When the phone rang and a voice said, “Hello, it’s Carole from the Co-op here,” I was momentarily confused. Why was the Co-op Supermarket phoning me? Of course it was the Co-op Funeral Directors, but somehow I was still taken aback, and had briefly forgotten I’d said that I would come and pick up Rosemary’s ashes. But I had: I’d agreed that I’d collect Rosemary’s ashes and take them to the place in the Highlands where she’d asked for them to be scattered. When I was planning her funeral, this was one of the details that had Rosemary’s family worried. They were literally hundreds of miles away from the spot that she’d chosen for her ashes, whereas it was only a short drive for me to get there. So when I said I’d take care of her ashes, the relief in Rosemary’s sister’s voice was obvious.
On the way to the Funeral Directors it struck me – in a few minutes I’m going to be carrying Rosemary’s cremated remains in my rucksack. Just walking down the road like any other day. But very soon I’ll be carrying the dead weight of her, her last physical remnants. This is not just any ordinary day. Death is catching up with me again, interrupting my habitual estrangement from it’s touch. It felt like a moment of rawness. And I carried on walking. And then soon, I was heading home, with a heavy load on my back.
I was surprised by how the ashes were presented to me. I’d seen those brown plastic urns with the screw top. Kind of ugly. This was a waxed cardboard bag, like an expensive gift bag, with rope handles. A tasteful burgundy purple colour. It looked like I’d been spending money in a department store. And inside the bag, a cardboard box in the same colour with a white paper inner sleeve. And inside, the surprisingly white-coloured gritty remains, the ashes. No plastic – just good quality biodegradable material. What the hell was I going to do with it?
As I walked home I thought about Rosemary. I thought about how she was sociable, loved music, liked to chat. Was a bit lonely sometimes. It was a clear November day with blue sky and white clouds. White clouds. White ash. White heat. As I walked home through the park I knew what I was going to do.
At home I placed the bag on the kitchen table, made coffee and started playing Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto. Rosemary (or her ashes) and I had a date, with coffee and biscuits, and listened to some music she would have loved. This felt like the right way to make a place for her ashes, give them a temporary home. And it was a bit crazy – having coffee with a box of cremated remains. I was confident though that she’s have liked all of it and felt welcomed.
Then months later, one cold September morning, I met Jonny at 6.30am. I, again, had coffee and Jonny had tea which we drank in silence at the table. Then as the sun was rising, we went outside, through the gate and down to the lochside with the box of ash. A heavy mist was hanging in the air, and the dark forms of the trees were only just visible. Jonny took the box of ash, and proceeding in silence, began to slowly scatter them among the roots of the trees beside the loch. He did half, and I did half. Then when the box was empty we stood facing the water – seeing no loch at all as the mist was so thick and all-pervading. And then we broke the silence. We softly chanted into the white air – a mantra that Rosemary particularly cherished. Softly, slowly, three times. Then silence. It all took no more than 15 minutes.
A week later I was in a cafe in Glasgow talking with a friend. She was saying that when it comes to death, she doesn’t know that she doesn’t know that she’s going to die. That we’re all going to die. That’s not a mis-print – she doesn’t know that she doesn’t know. And I think that’s right. That’s how it is. Like when the Funeral Directors phoned me and I thought it was the supermarket. I’d agreed to take delivery of Rosemary’s ashes, I’d even conducted her funeral, and then I carried on with my life. But slowly, softly, the white-ness came in: white ash, white clouds, white mist, white light.
This was a gift she’d given me. The chance to know that you don’t know. And thereby, let the truth in. Thank you Rosemary. I will try to remember.