14 November 2012 2 Comments

Okay, so I’ve been away from blogging for a few months. And all five of my readers have been depressed, waiting anxiously for me to return. (I’m counting my mother, who has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t own a computer, because she would certainly be supportive if she could just remember who I am. I’m also counting what I call “The Unknown Reader” because Google Analytics tells me I get the occasional hit from Russia or Uzbeckistan. What, you say that is undoubtedly a spammer? Well, a hit is a hit.)


Actually, this post is a solemn one—in the old meaning of that word: something both deeply significant and joyful (as in a solemn occasion, like a wedding or a coronation). In this case the solemn occasion was a burial, and is was both deeply significant and joyful.

Most anyone who has read earlier posts knows that my nephew Jamie died in an avalanche on November 13, 2011. His mother, Pamela, died seventeen days later—“of a broken heart” is the easiest way to explain it—and that wouldn’t be wrong.

Pamela’s ashes have been resting in the family home, but not necessarily resting easily. It was time to take a next step, and the anniversary of Jamie’s death seemed a good time to take it.

The family decided to walk to the cemetery, not far from the house. It was a wise decision. People have been walking to gravesites with the remains of the ones they love for many thousands of years. It was important that there be a physical dimension to this occasion, that the body play its part, along with the mind and heart.

They carried Pamela’s ashes in a small wooden box in an old gym bag, with the name of both her brother and her oldest child scrawled on it. Husband Gerard carried it at first, but then Michael, the youngest of eight, said that he would carry his mother. They walked through the neighborhood and across the boulevard, toward the cemetery, with their mom. A large woodpecker led them, flying from tree to tree.

At the cemetery they found a small rectangular hole dug in the ground at the plot, covered with fake, green plastic sod glued to a board. They took out the beautiful mahogany box that Jonathan had made at the shop in the week following his mother’s death. They placed the sack with her ashes in the box, along with a braided lock of Pamela’s hair, tied with her favorite ribbon. Jonathan locked it with a key. A candle sat beside. They took photos of the family standing around the box, some smiling.

Then Gerard got on his knees and placed the box in the hole in the ground. Jonathan tossed in the key, the sound of it hitting the wood echoing on the air. Kate, Pamela’s mother, prayed, thanking God for her first born. Sister Jayne followed, invoking the cloud of witnesses that Jamie and Pamela have now joined.

There was a wheelbarrow nearby full of dirt from the hole. Each one took turns shoveling the dirt onto the box—including brother Jim and nephew Justin. Jonathan tamped the ground with the shovel and smoothed it with his hand, as a craftsman would.

Stones had been removed from the dirt as it was shoveled in. Gerard took the stones and laid out a cross on the bare soil, brushing off each rock as he laid it carefully in place, as an artist would. They patched the displaced sod around the cross and stood back to look. It was just right.

Gerard thanked everyone for coming and spoke of their collective love for Jamie and Pamela. He told the children that Pamela was a part of each one of them. He then invited anyone to say whatever he or she wanted to say. Sarah prayed, thankful for Pamela’s life and its continuation in each of the children. Naomi spoke to her mother, thanking her for what she had done for them all. Then they all said the Lord’s Prayer.

After that they took more pictures. There was a lot of smiling and even some laughter (especially when Gerard smoked a cigarette in Pamela’s memory). They had done the right thing. It had gone well. People felt their love for each other and for Pamela and Jamie. They were sad. They were grateful. They were relieved. They were many things mixed together. But the important thing is that they were together, as many as could come, and the rest in spirit.

Michael said his ears were cold (this is Minnesota in November, after all), so he and Aunt Jayne walked back to the house, the others following in their own time, making their way back to ordinary life. A hawk circled in the sky above.

The name for all this is ritual. We do it because it is what we know to do when we don’t know what to do. We do it with our bodies for the sake of our hearts. Ritual connects us to the past. It connects us to each other. It connects us to God. Ritual tells us who we are. We are the people who do these things because we believe these things.

It was right to bury Pamela on the date that Jamie died, because we loved them both. And in this ritual we affirm our expectation that we will someday love them again, face to face.

Pamela's Cross


  • Jean Pierre said:

    Thank you, Dan, for the best words to accompany Naomi’s pictures from yesterday. All month I have been thinking of both Jamie and Pam with great sadness. You are right, it is time to look forward.

  • John DeVos said:

    My wife died in an accident 21 years ago this months. Every year since, Pam would send me a card about the time of her death telling how much she missed Paulette and empathizing with my loss. Last year I missed getting the card and note and for the first time I recognized the true love that Pamela had for all people.

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