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Ashes to ocean: a final goodbye to my brother

December 17th, 2004 · 11 Comments


Yesterday we released my brother’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean. Jim died five years ago this December, after suffering three brain tumors in his young life.

(I’ve described missing him at Thanksgiving, on his birthday
and the anniversary of his death last year.)

Four of us went to the beach on the Olympic Peninsula. My sister had flown into town the night before, and together with my brother John, we three drove from Bainbridge west to meet my mom in the morning.


Following my sister’s example I chose to put my portion of the ashes in a mug. My sister had one of Jim’s favorite cups for hot cocoa. The mug I used wasn’t a favorite of his, but it was a Christmas gift from an aunt and in our home while we were growing up. When I went to college I took it with me. This mug has been used to water plants, to nourish guests and to feed my own family of five, as well as the family of five of my childhood. Yesterday the mug was used to release my brother’s ashes into the ocean.


We walked into the water wearing waders. The tide was high. We felt the ocean pressure against us. The weather was warm and dry, a certain gift from God on a Northwest December day. The only other December 16th we can remember without rain was the day he died. It was dry as we watched the funeral home employees carry his body out of our house and into their van.


I collected agates from the beach, orange and white rocks bulging in my pocket, memorial stones. The beach was rich with shells and poor with people, occasional dog tracks and shoe prints the only sign of other human presence.


Releasing the ashes into the ocean was both strange and beautiful. I know that my brother left his body years ago. In that sense, his ashes were not significant. Yet the ashes represented someone I loved. They were what remained of Jim. They had belonged to my brother. They were Jim’s atoms, for the time he used them. We were there to honor and remember him, and to release what he had left behind in this life.

Jim’s ashes had a texture somewhere between sand and wood ash. They were gray and gritty with bits of bone at the bottom. Holding them in my hand seemed sad and good at the same time. I put my fingers into the ocean and let my brother’s ashes float away from me. I rinsed out the mug and watched the water flow, gray into blue, cloudy into clear.


Afterwards, we lit candles. We watched the sun rise, first pink then gold against the coast line. Behind us the Olympic mountains appeared through the clouds.

I didn’t cry on the beach. Maybe a tear or two. But I cried in the car, driving up through the dark that morning. Listening to a Christmas song titled Emmanuel, I felt the words God is with us tell me truth. I sensed God being with my brother as he died, escorting him from this life to another one, and I also sensed God being with us that morning, as we were going to return his body into the earth. The weather and the beauty of the beach also blessed us.

Jim was born near Thanksgiving and died in December. Since his death I’ve felt frustrated that the holiday time has turned into a season of sorrow. It belongs to Jim.

But yesterday, as we released my brother’s ashes into the ocean, I realized that the Emmanuel celebrated at Christmas means that God is with us in this life, in the life to come, and as we cross between the two.

When I came home yesterday my arms and legs were sore. My legs hurt from walking on the beach in the waders, which were heavy and stiff in the soft sand, a workout. I’m not sure why my arms ached, perhaps from the weight of carrying the mug of ashes down the beach. The cup felt heavy, heavier than I thought it would, when it was filled, and then lighter as we walked back to our cars.

I’m glad that after five years we were able to gather together as a family and release Jim’s ashes. Whenever I see the ocean of the Olympic Peninsula, I will remember him. Two of my favorite pictures of my brother were taken there.

To think that my brother’s body, gray ash, is now able to become part of another living being or many beings. And I know my brother’s spirit is living and someday again I will be able to see him, a being more glorious than I can imagine.

And the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
– Ecclesiastes 12:7

Tags: jim

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Katherine // Dec 17, 2004 at 9:26 am

    Thank you for sharing this moving day with us. A beautiful and fitting account of the release. Peace on you and your family. God is indeed with us.

  • 2 Rayne // Dec 17, 2004 at 10:23 am

    There is a Water that flows down from Heaven
    To cleanse the world of sin by grace Divine.
    At last, its whole stock spent, its virtue gone.
    Dark with pollution not its own, it speeds
    Back to the Fountain of all purities;
    Whence, freshly bathed, earthward it sweeps again,
    Trailing a robe of glory bright and pure.

    This Water is the Spirit of the Saints,
    Which ever sheds, until itself is beggared,
    God’s balm on the sick soul; and then returns
    To Him who made the purest light of Heaven.

    — Spirit of the Saints, Rumi

    Wishing you and your family a lightening of spirit this holy season.

  • 3 enoch choi // Dec 17, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    how touching… your soul at rest as his is. can’t wait to meet him in heaven.

  • 4 Jim Thomsen // Dec 17, 2004 at 2:31 pm


    It’s moments like this that I enjoy your blog the most … the amazing way you take the personal and turn it into something universal. This essay is what this medium was crafted for, at its essence. The pictures lent an especially poetic dimension to your day’s experience.

    Thanks for letting us inside, and giving back outside.


  • 5 joann // Dec 17, 2004 at 9:29 pm

    Thank you for sharing Julie. Thank you.

  • 6 Keith // Dec 19, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    I just happened across your blog this evening while poking around the internet.

    I lost my own brother over a decade ago, it feels like yesterday though.

    While our brothers passed away in two totally different ways, I can relate to what you’ve written here and i thank you for sharing it.

    My brother died near Easter and when I consider the meaning of easter this makes the anniversary of his death a bit more easy for me to bear.

