It was the morning of Sophie’s cremation. From the harsh, white heat of a summer day we entered the funeral home and stepped into a cool, quiet room bathed in soft, dim light. She rested there, in a state of honest, unadorned simplicity, her body intricately wrapped with a white cotton shroud. It felt biblical and I think Sophie would have been pleased. My companions stepped back and gave me time alone with her; it had been a long journey. I softly traced the contours of her face, embracing her, feeling the familiarity of her delicate body. We then anointed her with holy water and covered her with roses. Each person spoke briefly, thanking her for the gifts she had given them throughout her life,
Then it was time; the mortician invited us to accompany her. As we lifted her body into the crematorium and pushed the button, I reflected back to my time in India, standing on the banks of the Ganges River, watching family members put the brocade wrapped bodies of their loved ones on the funeral pyres. And as Sophie’s elements dissolved into the fire, we felt a small kinship with that ancient tradition as we symbolically participated in this final ritual.
The next day I returned and picked up her ashes which had been placed in a compressed paper box, embedded with seeds that would dissolve back into the earth after the winter rains, bringing forth flowers again in the spring.
She was buried next to her husband in a small graveyard in the forest by a mountain lake. In the early morning hours my brothers dug a hole to receive her remains. As the light filtered through the fir and pine trees, people gathered to pay their respects. We sang Amazing Grace together, and said the Lords Prayer in Serbian. A Buddhist candlelight blessing was offered. Friends and family members stood and spoke of her generosity and tireless commitment to the community, and of her unbounded kindness. I heard story after story of her wicked humor and tales of her razor sharp bidding skills, even when her body was barely able to hold the bridge cards. She had been a loyal friend to so many people. I was deeply moved; I had no idea that she was someone so much more than just my mother. We placed her ashes in the hole along with a deck of cards, scratch offs and chocolate. To top it off we poured in a bottle of her beloved, two-buck-chuck. Then, one by one, we gathered dirt in our hands and filled in the grave, wishing her bon voyage. I overheard someone say as they were leaving that they wanted to be buried like that because it felt so real and intimate.
She had commanded us to “not spend one damn cent more than necessary to bury my corpse,” but to concentrate on the party afterwards. So – accompanied by ample libations, barbecue and Big Band music – we did just that. Children and adults swam and paddled around in boats on the pond. We danced and remembered her as someone who used to jitter bug on tables in her prime. We laughed and reminisced and wished she had been there, feeling certain she would have approved of this send off.
And now, as this story comes to an end, I want to leave with you this lasting image – one of my favorites… Sophie, commanding the floor at her granddaughter’s wedding dancing to: Play That Funky Music, White Boy!