Burial, Emily’s Ashes on Water

Emily Gray at 99

Emily at 99

Crouched on the diving platform at the aft of  boat, I held one fourth of a dead human in my hands. Several crew members were moving just out of sight. “This is probably illegal,” I thought.

March through November, 2013

I was crouched on the diving platform at the aft of the 16 passenger boat. I was holding one fourth of a dead human in my hands, aware that several crew members, just out of sight, were moving around not ten feet from me. “This is probably illegal,” I thought.

I might have been right. But I had my job to do.

It started with our Aunt Emily’s decline as she edged into her mid-90s. She’d been a strong willed woman, the youngest of five children, and always exceptional. She was lucky to find a job during the depression, but she quit it to join the WACs, the Women’s Army Corps, as America entered World War II. That service provided the GI Bill after the war, and she finished her bachelor’s degree, entered Wisconsin’s School of Medicine, and interned at the University of Chicago (and became a life-long Cubs fan). As a doctor, she wasn’t one of those who wanted to nurse folks with sniffles back to health. It was the science she liked, and she became a pathologist who didn’t mind telling the family, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but if you die I can figure out what killed you.”

She wasn’t cold or unfeeling, she just loved her work and was good at it, getting the right sort of assignments and job offers. She had an independent streak. She accepted an offer of employment as a doctor by telling the hospital that if they didn’t mind waiting a couple of months while she and her sister sailed on a tramp steamer down the coast of South America, she’d be happy to take the position. They held the job for her.

Burial, ashes on water

Most of the photos I have of Dr. Emily Gray are of her competitive dancing.

She regretted not getting a flying assignment in the WACs and became a general aviation pilot in the 1950’s, co-owning a plane. Dancing was in her soul, and for years she entered competitive ballroom dance contests, often in foreign locations. Combined with seminars for physicians in places like Kenya, Emily combined business and pleasure with the joy of travel.


Emily enjoyed her life and she spent much of it dancing or on the beach.

Emily enjoyed her life, and she enjoyed it most on a beach or on the ocean. I never knew what she loved more, dancing or the ocean.

She loved to travel and told me, a seven-year-old, about unimaginably exotic locations she’d seen. Emily had the travel bug and she infected me. We saw each other occasionally. Sometimes years would slip by, and we’d talk again. When my first wife and I quit our jobs and took off to travel across Europe for a year, Emily was one of the family members who came to Las Vegas and took over our home for months, saving us much-needed money.

As we both got older, I had the chance to travel more, including some visits to Emily in Corpus Christi, Texas. The tables had turned. Now it was me who traveled off the beaten path, and my time to tell the tales.

Her world shrunk from a gorgeous condo on Padre Island to an apartment in Corpus Christi, then a retirement home with her own apartment, then after a fall and broken bones a smaller unit and meals taken in the dining room, then the assisted living portion, then the medical care area.  Each stage was diminishment. Diminished space, diminished mobility, the fading away of personally precious objects and their memories, bland food, no way to follow her beloved Chicago Cubs.  All things slipped away like water between her curled fingers.   Early in this progression she told me that there were days she thought about just lying on her bed, turning her face towards the wall, and dying. But she didn’t. It dragged out.

She saw the entire arc in the retirement home dining room. The gregarious becoming confused, nodding absently at the table, then gone to the 4th Floor medical or the dreaded 1st Floor Alzheimer’s Unit.

The second fall, a broken hip, and an unwillingness to eat put her on the 4th floor medical unit and kept her there but, at the end, she was fully eligible for the 1st Floor too.

My cousin Steve, son of Emily’s oldest brother, visited her often over the years, planning his work-related cross-country trips so he could stop over. I tried too. Once, in her later years, she beamed as she saw me walk in asking brightly, “Have you come to take me home?” As we talked, I understood that she didn’t know who I was. I stayed several days, did my best to feed her at meal time as staff in a very good facility seemed content to simply deliver her meals and later pick them up, gently scolding her for not eating. She slept, mostly, and I was content to sit in her room reading a book. There was little left to say. Steve, visiting her a month afterward, called me to say that she told him, “I had the nicest long conversation with Gary.”

Several years before, Steve took over the responsibility of managing Emily’s finances when she was still able to understand the process and glad to have him do it. She, after a lifetime as a well-compensated doctor, was afraid of outliving her money. If it hadn’t been for Steve’s hard work, dedication, and good decisions, she might have.

So it came as no surprise when one of Steve’s phone calls began, “Bad news, cousin.” The youngest sister of my father and of Steve’s father was dead at 99. All the leaves had now fallen from that stout old branch of our tree.

Emily didn’t want a funeral. She wanted cremation. She wanted her ashes cast on the water. What water she hadn’t said, and it seemed that it could be any water. We thought a distant cousin in Alabama with a boat in Florida might be willing to do the honors. Hurricanes, a new job, new house, and the boat in drydock cancelled that. Through default, I was elected, and Emily arrived at my door via UPS, dressed in a tacky cardboard box covering her slip of a heavy duty plastic bag secured with a mortuary seal.

