Ashes to Ashes

by Heather Durenberger, Tastemaker in Residence

This is the morning that I am to honor and bury my father. I will deliver his eulogy, host a celebration reception, and spread his ashes in the memorial garden at the church. I also need to manage the fact that my Dad’s mom literally hates my mother with all her being. They really hate each other. Since I asked my mom to come to Florida to help me navigate my Dad’s funeral and burial, my Dad’s mom won’t talk to me. Great, here we go just another day in paradise. 

With the help of my dear husband, we get our two young sons dressed and fed for the church service. My brothers and their families, are all staying at my Dad’s place because we want to be as close to Dad as we can be. We keep waiting for him to come out of the bedroom. To surprise us and be so happy that we are all here together – together in his apartment where he is not.

This morning I am more nauseated than the others. I am six weeks pregnant. No one except my husband, my mom and my brothers know. I am terrified as I miscarried a couple months ago and I will be damned if I am gonna loose this baby. Keep it together I tell myself. Don’t over-react. Don’t do anything to loose this baby. Keep it together.

We arrive at the church. Whenever I speak in public I do get nervous. Until I begin speaking I get butterflies and this morning is no different. I can do this. Keep it together. My husband gets the boys situated so I can find a quiet spot to prepare for the eulogy and memorial service. I keep repeating to myself, you can do this. I want to nail this so badly. I want the whole world to stop for one minute so I can scream from the mountaintop how great my Dad was. I want them to know how gifted he was with the Spirit. I want them to know how he gave all for ministry, how generous and compassionate he was. Even more important I have decided that I am going to broach a subject that has been kept quiet my entire life. How my Dad was a wounded healer. How he struggled with mental health issues. I don’t say it directly but I subtly message that he was suicidal most of my childhood and growing up. I am kind of coming out here to say I want you to know that in spite of his personal and emotional challenges, my Dad continued and was an even better pastor because he quietly wrestled with his demons every day.  

Another layer in play here is my grandmother has said in no uncertain terms that my Mom cannot come into the sanctuary for the service. I beg with my mom, please hang in the back of the sanctuary. She honors that wish but my Dad’s mom still finds fault that I will hear about tomorrow. You see, Mom and Dad divorced five years ago. It was messy and damaging but ultimately it is extremely sad to see two people who have raised three great kids seek and destroy each other. Oh well. Again that is outside my control. I fear or I should say I know that my grandmother and my Dad’s sisters will emotionally amputate me. This storm is coming but today I need to focus on honoring and burying. After all these years of seeing families in grief, who knew that my Dad’s family would take the prize for dysfunction. Think we get a gold medal if there was one to be given. I toyed with the title Peace in Heaven, Hell on Earth; as it surely fits the bill because that is where I am right now.

Yeah, I think that sums up all the dynamics in play as I am preparing to enter the sanctuary until I see the funeral director. I can see it as clearly today as that very day. I am in the hallway with the beautiful Florida sunshine coming through the window. The funeral director is walking towards me, he has something in his hands. It appears to be a white box. His lips are moving but I am in the zone. I am mentally preparing to walk into my Dad’s memorial service and deliver the eulogy of a lifetime for my Daddy. What is the funeral director saying?  He motions to me to stop. He is trying to get my attention. I pause. I guess I need to wait and talk with him.  

He catches up to me. He is right in front of me now. He hands me the box and has a clipboard with paperwork and he is handing me a pen. I need to sign something.  Again, his lips are moving and I am trying to catch up to him. The paperwork says something about… What? Does it say transfer of human remains? What is it? It is one of those moments in life that you actually look for the cameras to see if someone in punking you. Who would hand someone the remains on their loved ones in a cardboard box seconds before the memorial service. Never in my years of funerals have I encountered this before. Oh my gosh, get me out of this state, get me out of this church, get me out of here; I want to throw off my shoes, grab my baby boys and run all the way back to Minnesota. 

Then it fully hits me. Oh my God. He is handing me my Dad’s ashes. The funeral director proceeds to open the box to show me that he has bagged my Dad’s remains in two bags per our request. I look at the remains. I see ashes just like the ones at the bottom of the countless fires we have had in our fireplace and camp fire. My dearest Daddy is ashes. He is really, really dead. He is not here. I am stunned. All I can think about are all the Ash Wednesday services I have attended since I was a girl. I can see my Dad imposing the ashes on my forehead. All the times my Dad said to me “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”  I turn and like magic my husband is beside me. The look on his face. He is horrified. He wants to help…What do we do? I have my Dad’s remains in two plastic bags and my notecards to deliver his eulogy. Ok Heather. Keep it together says the voice in my head. I close my eyes. I say, “Dear God this is crazy. This is too much. Help me to honor my Dad. Help me to keep this baby. Dear Lord, I need you now.”  Breathe Heather, breathe. 

All those years of helping others deal with deep grief.  All those times that I had walked with families into memorial services or hospital rooms or graveyards. I have walked with others and now it was my turn to walk the walk. I can do this - in a flash, I am back.  Of course I am pissed off at the funeral director, but I don’t want him to know that.  

I gather my thoughts. I can’t carry this ugly white cardboard box into the sanctuary. No way, not for my Daddy. What can I do? I look and see my Coach purse on my shoulder. It seems like Daddy even helped me get it. Perfect, I love Coach. It will have to do. So I say to my dear hubby, “help me empty my purse so I can place Dad’s remains inside.” “Daddy,” I say. “You are going into my purse. Bet you never thought that was possible. But into my purse you go.”  Gently I place Daddy’s ashes into my purse. I gathered my notecards, grab my husband’s arm and together we march right into that sanctuary with the piper already playing the bag pipes. We walk to the front pew. I so carefully set my purse on the pew and then take a seat. Yep, this is happening. Today, I honor and bury my Daddy. What a ride it has been. I hope I do this well.