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.
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