Ashes in the wind

Sooner or later, everyone is faced with this decision: Do you want to be buried, cremated or donate your body to science?  These harsh realities are easy to put aside as they are hard to contemplate.  We all think we will live forever. However, deep down we know this is not true. From experience, I can tell you it’s a much easier choice to make when you’re young, healthy and of sound mind. 

My husband, Ed Lauber, and I decided to be cremated thirty years ago when we wrote our first wills.  At the time, the idea seemed surreal as we were both busy businesspeople who loved to travel, run marathons and ride bikes in foreign countries.  Then one day, one of us died, and the abstract choice became a reality.

It’s not as dreadful as its seems

Stay with me now.  This is not a morbid post by any means.  It is not intended to be disrespectful either but rather a recount of a real-life experience, one from which I hope there will be some positive takeaway.  With luck, you’ll appreciate the levity I’ve added too. Frankly, a great deal of this is about attitude and how you elect to approach something which is unquestionably difficult and emotional.   

I was surprised to learn that today cremation is the choice of over 50% of all Americans. The cause of its popularity? Because it is simpler, cheaper, and infinitely eco-friendlier than a traditional burial in a cemetery. Furthermore, the Catholic Church now accepts the procedure, however, with the caveat that the ashes not be scattered.

Something for everyone

Other than placing your loved one’s ashes in an urn and putting it somewhere permanent, there is a whole myriad of other options to consider. At sea, buried in a backyard, planted as a memorial tree, released from a helicopter or shot off in fireworks are just a few.  Believe me, I didn’t make that last one up.  In researching this post, I also learned that modern technology has found a way to take cremated ashes and transform them into diamonds.  Do I have your attention now?

As for the helicopter, John Fanning—a veteran hospitality executive with a wicked sense of humor—recently recounted a story about the wishes of a friend’s father.  An artist and bon vivant, he told his children he wanted his ashes to be scattered by plane so the “he could be a cinder in everyone’s eye.”

Years earlier when Ed and I opted for cremation, we took solace in choosing a meaningful place for our ashes to rest.  Given both of us were world travelers, for business and pleasure, we thought it might be fun to select an unusual place for our “final destination.”  Consider it as another trip abroad, we rationalized.   

The best laid plans

Ed said he wanted to be buried in the vineyards at Château Mouton Rothschild in the Médoc region of France. Given my husband’s long relationship with the Baron de Rothschild, he thought his grand choice was inspired.  Then, there was a falling out with the management at La Baronnie, the company which handles the marketing of all Château Mouton’s wine brands.  Alas, these things happen in business, so Ed had to rethink his choice. 

Ironically, life went on and Ed never came back to the subject. So, when he died this past February, it fell on me to select the location.  I remember vividly a conversation I had with a dear friend who told me how she handled the dilemma. “Once cremation is agreed to in advance, choosing a place to scatter the ashes is still quite a task.  My husband died after a brief illness in 2003 and as he was relatively young, we certainly hadn’t had any discussion whatsoever on that subject.  So, I talked with his kids and a few close friends and quickly found out that all his nearest and dearest wanted to actively participate in sending him off into eternity.  Since they lived near four different oceans, this meant providing each group with enough ‘product’ to host a proper farewell.  Each event was respectful and sad, but celebratory at the same time.” 

Multiple resting places 

The idea of dividing the ashes and scattering them in several different locations was appealing. It was decided that one third would be scattered in a beautiful place in France, a country Ed adored; one third at Domaine Ferre Besson, a vineyard in the Rhône Valley owned by Victor Taylor; and one third  in the forest behind friends’ home, the Kennerley’s, in Buck’s County, where we had a country home for many years. 

Up to this point, all the planning had been theoretical.  Dealing with the ashes and getting them to France would be another matter. I remembered my first unfortunate encounter with cremation. When my mother passed away many years ago, I had to collect her ashes and take them to Cincinnati to be placed alongside my father’s urn in a crematorium.  When the funeral director brought out her ashes, I gasped.  He solemnly presented me with a large cardboard box resembling a super-sized order of KFC. I didn’t know whether to weep or laugh. Actually, I did neither. I froze. The thought of the ashes terrified me to such a point that I refused to touch the box. My dear husband fortunately took over as I completely distanced myself from my mother’s remains through a combination of denial, ignorance, and fear. 

One step at a time

Finally, I was faced with the trauma of picking up Ed’s ashes at Frank Campbell, the swank funeral home on Madison Avenue.  Again, the idea freaked me out.  Recalling my shabby behavior with my mother’s ashes, I knew someone would have to hold my hand through the process. My close friend Deborah Mintcheff breezily volunteered for the task, making it sound as if we were going out to lunch.

When we arrived, the whole process took a mere five minutes during which time I devoted most of my attention on Deborah’s perky demeanor and the fact that she had dressed for the occasion—in a full-length mink coat. It was an effective diversion.  I paid little attention to how Ed’s ashes were “packaged” other than to see three black boxes being deposited into a smart looking, Burgundy canvass bags.  Frank Campell’s logo was boldly printed on the front and back. Having been blessed with a dry sense of humor, I made a mental note never to take this bag down to the Union Square Market for my weekly food shopping.

Deborah had a car waiting for us. We whisked Ed back to our apartment across town. Into his wine cellar he went.  I was rather proud of surviving this pick-up and even happier with my choice of temporary resting place given my husband’s sixty-year career in the wine industry.  Now for the task of taking part of his ashes to France.

Being naughty or nice?

