My middle-aged sister Joan, German shepherd at her side, stood at the first viewpoint on an early morning hike up Mount Helena. She said, “I just can’t see spending a gazillion dollars on a fancy casket to put in the dirt.” Just above her left shoulder, Venus, the planet otherwise known as the morning star, twinkled silently on the horizon. “I’d rather have my ashes scattered in Pattee Canyon.”
On that hike with Joan, I hadn’t been able to reconcile my strong-boned, straight-spined, power-hiking sister with her impending death from cancer. Refused to feel in my bones what we both knew was coming after her doctor’s most recent report. He’d said, “There’s nothing more we can do.”
A few short months later, my brother and I found ourselves in our funeral finery beside an incinerator in a Missoula crematorium. Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, our family hadn’t considered cremation as a way bodies of our deceased loved ones might be managed. When our father died, we viewed his embalmed body in an open casket; then it lay in a closed casket during a wake at which people spoke and sang and toasted; then a funeral Mass. After the ritual, the whole lot—body and box—was placed in a hole in the ground, as per our Irish Catholic heritage.
At the crematorium, a man in navy-blue work clothes pushed a rolling cart with one of the cardboard boxes on it across the concrete floor toward my brother and me. He stopped in front of us, in front of the oven. Scrawled on the box in blocky print with black marker: J M Mandeville.
The man pushed the box into the yawning circular opening of the cold furnace that looked like you might fire large clay pots inside. He told us that at a thousand degrees Celsius (nearly two thousand Fahrenheit), her flesh and soft tissues would dissolve behind that opaque door.
“Most folks don’t come to watch this, ya know.”
My unpartnered sister had named me to manage disposal of her remains, to be sure she returned to ash and those ashes got spread in the mountains that she loved around Missoula. One of my brothers felt we should stand by her through the entire process. I agreed.
My jaw went a little slack over the two thousand degrees, but my brother mumbled something halfway coherent about shepherding our sister all the way home. The man turned away from the two of us, shut the round door, latched it, and turned on the heat.
“It’ll take about two hours,” he said. “You sure you want to stay the whole time?”
“She’ll be ash when it’s done?” my brother asked.
The man’s expression slid down his face.
“Uh…” he mumbled. “Um…no.”
He pulled his face together and explained. After two hours of scorching and then a cooling process, what would remain would not be the fine ash we expected. Instead, it’d be chunks of tibia, knuckles of femur, crumbled ribs; pieces of humerus, radius, ulna; and possibly fragments of skull that resisted destruction. He pointed to a machine standing more than half as tall as I did at five-six, with a funnel-type hole in the top. “We put the bone fragments in here and grind them down,” he said.
My brother and I looked at each other but didn’t speak.
The man left us to consider.
I didn’t want to see my sister’s jawbone, say, or her pelvis come out of that blazing furnace. We could honor her without witnessing every single thing, couldn’t we? We left before the worker returned to put our sister’s reluctant bones into the machine that would pulverize them to particles so that we could scatter those particles to the woods and winds.
Bones and teeth are made primarily of the mineral calcium, which gives bones their white color and the strength to last. The supply of fresh calcium in our food provides each bone the ability to constantly reshape and restructure itself. This helps us adapt to changing biomechanical forces, such as my hip dealing with the pressures of long-distance running, or my brother’s knee adapting to his short leg, or my mom’s aging spine bowing to the forces of gravity. Our skeletons work to remove old, micro-damaged bone around a break or in an overstressed area and replace it with new calcium to create mechanically stronger bones.
Calcium originally came from stars. In their last dying gasps, exploding supernovas scattered the mineral across the universe in massive quantities. Imagine how much heat calcium can withstand after being manufactured inside a star. This star-made alkaline mineral eventually drifted to earth, where soil became its repository, and plants and animals developed a reliance on calcium for health and structure.
We are made of stardust.
With the North Star as a guide, folks who would become my great-great grandparents, along with millions of other hungry peasants, set sail from Irish shores to the Americas throughout the 1800s. Did my ancestors know that one in five of these rickety ships would never reach shore? Or was the twenty percent chance of dying on the voyage an easy choice compared to the nearly hundred percent chance of starving to death in Ireland?
More than a quarter of the population disappeared from the Emerald Isle at the height of the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor, between 1845 and 1849. A million people who would never become my, or anyone else’s, ancestors were simply tossed into mass graves like the pits at Abbeystrowry Graveyard, where ten thousand bodies were heaped in layers. A million more fled starvation on unsound vessels that would come to be called coffin ships.
One such ship, a small, ill-maintained brig called the Carricks, set off from Sligo, Ireland, one April day in 1847. The refugees packed on board were bony from hunger. Former tenants of an absentee British landlord, they’d been hungry for a long while as the Irish potato crop failed and the other foods they grew were sent to their landlord in Britain as rent. When starving farmers tried to keep food for themselves, the beef and eggs and milk and honey they’d produced were taken away at gunpoint.
