“When are you going to write another book then?” The vicar asked.
“When I’ve got another twenty five years’ worth of new stories to tell,” I replied.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “But you’ll simply have to include this ashes interment, won’t you? There’s nothing about eventful ashes interments in your book.”
“That,” I said, “is because nothing like this has never happened on an ashes interment before. Of all the things I do, ashes interments are rarely, if ever, as eventful as this one…”
So, dear reader, here’s a sneak preview from my next memoir, due out in September 2047.
It begins with an old Baptist cemetery. Full up and closed for some years now, only the stalwart efforts of one volunteer with a petrol strimmer stand between relative tidiness and the encroachment of dense vegetation of almost Amazonian rainforest standards. In the midst of this battleground of nature sits the ironically titled Garden Of Remembrance – a little hedged-in area where ashes can still be buried, with memorial plaques correspondingly mounted on a wooden railing. Historically the plot locations weren’t recorded, the plaques instead intended to be the focus.
My colleague arranged a lady’s cremation a couple of years and according to the file her ashes were buried in the aforementioned “Garden”, complete with plaque. Unfortunately my colleague hadn’t done what I always do and made an impromptu scale plan of where her ashes were, in case of future need. (“Two paces from the hedge, three down from the railing” kind of thing). So when I arranged the husband’s cremation recently, I just had to dig a plot in line with the wife’s plaque and hope the family wouldn’t remember where Mother’s ashes actually were.
Not happy about it, I stood at the cemetery gates, ashes urn in hand, waiting anxiously for the family – who arrived carrying another ashes casket. “If they’ve already got the ashes themselves, who the bloody hell am I holding in this urn?” I muttered to the vicar, who was stood next to me. He could tell I was stressed. Even more disconcertingly, the family didn’t seem bothered I was holding another urn.
The family drew up. “Here’s Mum,” the son said, holding up his ashes casket.
“She’s not already buried here then?” I asked, flooded with relief about the guess-work plot I’d dug.
“Nah, we had a plaque for ‘er, but we kept ‘er ashes for when Dad died. Do ‘em together then, can’t us?”
Looking at the wooden casket something else occurred to me. “We have to pour the ashes into the ground here and I haven’t got a screwdr-” The son lifted the unscrewed lid off the casket and smiled. Suddenly all was well in my world again and once more the sun shone brightly in my little firmament. Not for long though.
Gathered round the hole I awaited my cue. “Days of man but as grass…place shall know it no more…unto their children’s children…to be cremated and we now commit their ashes - ” In went the husband’s ashes, smooth as a brand new jar of coffee granules. Then I tipped the wife’s casket…nothing. They’d settled in storage. No problem, just a discreet flick of the wrist and…nothing.
“Excuse me folks,” I said quietly. “I’ll need to be a bit practical for moment.”
All present gave a collective murmur of assent.
I whacked the base of the casket like a ketchup bottle. Still nothing. Zero. Zilcho. Nada.
Fingers next - rock solid. Started clawing with my fingernails then, all attempts at dignity abandoned. Hopeless - like scratching hardened cement.
“That’s our mum, never did like goin’ out!” The son chortled, to general amusement. It did rather rescue the moment and I shall for ever be grateful that he met this minor disaster with the spirit in which it was intended.
We all agreed surrender was the better part of valour and instead I laid the casket by the hole till the prayers were finished. It eventually took three sets of car keys to commit the lady’s cremated remains into the earthly hereafter.
And the moral of the story? Store your loved one in a cool, dry place away from sources of moisture….please.
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.