Ashes to Ashes: Scattering A Friend’s Ashes

Jay's red-plaid neck scarf
Jay’s neck scarf: a reminder of his presence
Ashes to Ashes:Scattering A Friend’s Ashes – GraceConnexion Podcast 12/28/2019

“Everyone must have two pockets, 
so that he can reach into the one or the other, 
according to his needs.
In his right pocket are to be the words: 
‘For my sake was the world created,’ 
and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’
– Hasidic story shared by Martin Buber

Hello everyone. This is Paul Fitzgerald and this is the GraceConnexion Podcast where you are invited to join in Exploring the Cartography of the Soul with Curious Seekers on the Journey.

In this episode we’ll Explore the awareness of the paradox of beginnings and endings, of permanent impermanence, the foolishness of seeking permanence and some wisdom from Ecclesiastes about living well in the certainty of our uncertainty. 

Spreading the ashes of a friend’s body is a very surreal experience. 

A definition of “surreal” might be: a disjointed, often jarring mix of images and experiences. That’s certainly how I felt as I held the ashes of my friend’s body in my hand and prepared to participate in spreading them – dust to dust like – while wearing his red-plaid scarf; a gift from his wife Carol. 

The process could not but bring home renewed clarity about our material impermanence. At least, that was my experience as Susanna and I gathered with Jay Feltheim’s family and friends at Timber Creek Retreat House near Drexel Missouri. In recent years it had become one of Jay’s favorite retreat locations.

Timber Creek is a unique retreat location in a very rural setting; complete with trees, fields, streams, ponds, trails to walk and wildlife; yet all the amenities one would want in a contemplative retreat setting.

More than once, I have said the words of the traditional funeral liturgy that includes the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Some think that it is a quotation from Scripture but it is from the Common Book of Prayer and has been said for hundreds if not thousands of years at funerals. It does reflect the message found in ancient Jewish wisdom:

From Genesis 2:7:… then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

From Ecclesiastes 3:20: … all are from the dust, and all turned to dust again.

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We gathered by a pond that Jay would have seen outside the large picture window each time he came to spend time at Timber Creek. This day it was a frozen white sheet of ice. It was December 21 and the day of Winter Solstice; a day anciently celebrated as symbolic of death and rebirth of the Sun. It is a day of turning from the shortest daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere to the longer days that renew the growth of plants and leaves on trees. Being a Master Gardner, the timing would not have been lost on Jay and he would have been smiling – and maybe was. 

Tom Jacobs, the retreat center director, guided us in a very meaningful service that was simple yet elegant. Together, we shared a poem he wrote for the occasion:

Grateful for the gift of birth.
Grateful for our time on Earth.
Grateful what we learn our worth.

When we stand and when we fall,
there’s a Source sustaining all.
We can move beyond the wall.

Life is precious, short and sweet.
On the pathway, guide our feet.
Love is stronger than defeat.

Love changes on our way.
Love is why we live this day.
Love will guide us every day.

Grateful for the gift of birth.
Grateful for our time on Earth.
Grateful that we know are worth.

Love creates a ongoing birth.

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Part of the context for my surreal experience was the joy of caring for a friend’s new baby just the day before having Jay’s ashes in my hand and knowing that in a few hours we would enjoy having the baby’s new life in our hands again. To experience both ends of life’s beginning and passing in the same short period of time was beautiful and sad and a mixture of so many feelings.

Watching family and friends take ashes in hand, I vividly recalled a men’s retreat this summer with Jay. We all thought it was so courageous for him to attend a retreat in a very rural setting in the middle of Kansas while maintaining his nightly dialysis procedures.  On one afternoon, were invited to spend a significant time meditating and reflecting on our own mortality. I settled into a spot on the porch to get out of some light rain and it was in front of the room where Jay was staying. He slipped up quietly and said he was tired and decided to rest his room while I reflected on my mortality – neither of us knowing how soon and suddenly Jay’s mortality would become reality.

Previously, I have reflected on my mortality in retreat settings. Usually, the suggestions include “What would you want people to say to each other about their experience of you at your wake for your funeral?” On this occasion I chose to reflect on experiencing what the day and week after my funeral might be like for everyone else. I chose to meditate on knowing the world would not cease turning; life would go on the next day, slower for some but it would move on. People will go back to work, check email and Facebook, enjoy their meals, pay their bills and the rest of their life routines will continue.

The ancient metaphor of stepping into and then out of a flowing river came to my mind. Usual point of the story is that you can’t step back in the river at the same place since it has moved on. But my realization this time was that once you step out of flow of life it will move on as if you were never really there. Obviously, memories of relationships will be shared by some and serious, silly and maybe embarrassing stories will be told that keep us around for a while but then, we most surely will disappear over the long history of humanity.

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An additional context was from my reading and study about the origins of the cosmos i.e. the origin of ashes and dirt. It is well said that all theology is cosmology. The Big Bang model suggests that of the 90 elements found in nature only hydrogen, helium and trace elements of lithium and beryllium were initially created by that  explosion some 13.8 billion years ago. The remaining 86 elements were created in the subsequent nuclear reactions of stars that spread them throughout the cosmos where they clustered into planets, including the ashes and dust in our own earth.

It’s estimated that four of these 90 elements make up 96% of our body: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. Now, think about that: some of those elements in our bodies may be 13.8 billion years old! No wonder we are often tired! 

It is interesting to reflect on how many other places and in which other life forms the elements within us now have been before? Talk about permanent impermanence: the elements don’t really change and yet all organic life forms are destined to be born and die – a natural recycling system. 

