The Grim Reality of How We Lay Our Loved Ones to Rest

Kristi Keller

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Photo by Chloe Bolton on Unsplash

Many years ago, I used to have a blog called Twisted Kristi. If it still existed this story could probably be the headliner for it.

Sometimes my mind resides a little on the dark side but I rarely verbalize these kinds of thoughts because they’re obscure and morbid. I desperately hope others secretly think this way too, because I’m afraid to be the only one.

This is an attempt at breaking silence on a topic nobody wants to bring up but probably many wish was more appropriate to talk about.

I had never experienced a significant death before my son passed away, certainly not one where I have been the sole decision-maker.

Before my son, the only people I had lost were my grandparents who were old, so it made sense. And my father who was estranged, so it wasn’t gut-wrenching. I rarely think about them in an average day.

However, when you lose the human you gave life to, obviously you think about every detail of it, during all the waking moments of every day.

But not all the thoughts are sad.

Some thoughts are downright bizarre.

Rewind to Christmas 2020 — the first major holiday after my son departed.

I knew my mother had been intending to buy herself a tribute urn so she could keep some of my boy’s ashes in her home. She never got around to making the purchase so I thought it was a perfect Christmas gift idea.

Let’s unpack that for a minute — literally and figuratively.

Giving away part of a dead body as a great Christmas gift idea? It just sounds so Dateline. So morbid.

As it turns out it was a great gift because it reduced my mother to tears and brought her great comfort. She now has her grandson sitting right beside her mother, my Nana.

Now I’d like to talk about what was involved in giving this gift. I had to open my son’s urn which is something I had never dreamed of doing.

Can you imagine how surprised I was to find out human ashes are not black? They’re not even brown. He looks like a beige, sandy beach in there, complete with larger, white flecks that look like pieces of seashell.

It was not like on TV where people scatter a fine mist of black powder into the wind. Human remains are not a fine mist. If I were to throw my son into a strong breeze blowing the wrong way, I would need safety goggles.

Inside the urn, his sandy beach body is twist-tied into a clear, plastic bag. The bag is tagged with a stainless steel disc inscribed with a six-digit number.

In order to give my mother her Christmas gift, I’d have to untie the bag and transfer some ashes into the tribute urn.

Have you ever seen a tribute urn? It’s a bit bigger than a thimble. The only scooper I could successfully use was a 1/8 teaspoon. And so I began scooping, careful not to drop a single grain onto my kitchen counter.

I can’t lie. With every little scoop, I winced at the idea of finding an eyeball or a tooth. I’m not trying to making light of this, I swear. I really am this inappropriate in my thinking.

When the deed was done, it felt weird and disrespectful putting the teaspoon into the dishwasher.

How do you know it’s your loved one?

Before I had him cremated I was very skeptical. I straight up asked the funeral director how I could be sure they were sending my actual son home to me.

How would I know if they didn’t just shovel a pile of dirt from their garden out back, into my urn and call it a day? I had the same thoughts when I had my last dog cremated.

I wonder how many other grieving people have raised this question? It’s something nobody wants to ask but everyone secretly wants to know, right?

The funeral director explained the process to me.

She told me that each body is cremated in a private wooden container, with a numbered metal disc that withstands the fire. After cremation, they go through the remains with a magnet to separate any metals that may be present.

Is anyone else envisioning the cartoon-like horseshoe magnet with two red ends?

When all is said and done, they retrieve the metal disc that accompanied him through his refinement and match it to the numbered disc that now seals his bag.

The weirdness of the aftermath.

Within about a week the funeral home shipped my son home to me by regular post. Did you know that only the postal service will ship human remains? Forget about UPS and FedEx — they don’t dabble with the dead.

When I received notification that my package had arrived I went to the post office which is located inside my community grocery store.

As the postal worker handed me my package I wondered if she knew she had just handed over what used to be a person. The box wasn’t marked with any indication of contents.

Walking out of the store I also wondered if anyone knew I was carrying my child inside that box. Has anyone else ever made the same type of pickup from this post office?

I cried as I exited the store and was thankful for the mask I had on.

The morbid reality of cremation.

The other night I was engrossed in the Yellowstone series on Prime. It’s basically about the mafia, but in Montana, on horseback.

It showed a scene where they tossed a dead body inside a livestock incinerator and as the scene played out, my thoughts disappeared into a visual play-by-play of cremation.

I’m not going to lie, I shed a tear or two.

Sure, the keepsake part of cremation is very nice and touching, neatly packaged inside a beautiful container. But imagine what the body went through to get there?

I can’t fathom the visual image of my gorgeous child melting away to practically nothing. The years worth of colorful artwork adorning his body, his perfect teeth, his hazel eyes, his neatly trimmed beard, his battle scars.

All the beautiful thoughts that occupied his mind, his unique fingerprints, and his delicate, one-of-a-kind DNA that provided me with two grandchildren, all melted away with him.

Everything that was specific ONLY to him had disappeared in a flash-fire.

It feels pretty brutal to imagine they could reduce 190 pounds of man into a pile that fits comfortably into a jar. My whole child is inside a jar.

It feels even more brutal that we consent to and pay a lot of money for such an act.

But for me, the less appealing alternative is laying inside a box all alone in the cold, dark ground somewhere. If I wasn’t able to wake up every single day and see a physical representation of my son, I don’t think I could bear it.

If I wasn’t able to keep a candle lit right beside him how would he feel light and warmth? If he was underground somewhere I’d never be able to move him to the windowsill on a beautiful day.

It’s odd and interesting what we hang onto when we lose a significant loved one. Even odder that we have to make the choice of where and how their remains spend eternity.

After I die who will even care about his urn sitting in my living room? Where will they put it? Does it matter in anyone’s bigger picture but mine?

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I'm an old school travel writer who's been flung into another writing world through life experience. I have a compassionate eye, a different opinion, and strong words for this world we live in. I also know a thing or two.

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