Burial, ashes on water

The sentinel rock where Emily’s ashes were spread near Bartholomew Island.

Which brings me back to the diving platform and me, holding roughly one fourth of Emily in a one pint plastic bottle, wondering what the penalty would be for casting ashes in the sea surrounding the Galapagos Islands, specifically Bartholomew Island. I know! I know the arguments against it, but she’d been burned, ground fine, and rendered inert. And it was my lovely, talented, wonderful old aunt damn it.

So I murmured a prayer, saw the approaching Zodiacs from the snorkel party I’d skipped for this, and swung Emily in a broad arc. The fine, tan grit (not really ash at all) fanned across the turquoise water, darkening as it sank lower into the blue band beneath the turquoise, mimicked the color of the sun on Bartholomew Island’s tall promontory in front of me and then sank further into a dark oblivion. This was a fine and proper place I thought, a literal desert island, a place a traveler would smile to think about.

My plan was simple. Since Emily hadn’t specified, I would find four different places which would have put a smile on her face as places she would want to see. Roughly, I sought the four points on a compass. The Galapagos, to the South, were the first.

Steve, his wife Jill, and I had finished a lovely lunch overlooking the Pacific at Laguna Beach, California. I was on one of my public transportation in America kicks and had come from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on the Megabus, seamlessly switching at Union Station to Amtrak to Irvine where Steve and Jill chauffeured me to Laguna and lunch.


Steve and I waded into the Pacific at Laguna Beach, and Steve poured the first half of the second jar.

Together we said goodbye to my dear aunt.

We wandered the shoreline, across kelp and sand, watching the gulls sweep along the horizon and fine old pelicans teaching everyone how to fly low and majestically. The wind put a slight chop on the surface, but not enough to keep us from our duty. With shoes off and pant legs rolled as high as they could go, I followed Steve into the surf, holding my trusty plastic jar tightly.

“How do we do this?” Steve asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think there are any rules. I just said a quiet prayer and let her slip away.”

Steve went first, closing his eyes, concentrating, and then gently easing Emily into the air and the sea. I took the jar with the remaining sandy grit, a near match in color and texture for the beach we’d walked on, and released it to the warm waters. We turned our backs to the afternoon sun and waded ashore. One half of Emily was spread upon the waters, one half to go.

Together we said goodbye to my dear aunt.


Two months later my wife Chris and I were nearing the end of our loop around the Irish Sea. We were in Wales, hiking trails in what was, on my father’s side and Chris’s mother’s side, the old homeland. We drove our rental car from where we were staying in Betws-y-Coed through sylvan glens, rolling green hills and out onto the peninsula which juts into the Irish Sea like a hand reaching out towards Dublin. Past Llandudno, past the Lighthouse at Great Ormes Head, and down the steep road, returning to the Irish Sea as it washed ashore.

Burial, ash on water

Emily would have loved the bright blue sky, the brisk wind, and the tang of sea air.

Burial, ash on water

The road wrapped around steep cliffs wrapped in tun by the Irish sea.

Burial, ash on water

Slowly, the road descended to the sea, the place I would cast the sandy grit onto the bright Irish Sea.


Burial, ash on water

A moment to think of my aunt, then my duty to her and her memory.

This rugged, cold sea, the rising, monstrous rocks, the bracing salt wind and warmth of a Spring sun in a bright blue sky made this a fine place for an old woman who loved water and the sea and seascapes, who delayed a job when jobs were scarce to sail on a tramp steamer. And so, with rolled up pants, I waded back into the sea to loose Emily on the insistent waves rolling over round stones, slowly reducing them to the sand much like the sand I poured from my pint container. The sea and stones welcomed her home.

Several months went by before I could get to Paris. Surely the Seine is no sea, but Emily, who never wed, had a strong sense of romance about her. And few places carry the romance which Paris holds so well. Here I chose the Garden of Henry the Fourth, one of a half dozen of my favorite Parisian parks. Henry had used this part of the Isle de la Cité as a trysting place for himself and his closest courtiers. I chose it as a place of history and beauty, at the opposite end of the island from Notre Dame, punctuated by the Pont Neuf, a place where the Seine did not pound and wear the island as it did to the east, but swept around it, joining its waters again at the very end, a wye closing on its stem, sweeping further, further west towards the Atlantic, towards America.

Burial, ash on water

The fourth of four, the final pour, and Emily slips from sight.

Here, at the tip, I moved out along the stone masonry, under the weeping willows, with the Louvre, the Eiffel Tour standing guard further downstream. In this final casting of the ash which once was Emily I had only larger bits still looking bone-like and very fine dust. The larger pieces splashed and sank, perhaps tumbling westward along the bottom. The dust rose in a surprise breeze, became a small brown cloud, dispersed, and slowly settled along the surface of the Seine. From dust to dust. From ashes to ashes. Emily was buried.

See previous story http://www.grayontheroad.com/a-prayer-for-our-friends-and-for-ourselves/

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The spreading of Emily’s ashes required four separate locations, three of which involved multiple flights, long security lines, and baggage inspection. Not once was I asked what was in that dense and surprisingly heavy pint plastic jar.

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