A popular meme on the internet is that: “Humans are composed of stardust” which may be more true than we’ve appreciated. A quick search of the internet for how that concept came to enter mainstream thought suggests it was due to the popularity of a song titled “Woodstock” written by Joni Mitchell and recorded by several artists. I particularly like the recording by Eva Cassidy and I’ll share that link below.

Yes, it is about that Woodstock Festival in 1969 on Max Yesgar’s farm. And, no, Susanna and I missed it. Michell memorialized the concept in her refrain:

We are Stardust.
We are golden.
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.

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Then there is the Book of Ecclesiastes. I doubt most people know much about the book except for hearing a direct quote from it in a song written by Pete Seeger in 1962. The song, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” was also recorded by The Bryds and became the number one pop song in December 1965. I was a High School Junior and vividly remember it being played over and over with few realizing it was quoting Ecclesiastes. Being the Bible nerd then as some think I am now, I smiled knowing my friends who would not know a Bible if they saw one, were listening to it being quoted. 

Seeger was primarily a protest songwriter whose agent wanted something besides more of the same. Apparently, he found a note where he copied scratched the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and added this comment: “verse by a bearded fellow with sandals, a tough-minded fellow called Ecclesiastes.” And it became the song:

To everything – turn, turn, turn.
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

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I suspect that even people who take reading Scripture seriously, rarely read Ecclesiastes or even remember it’s in the Bible. If you happened on it at the end of reading about the virtues of the “Proverbs 31 woman” in the New International Version of the Bible you might pass it by since its opening epigraph for Ecclesiastes is “Everything is Meaningless.” If you are looking for inspiration, that might seem like a downer and depressing so it’s likely you would skip it until sometime later.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers an alternative view to what Ecclesiastes is attempting to convey. He sees it as a calling for the need to live well in the midst of the reality of our human burden of impermanence.

It’s lengthy but let me share Rabbi Shapiro’s words: “… the world revealed in Ecclesiastes is an impermanent world of continual emptying. … Trying to grasp something in this world, trying to hold onto anything in this world, leaves you breathless, exhausted, and anxious. This impermanence is the nature of nature, and because this is so, the world lacks surety and certainty; change and the unknowing that change carries with it are the hallmark of life. In Ecclesiastes you spend no time longing for escape from impermanence, but rather learn to live well in the midst of it. This is what the book of Ecclesiastes wants to tell us.

… Ecclesiastes is a spiritual book and its author a spiritual sage: he recognizes the compulsion to transcend the “I” and escape the reality of impermanence and he points out the impossibility of doing so. Then, when all hope has been ripped from you, he offers a living response to the reality of impermanence that makes surrender and escape unnecessary.

How do you live? What is Ecclesiastes’ prescription for living well in impermanence? It simply, drink moderately, work constructively, and cultivate love and friendship with two or three others.… life is a series of moments each with its own truth and rationale. The only thing to do is to live them as they arise. When it is a moment to cry – cry. When the moment calls for laughter – laugh, (and when it’s time spread ashes – do it joyfully). Do not anticipate what’s next or claimed what was; just engage what is for the moment it is.

The book of Ecclesiastes is designed to shatter the façade of knowing and leave you naked before the wildness of reality. And then it offers you not a way out, but away in; a way to live well in the midst of the chaos that is the only world there is.”

I think I know Jay well enough that he would appreciate the wisdom found in Rabbi Shapiro’s take on reading Ecclesiastes. And I am quite certain that he would have meaningfully participated in that same ceremony if it were my ashes being scattered that day. And who really knows whose ashes will be scattered next.

Perhaps in would be well to conclude by recalling the wisdom in the Hasidic story Martin Buber left with us:

Everyone must have two pockets,
so that he can reach into the one or the other,
according to his needs.
in his right pocket are to be the words:
‘For my sake was the world created,’
and in his left:
‘I am but dust and ashes.’

Music for GraceConnexion Podcast is by Sappheiros performing Embrace.

Please feel free to follow on Twitter @drpaul; on Facebook as drpaulfitzgerald, and as the Facebook pages for HeartConnexion as well as GraceConnexion.

Thank you for listening and sharing in Exploring the Cartography of the Soul with Curious Seekers on the Journey.

– NRSV Bible, Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 2:1-8 and 3:20
– Timber Creek Retreat House
– Buber, Martin, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), pp. 249-250.
– “Woodstock” written by Joni Mitchell, performed by Eva Cassidy
– “We Are All Stardust” Simon Worrall National Geographic, JANUARY 28, 2015
– Shapiro, Rami, Ecclesiastes: Annotated & Explained, (Woodstock, Vermont, Skylight Paths, 2010)

2 thoughts on “Ashes to Ashes: Scattering A Friend’s Ashes”

  1. Beautiful. Thought provoking. Perfect timing as I’m just getting to listen to this today of all days.

    Three years ago, today, I was sitting at my Dad’s house …just a few feet away from where I sit now… putting the final plans together for my mom’s memorial service.

    We waited until Easter weekend to have a ceremony with her ashes. I reflect on those moments when it felt a lit more “final” but freeing all at once.

    I remember well that rainy day in Kansas. I didn’t know until later the depths of Jay’s bravery and boldness in being present that weekend.

    I was translated in my mind to that frozen lake as I listened to Eva Cassidy sing. I could see ashes blowing in the gentle breeze and could hear Jay laughing in the freedom and playfulness of the dance upon the wind.

    This was, for me, a beautiful meditation today. Peaceful and reflective.

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