The funeral director previously told me there were two choices: risk being caught by illegally smuggling the ashes in my luggage or go the official route through the French government with considerable red tape. Immediately, I recalled the story about a woman I was to meet later in France, Jeanne Milligan, and her near heart-stopping experience.  She had opted to pack her husband Peter’s remains in her carry-on luggage to France, where she planned to scatter his ashes.   She was stopped by security at the airport before boarding the plane. Looking her straight in the eye, the agent accusingly asked her what the light gray matter was in the plastic bag detected by the x-ray machine.  A former actress—and a quick thinker—Jeanne nonchalantly replied with a convincing smile, “Oh, that’s my make-up.  I have very sensitive skin and need a special medicated facial powder.” No doubt, the agent knew she was not telling the truth but with such an original response allowed her to pass through. 

When “they” arrived safely at Charles de Gaule airport, Jeanne and several of her friends, who accompanied her on the trip, carried Peter’s ashes to the center of Paris for a quiet and discreet sendoff. Jeanne had double wrapped the ashes first in handmade paper made by a friend, then in rice paper and tied it up with a string.  A dusk, with no one looking, her husband’s ashes were thrown into the Seine River from the bridge on Ile St. Louis.

Playing it safe

While I loved Jeanne’s dare-devil approach, I am risk-adverse so opted for the official approach for taking Ed’s ashes to France. This meant going through the French consulate.  The funeral director at Frank Campbell explained the process which I knew was not going to be a joy ride. With a myriad of official forms to fill out and extra certificates to obtain from the state, I finally had all the paperwork ready.  The next step was to put Ed’s ashes in a special wooden box which the funeral home was to provide.

An appointment was made with “Social Services” at the Consulate.  On the appointed day I first took Ed’s ashes back to Frank Campbell for repackaging to comply with French law. Carefully, I watched as he was put into a 16-inch-tall wooden container with a top screwed down on all four corners.  The plan was to then take all the necessary documentation and casually walk his ashes over to the Consulate four blocks away.

Screws, sealed and stamped

As Ed loved to walk, I thought a stroll along Central Park would be a sentimentally appropriate gesture.  But the box was so heavy that my arm was almost dislocated when I attempted to lift it. The doorman at Frank Campbell hailed me a cab for my ridiculously short journey.  Somehow, I managed to drag the box up the stairs of the Consulate and waited with Ed for fifteen minutes on an unusually uncomfortable chair in the reception area.  At last, I was ceremoniously escorted into a special room where my thick dossier of documents was checked.  Then the carrying case was whisked away.  Perhaps out of respect for the emotions of the grieving widow, I was not allowed to watch the process. When the box was returned, each screw had been sealed with red wax, then stamped with the official signet of the French government.

Ed would have loved the ceremonious touch of the red seals. In fact, the last time he was at the Consulate, Ed received the Mérite Agricole award for his years of service promoting French wines in America and then was fêted at a formal Champagne reception.

Taking Ed down south

The plan for the first third of Ed’s ashes was to spread them in the south of France where I was spending a week with friends.  Once in Paris, I needed to transfer his ashes from the wooden box into my carry-on suitcase for the train ride to Avignon. But first the wax from the top of each screw had to be removed. It was a laborious job but eventually it was accomplished by using a sturdy, serrated steak knife. Unscrewing the wooden top was a chinch.

The following morning, Ed’s ashes and I traveled comfortably together on the TGV. I kept an eagle eye out to make sure no one getting off the train accidentally picked up my bag. My friends had been charged with selecting an appropriate location for spreading Ed’s ashes later in the week. Their choice was Les Baux-de-Provence, a picturesque Medieval village situated at a rocky, fortified site between Arles and St. Rémy-de-Provence.  Little did they know that Ed and I had visited this area several times before, first when we were dating and many years later cycling with VBT.

A knife and a screwdriver

When the day finally arrived—something I anticipated with trepidation and a great deal of sadness—I anxiously sat in the back seat with the box of Ed’s ashes on my lap and a kitchen scoop in my hand.  At this point, having never actually seen the ashes, I panicked. My friends got out of the car to determine the exact spot while Jeanne, my new pal, stayed with me instructing me on what to expect.  First, I opened the white box (which had already been removed from two larger outer black boxes not to mention the fancy, red sealed carrying case! Then, I struggled with the closure on the first of two plastic bags. Images of Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls popped in my head. Sometimes, when you get nervous, it is helpful to divert your attention with something silly.

A farewell with a view

Jeanne piped up, noticing the bewildered look on my face.  Having done this several years earlier with her husband’s ashes, Jeanne became my guide.  “You will find the ashes are very light grey in color and granular in texture.  Let’s go now and be careful to watch the direction of the wind.”  All helpful advice.  My friends had decided that Ed should have several different vistas.  Subsequently, I spread some of his ashes close to a vineyard, some next to a mass of flowering yellow broom, and a final amount with a magnificent view of Les Baux de Provence on the hilltop.

My friends kept their distances as I privately said my goodbyes to Ed.  I maintained my composure until almost the end when I dissolved into a flood of tears.   Marguerite ran over and hugged me tightly, then escorted me back to the car.  Later that evening, I notice I had lost one of my gold earrings.  Never with a loss of words, Marguerite offered, “Oh, that was Ed who took it.  He wanted to have something to remember you by.”

Having survived my first experience of spreading a loved-one’s ashes, I thought perhaps I should keep a small amount to put in a special container to have near me at home in New York.  I definitely plan to also include the other gold earring.  This way Ed will have a matching pair!

MJP1 Comment