When I was ten, there was an assignment at school where kids got to invent something based on an environmental concern. It didn’t really have to be an idea that could be executed; I guess the point was more to get us thinking.
I knew about acid rain, how it was destroying the Great Smoky Mountains. I knew about landfills and litter. These things seemed out of my league, though, solution-wise, so I focused on a problem that kept me up at night.
My mother is a genealogist, and I’d visited my share of graves with her. Graves of old people who lived hard lives with no air conditioning or sugar. Graves of soldiers who got in the way of Civil War muskets. Graves of babies who starved to death. Graves of women who had expended all their life-force caring for families. It occurred to me at a young age that there had been multiple generations of dead people before us, that the people I knew now were just the tip of the iceberg.
It seemed impossible to me. And it seemed the world was covered in graves. And I had learned in geography class that there were, at the time, about 6 billion people living in the world, so in relatively little time, there would be 6 billion graves to add to the ones that were already there. (I had not yet learned about cultures with other funeral rituals, so I beg you to give 10-year-old me a break on that one.)
The world was going to be covered in more dead people than living people. I just knew it. But I had heard of cremation. Somebody’s dog or something, or a grandpa on a sitcom. So.
My idea was a high-rise mausoleum for ashes only. Think of how many bodies could fit in a high-rise!
Yes, well. Probably some version of this already existed somewhere, but mandatory cremation was totally my idea. Part of me was sad: my kid-brain also thought dead bodies acted as a seed for the flowers on graves to grow, so there’d be no more of that. But at least dead people wouldn’t take over our playgrounds, backyards, parking lots.
After a referral to the school counselor, I was told that this was not only a bad idea, but also that 10-year-olds should not be thinking of things like this. To which I replied that maybe my stupid teacher shouldn’t have made the assignment.
All this is to say that I have a long-standing relationship with ashes. I will be cremated, no doubt here; I decided that a long time ago. I’ve seen enough I Dream of Jeannie to know that living in a bottle is probably AWESOME.
Young me could never have guessed that 24 years later I would be compiling a literary journal issue on ashes. But here I am, captured by Michelle Bailat-Jones’s “A Simple Task,” in which the protagonist takes a road trip with her mother, who happens to be in an urn. The mother becomes a presence in the story, revealing in a never-trite way the grief process unfolding in her daughter’s mind. Anne, the daughter, drives in the opposite direction of where her mother wanted her ashes to be scattered, and yet it is easy to find sympathy for her, easy to understand how interplay between the living and the dead is complicated, personal, unexpected.
Last week, some members of Young Outlawz revealed that they smoked Tupac’s ashes. Young Noble said they “[h]ad his ashes and shit.” “’Pac came up with that shit,” said E.D.I. Mean. Hussein Fatal said he “wasn’t there that night, but that shit went down.” So when you read “The Last of the Dragonflies” by Matthew Dexter, know that the shit in the story can happen. I like the idea of this one, the something-unusual factor, the illustration of a momentous only-you-and-I-know moment. I like when flashes let me see something I wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
Our lives, our bodies, are stories. We write; we revise. We invent and erase. We burn down and rebuild. But really, “Murder Your Darlings” by J. Bradley is more graceful at saying this.
On my bedroom wall is a photo I took of a couple of chipmunks that poked their heads out of a ridge in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens. They’d made their home in the ash, buried into its protective gray. They’d found a way to live within the borders of unnatural circumstances, until the unusual became normal. If they’d invited me in, I’m sure I would have found some Burroughs books, a stack of black turtlenecks, good weed, and Miles Davis records—evidence they were doing what they had to do to see past the ash and dig where no one else had dug.
Those dusty-furred chipmunks are my heroes, and if they’re not yours too, we probably can’t be friends. (Unless you liked my mausoleum idea, in which case I can overlook a lot.)
Photograph: Mausoleum Wall in Guanajuato, Mexico. Learn NC