    The annivesary of his death is always a very grey feeling day, I guess it always will be. With all I am feeling each anniversary, I know it must be 100 fold for my mother; I lost a brother but she lost a son.

    May God bless you and your family and I pray for a sense of peace for all of you.

  • 7 Julie // Dec 20, 2004 at 1:29 am

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and care.

  • 8 Mike Marden // Dec 20, 2004 at 3:14 am

    My father passed in ’68, and my mother in ’77. In both cases, my brother and I took their ashes east to the Entiat River to be scattered. Your entry brought back memories of those two events, and also memories of the wonderful times our whole family had camping along that river. Thank you for both.

  • 9 Julie // Dec 23, 2004 at 12:53 am

    Other links:




  • 10 Robin Hebert // Dec 25, 2004 at 9:49 am

    Hi Julie:
    that was very beautiful and intense! This weekend we go to a memorial for Don’s grandma who recently died. It is comforting when you know that they are with the Lord!
    I met her once and Don has lived with her growing up. He has some good memories.
    God bless your holiday week.

  • 11 Marc // Dec 11, 2005 at 1:14 am

    I live in San Francisco, I grew up in Australia and have many brothers and sisters still living in Australia. Three years ago, I lost a brother (Bertie) to melonoma skin cancer, also in December. Today i received two emails, one from his wife, Lou, and one from my sister Annie…they had just had a day by the waters edge of Noosa Queensland. Together with Berts two boys Yarron and Jackson, they released the remainder of his ashes back to the earth. I was so moved by the writing that accompanied the ceremony,that I felt compelled to share with your love, the love that you have shared with many others thus far.
    The Release of Ashes Ceremony
    For Darling Bertie
    9th December 2005
    Dolphin Point Rocks, Noosa National Park.

    Our Darling Bertie, Father and Husband, Brother, Uncle and Friend. It is this day, the 3rd anniversary of your death, that we have chosen to symbolically release your ashes to the freedom of this beautiful place, so special to us, and to this beautiful earth.
    To give you the space to fly and to move out into the universe and the other realms and existences that we do not so clearly understand, yet know that we are all part of,.. and are all bound for.

    We ask that angels guide your path and carry you in times of doubt and fear. We pray that you will travel well and feel a sense of adventure for the journey ahead. We pray that you know that our love will always be with you and that you know it is a part of who you are.

    You are remembered in your past life time as many wonderful things and you have given so much love to us that can never be taken away or diminished with your passing or the passing of time.
    You were always strong and brought us Love, comfort and help, and held us in times of need.

    We have found many difficulties in our lives with out your presence and we have missed your earthly body giving us comfort and we have missed the joy that the sound of your laughter brought to us.
    The loss of your guidance and help in this world has left huge crevices for us to fill….. But the love that we shared has made us who we are today and that is the part of us that will go on eternally, no matter what the time and space between us. Our souls are alive and sustained with that love for many life times and will be so forever more.

    Gradually we are learning to fill the gaps that your earthly presence left. We are learning new skills and discovering new strengths and we are to mending our broken hearts with the knowing that we are all moving forward in our soul’s journeys.

    We are learning to view the past times together as a chapter in this wonderful book of life that has made the story all the more joyous and fun. As we turn the page we are looking to the future as an equally fun and joyous place to be as the past was.

    As our souls transform into a new way of being let us resonate with joy and peace in our hearts for our time spent together as the beautiful gift it was. And let us feel the abundance of that love surrounding us forever.

    We ask that you, our darling soul, soar into your journey and know that the space you hold in our hearts will always be there for you.
    We do not wish to hold you back from your path and we give you help and encouragement to merge with the light from which you came knowing that you are paving the way for us to follow you in destiny’s own time.

    We feel our souls connected by a silver cord of light that connects all living souls with the God presence, and we ask that you merge with this light… Feel the strength and overwhelming Bliss of this connection.

    We ask that we may feel the strengthening our connectedness with the divine energy, through your passing and our love for you.

    Go where this energy takes you and fear not for us left behind on this earthly plane, our destiny is not in your hands and you have given us many benefits in this lifetime. We release you from your duty as father, husband and provider…Brother, Uncle and Friend.
    Know that you can now rest in Peace and Bliss for a job well done and a destiny fulfilled. No matter how short your time on this earth was, who are we to question and hold back from our maker, who’s almighty hand rules all of the universes,.. that these earthly minds can not even begin to comprehend.
    Know that loving hands are out stretched reaching for yours to guide the way and hold you in the bosom of Love, replenishing and refreshing you for your next journey……..
    You can let go now and feel the struggle is over. This is time for your deserved rest. Knowing that our hearts are always connected and you are always part of us.

    We release these ashes, symbols of your body and mind so loved by us and we will carry out your wishes for part of these ashes to be released other special places on this planet that are held dear to you.

    We ask that the angels carry you and that your soul feels the release of these symbols as the release of the ties that bind you to your past life.

    We ask the angels to support us in releasing your soul to the light.
    That we may not carry loss and lack in our hearts but strength and love and the knowledge that we loved you well and you loved us too.

    We ask that we all may feel excitement and enthusiasm for the adventures and life times that lie ahead of us and that we always feel the Angels holding us and Grace surrounding us.
    May we hold the Love that we are, in body and soul,
    May we always feel the radiance of the Light.

    We will always Love you our Darling Soul and in Love we can never be apart.

    Soar and fly to freedom.


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