After a month at sea and after tossing nine bodies overboard, the Carricks neared the Cap-des-Rosiers in Quebec when a storm struck and smashed the boat onto the rocks. The well-fed crew, minus one twelve-year-old boy, all made it, but the passengers were too weak to swim to shore. Their bodies washed ashore, and Quebecois hauled them up the beach to bury in a trench in the sand.
It had been six weeks since a Portland police chaplain knocked on my front door with news that my adopted son had hung himself. On a trail out by the Sandy River, I ran to get away from my grief. Rain fell and slicked the dirt trail to a sheet of mud. I turned to descend a steep and slippery embankment when the universe stuck out a toe and slid my feet out from under me. Down I went, smacking my torso against a sawed-off log on the way. The cage around my heart and lungs exploded, burst like a supernova spewing calcium all over the dark hole inside my chest.
I lay in the mud, rain splattering my face and melding with the tears that ran, though now I could not. After 9-1-1 and after the ambulance and after the docs at the ER discovered a puncture in my lung along with eight shattered ribs, I had to be still for weeks to recover. A doctor showed me the black hole on X-ray where rib bone six had separated just above my heart. In that empty space no longer protected by calcium-rich bone where a heart could easily be pierced, mine was. Grief bled out between my bones.
Rather than look at artifacts like arrowheads, pottery vessels or buttons, weapons or jewels, bio-archaeologists look directly to human bones to excavate tales about the past. This relatively new field of study has been enabled by recent technological developments. Bio-archaeologists conduct DNA analyses. They study teeth for cavities and abscesses that reflect a high carbohydrate diet. They look at bone stunting, which reflects malnutrition in childhood, and bone curvature that indicates scurvy and rickets. They study bone geometrics, which show how active people were. Bio-archaeologists can study teeth for microscopic scratches and changes. They are able to glean what people ate, and what they didn’t.
In 2011, my sister was morphing from flesh-and-blood human back to starlight and calcium dust. At the same time, a blustery storm hit the Cap-des-Rosiers in Quebec. While cancer battered my sister, the storm battered the shore and exposed three sets of skeletal remains. Children’s bones, with femurs and tibias markedly curved. Further excavation uncovered eighteen more skeletons of adults and children, all tangled in a pile.
“A bone is like a book,” one bio-archaeologist said. “It gives you a history—what the person ate, if they moved from one place to another, even at what age they were weaned.”
The bones from the Quebec beach, a century and a half old, pointed to hungry peasants who’d survived—until they didn’t—on little other than potatoes, their bones bowed by scurvy and rickets. Bones of those who didn’t survive the Carricks.
“Wow!” one boy likely shouted to his playmate as he peered into the dark space filled with bones. “There’s a lot ’o bones in this hole.”
The Irish boys were on a playground on the former site of the Tuam mother and baby home in Galway, Ireland, in 1975, playing the way my Irish-diaspora American brothers played half a world away in Montana. Maybe one went to hide, or to retrieve a ball, when he found the hole, a gap where a flat concrete slab had lifted up from the earth.
“I saw ’bout twenty skeletons,” the boy later said, “or maybe more.”
Locals decided these skeletons were probably remains of victims of An Gorta Mor, more than a hundred years earlier. They told themselves it was probably a small number and sealed the grave back up after a few prayers. For thirty-five years, a local couple set flowers on the site on occasion. Otherwise, it was left alone.
In 2012, a local historian started digging around. Older Tuam residents began to whisper stories of activity they’d witnessed under moon and stars on the school grounds back in the day. Surviving former home residents tentatively shared tales of beatings, deprivation, and neglect. Pressure to investigate mounted. But even with public and international pressure, church and government officials credited the skeletons to the famine and declined to look into it, until a commission was formed in 2017. In 2018 forensic excavation and investigation began, and in 2021 a report was finally written.
Eight hundred bodies of infants and children were discovered on that Tuam land where two boys noticed skeletons (while playing) forty-six years earlier. As investigations went on around the country, at least nine thousand children were found to have died in Ireland’s church-run, government-sponsored homes for unwed mothers and their children. No shrines for these children. Not even headstones. Their bodies hidden in the dark of secrecy and night, only their bones to ever tell the tale.
My son taught me bio-archaeology. Or rather, he taught me its necessity. Regular archaeologists need things to study, items and objects, but as my adopted son taught me, things don’t matter. He ruined all the things. Slashed mattresses and pillows, walls and clothes, broke toys and windows and DVDs. Lost rings and pocketknives, shirts and hats and black fingerless gloves. Cut the heads off tulips, daffodils, and roses. Stabbed the trunks of trees.
Even the rocks and animal bones we collected on trips and adventures—a whale vertebrae, a coyote skull, the partial spine of a tiny mammal—all disappeared, like the people who fostered impermanence for him in meth houses and shelters and foster homes during his first seven years, who left him over and over and over.
