I knew I was too late.
She isn’t decomposed or anything like it, but her coloring is distinctly orange and waxy now, and her face is covered in beads of condensation. Only her hair looks like her—lovely wisps of graying brown swept back from her forehead. The purple flowers we’d strewn on her the morning she died are wilted and browning like a discarded corsage. Her eyes are sewn shut—uneven stitches between her eyelashes that look like the doll dresses she helped me sew in third grade. Her mouth is sewn shut as well.
“She would definitely not like that!” I whisper to my dad. He squeezes my shoulder.
The other undertaker turns to my dad. “Do you want to press the button for the incinerator?” he asks, as though my dad is the birthday boy at a special party. He starts showing him the levers and the different dials. My dad, who is usually game for just about anything but who I can tell in this moment is going along with the undertaker’s shtick just to avoid further interaction, presses the green button.
The oven door starts to open and then lurches suddenly, and someone else’s leftover ashes plume briefly into the air like a thought bubble or a dream about how little we belong here. We all jump back, and I can almost hear my mom yelling at my dad, “Jesus Christ, Peter—what are you trying to do to me?”
When the door fully opens, they close the box and slide it in on a short conveyer belt, and the oven door clanks shut with my mom inside. There is no window. Somehow all this time I had imagined there would be a horrifying little window like on a potbelly stove. There is only a thick metal door and she is on the other side of it and we cannot enter and she will not return.
The cremation itself will take four or five more hours to complete.
“Okay, I’m good,” I say almost immediately. I’m lightheaded and annoyed at whatever made me think this might be a reasonable thing to do. Outside, I need to squat down on my knees on the blacktop while my eyes adjust to the sun. My dad comes out with me and rubs my back. Charlie and Amelia stay inside a few minutes longer, but soon emerge.
Charlie is ten years younger than I am—not yet thirty. Growing up, we never really fought with each other, or our dad—it wasn’t part of the architecture of our childhood—but we fought a lot with our mom. For a long time, that was what Charlie and I had in common. Me, maybe, because I’m so much like her—impulsive, demanding, emotional. Mom and I even got cancer together. Charlie, maybe, because he is her opposite: He can be hard to connect with, and she took that personally sometimes. He is kind and smart and sensitive and disarming—but he can be hard to read and he lives in his head. Amelia already understands him far better than the rest of us ever did.
“Sorry about that,” says Charlie, cry-laughing, Amelia leaning her head against him as we all walk arm-in-arm back to the car. “I don’t know if that was okay or horrible.”
“It’s okay,” says my dad. “Let’s just not ever do that again.”
“Dying isn’t the end of the world,” my mom liked to joke, after she was diagnosed as terminal. I didn’t really understand it until, suddenly, I did—when my breast cancer became metastatic and incurable. There are so many things that are worse than death: old grudges; a loveless life; insufficient self-awareness; severe constipation; a lack of curiosity; no sense of humor; this grim parking lot.
After the cremation the rest of the afternoon is airport runs and phone calls, and the evening is soup and beers on the back patio with music and family and friends. An old best friend pulls into the driveway on her motorcycle, driven that day from New York. Amelia’s parents are here. My mother-in-law walks through the gate. The neighbors bring dessert. All through this, the oven is at work in the back of that parking lot on the other side of town.
The cremation was not, it turns out, the absolute end. It will be a couple days before we receive the ashes because, as Joe tells me one morning in the driveway, after the incinerator, there is the cremulator—a high-speed blender of sorts that grinds the cremated bone fragments into approximately four pounds of rocky sand.
Two days after the memorial service, Joe rings the doorbell holding the stash can. He’s home from work for a quick lunch, the hearse crowding the narrow driveway between our houses. His wife, Josie, is home full-time with the baby, and Joe is trying to get back to working a regular schedule. His eyes are raw with the shock of parenting. I can hear the sound of newborn cries through our open windows at all hours.
“These are for you,” he says when I open the door, handing me the container. Four pounds.
“Thank you,” I say, holding it awkwardly with both hands, wanting to put it under my arm, but knowing that would not be right either. “I hope you guys are doing okay over there.”
“We are,” he says, smiling. “Tired—but she’s so great.”
Fifteen minutes later I peer out the dining room window. The driveway is empty. I discover I’m still holding the canister, balanced on my hip and in the crook of my arm. I’ve let the dog out and straightened the couch cushions and made a grocery list, but I haven’t put it down. Through the screens, I can hear Josie humming and cooing to the baby—that mindless meandering tune of comfort and companionship—the loveliest of music, one of the first sounds I imagine I ever heard.