When he left that final time, he erased his computer files, burned his papers, trashed his belongings. He didn’t know I had a paper copy of a story he was writing stashed among my own papers, a cherished relic of his nineteen-year life.
I still wear a small silver cylinder with the stardust of his skeleton around my neck some days. His story ricochets in my bones and my marrow remembers. In the hollows of my skeleton, red blood runs blue like old-fashioned ink as I script his memorial. In blood and bones and words I remember him.
I excavate his tabernacle.
I become his shrine.
In May and June of 2021, years after my sister and my son both returned to the stars, and as my own bones grew lighter and more porous each day, and as I sat writing this very essay, a grisly discovery was made on the grounds of two Catholic-run Canadian boarding schools for Indigenous American children. The bones of hundreds of children—two hundred and fifteen at a school in British Columbia and over seven hundred at a school in Saskatchewan—were found. The news reverberated in my Irish-heritage bones. I couldn’t look away.
Tens of thousands of Native American, Métis, and Inuit children were forced into residential schools in Canada and the United States during the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. They lost their families, languages, and cultures. These un-enshrined bodies lost everything; never had a chance to migrate north, south, east, or west; never boarded ships, rickety or otherwise; never had a shot at growing up to live a full life and one day die of cancer. These two schools are not isolated exceptions. The bone count is expected to rise.
Some bones don’t end up in mass graves; instead, they become holy objects or relics. As far as official religious relics go, the Vatican in Rome is home to the world’s largest collection. Items enshrined there include the Shroud of Turin, the mummified head of Saint Catherine of Siena, the dried blood of Saint Januarius, the doubting finger of Doubting Thomas, the circumcised foreskin of Jesus, and the entire skeleton of Saint Peter.
The largest collection of relics in the United States is housed in Saint Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh. This collection includes multiple shrines, and bones from hundreds of saints. The relics range from the entire skull of one saint to tiny bone fragments from multiple saints. The chapel claims to be home to bones from all twelve of Jesus’s apostles, a piece of Mary’s veil, a piece of Jesus’s cross, and a tooth of the chapel’s patron saint, Anthony of Padua.
People pilgrimage from all over the United States and every continent in the world, including Antarctica to visit the relics of the venerated at St. Anthony’s Chapel. It’s considered auspicious to behold these bones kept in reverence and respect, protected inside shrines and fancy reliquaries. Pilgrims say they feel the spiritual presence of the saints.
My sister’s ashes weren’t my relics to keep; I knew what she wanted. My dead son’s bones sit on the fireplace mantle, burned and crumbled to ash and stored in a special container. There’s also a quartz crystal, his favorite puka shell necklace, and two photos of his handsome young face. It’s not that I worship his ashes in a religious way. I cherish them. I’m reluctant, these seven years and counting, to let them go.
I breathed in the scents of pine and fir as we tromped a trail in Pattee Canyon: six siblings in our forties and fifties, our seventy-nine-year-old mom, a family friend, his two young adult children, and Joan’s orphaned German Shepherd. Between us, two large Ziploc bags, one with the pulverized remains of our dead sister, one the dusty remains of one of her past favorite dogs we found while cleaning out her house.
We spread that bony ash on the mountainside where she had loved to hike alone or with her dogs. A handful here, a handful there. A shake of bag to fertilize a shrub, a clump hidden behind a stump.
My youngest brother took the Ziploc bags from Mom to ease her burdens. Spry, he hikes often like me, like our dead sister used to: hiking shoes laced up, head and heart pointed straight uphill, arms pumping and legs powering. Hiking brother tossed some Joan ash to the left, some dog ash to the right. The brother with a short leg blew his nose loudly; our youngest sister sucked back a sob. My brother looked at the bags in his hands and a mischievous smile bloomed on his unlined face. He looked from one bag to the other, then at me.
“Should I?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“You should.” I smiled too, as I caught his drift.
“What?” A note of mild alarm from Mom.
A small grin below tear-streaked cheeks from youngest sister.
“Do it,” I repeated. Younger sister agreed with a single tilt of head.
He opened one bag wide and lifted the other. Mom gasped, then nodded too. We had the great privilege, as everyone should, of being able not only to care for our beloved in life, but to honor her remains in death. No secret stashing of her skeleton in a hidden hole, no body tossed overboard or washed ashore to be piled in a mass grave.
Since a star is a star is a star, my brother poured the powdered gray remains together, then shook the one bag till the ash was thoroughly mixed. In that ceremonial moment, we remembered our sister for all that she was. Her tiny particulates of bone won’t tell any tales. But when the calcium ash of her and her dog settles back to earth, it will fertilize new life.
My brother tossed a handful of ash at the base of a Ponderosa pine, another handful around a snowberry bush. Our secret reliquary. In slanted sunlight filtering through the pines, flecks of stardust fluttered to the ground around us.