ASHES TO ASHES
by Richard Pachter
(originally published in The Miami Herald's Tropic magazine on June 21, 1992)
My father died on Sept. 5, 1991. He'd had a series of strokes from Parkinson's disease and moved back and forth between the hospital and a convalescent home in Tamarac during the last couple of months of his life. I visited as often as I could, helped my mother arrange her affairs, and watched helplessly as my father slowly got worse.
Just before Labor Day weekend he was diagnosed with pneumonia, described as "the old folks' friend" by a lawyer counseling my mother. We weren't sure then what he meant, but we eventually figured it out. The next Thursday morning, the doctor phoned and said he didn't think Pop would last much longer. I picked up my mother and my brother, Steve, and we headed down to the hospital in Miami.
Pop's breathing was extremely labored. He opened his eyes once in recognition of our voices, but he was confused and drifted in and out of consciousness. He tried to talk, but we couldn't understand him through his oxygen mask. We sat there for a while as a TV blared from across the room, then headed home. Early the next morning, the doctor told us that Pop had passed away.
Though you may think you can prepare yourself for your father's death, as those of you who have gone through it know, you can't. Not really. We had months to get ready, but the reality of death is something else. It's final. The end.
Jews are supposed to avoid cremation, partly in anticipation of the coming of the messiah, but also because of the Holocaust and the symbolism of burning the body. My parents, not particularly observant, had opted for a pre-arranged funeral plan involving cremation. I remember expressing mild disapproval, but didn't press the issue.
The day my father died, we met the funeral guy at Star Of David in North Lauderdale. Since High Holy Days would be starting the night after next, we weren't supposed to sit shivah, the ritual mourning for the family of the deceased, which was fine with us. We would attend temple, as planned, then have a memorial service at the funeral home a few days before Yom Kippur.
There was just one more thing: In the pre-need agreement with Star Of David, my father had stipulated that I be present at the cremation. Me. By name.
I was stunned, of course. I was against cremation, was not in favor of the ashes being scattered, and was now asked to be present for the actual event. My mother quickly said that I didn't have to go if I didn't want to, but how could I, ever the dutiful son, refuse my father's last request? I couldn't.
After Rosh Hashana, I called a woman named Eddie at Cremation Systems of South Florida in Fort Lauderdale, who said she'd inform me when they were ready for Pop, and cautioned me that they had no special facilities for watching a cremation. I wasn't sure what that meant, but didn't ask for elaboration.
The next Wednesday, Eddie called and told me to be there in an hour. I was supposed to go out with my wife, Darlene, that day, but we juggled things around so I'd meet her at my mother's later on.
My cousin Warren Kornfeld, 12 years older than I and close to my father all his life, had flown down from Long Island the day after Pop died. When I'd told him of the cremation and my required presence, he'd quickly said that he wanted to be there with me. So I called him where he was staying in Plantation and left a message on an answering machine. I got dressed (what do you wear to a cremation? Now, I don't even remember) and headed down to Fort Lauderdale, a 45-minute drive from my home.
During the ride down I-95 I was numb and had no idea what to expect. Eddie's directions seemed confusing, but I found my way pretty easily. The place was parallel to the Interstate, right near the Amtrak station. Other than its street number, the building was unmarked and looked exactly like all the others in the light industrial area. Inside a woman sat behind a half-open sliding-glass window and spoke softly on the phone. I listened and recognized her voice -- Eddie. As I moved into her line of sight, she raised her eyes to meet mine and nodded. When she hung up, I smiled and told her my name. She said, "I know," as if she wasn't expecting anyone else that day, and told me they weren't ready yet and to have a seat. I looked around and spotted an old wooden chair near the door, so I plopped down and stared at a newspaper.
After a few minutes, the phone rang. It was my cousin Warren. I gave him directions and told him to hurry.
I asked Eddie how we were running, and she patiently told me to sit tight, things should be ready soon. I didn't ask her what we were waiting for; I didn't want to know. Somehow, I thought I could nonchalant my way through this. If I kept it low-key and casual, maybe I'd get through it without flipping out. After months of watching my father sink into his illness, I just had to get past this cremation. That was all I had to do. It was my job.
Warren arrived sooner than I'd expected, thank God. My cousin is a large, intense, warm man; I'd always valued his counsel, but his presence now meant more than his good advice. Eddie said that we'd be ready in a minute.
A high school-age girl, slightly zaftig, with curly, dirty- blond hair, had been bouncing around the back of the place, but I didn't pay any attention to her until Eddie said that she would give us a ride.
A ride? To where? "You don't think we do that here?" Eddie said, her voice going up a few notes. The girl giggled. We stepped outside and she opened the passenger side of her little two-door car and brushed off the pencils, books and miscellanea from the seat.
Miraculously alert, I said, "I think I'll drive," and Warren shot me a look of relief. In my car, we followed the girl as she raced up the winding road to the main drag and then a few miles to another light industrial-type business area with rows of little rental spaces. She took us through one of the identical entrances, pointed us in the direction of a young man a few yards away, and skipped out the door.
The fellow walked over to me, somberly shook my hand and stepped back, out of the room. It was bigger than it appeared from the outside, with a large furnace-type chamber in the rear. That must be where they do it, I thought. What next?
This: The guy came in and motioned us to come over to where he stood. We were joined by another man and the pair, from opposite ends, lifted a large, flat corrugated cardboard carton from a cart. The far end of the box was marked "HEAD." The men moved slowly and deliberately as they placed it on a table. The somber man pointedly looked at me and I walked over to him. Warren was a step behind. The two men lifted the lid off the box and I peered at my dead father. I think I said, "That's him."
I can still see my father's lifeless, drawn gray face. I always will.
Warren looked over at Pop as I turned away. The cover was then replaced on the carton and the two men carried it into that chamber in the rear, the actual crematory. The fellow in charge then ushered us into a partitioned area near the front of the large room, with pressed-wood paneling and living room furniture. We sat down and looked out through a small window to the crematory.
Now we would wait. For how long, we didn't know. So we talked a bit about our family and reminisced about aunts and cousins and children. Warren and I had gotten pretty close in recent years and as we chatted, I thought how awful and different it would have been to be there alone.
After sitting in that makeshift room for about 20 minutes, it got ungodly hot. So we strolled outside and the air was considerably cooler, which, considering that early September in South Florida is far from frigid, underscored the heat inside. I looked around the lot. Nearby, the man who had greeted us was lovingly toweling off his van, a lavishly decorated vehicle with lots of optional chrome and lights. When he saw us he went back inside.
Warren and I got into my Volvo, since there was no other place to sit. I rolled down the windows in front and we continued our rambling conversation, until we could feel the real heat of the day again, at which point I raised the windows, started the engine, and ran the AC. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a car across the way was backing up quickly, straight toward the pampered van.
Our pal came running out of the crematorium and started gesturing to the driver of the truck. We stepped out of the car to watch. Remarkably, there was no visible damage to the van, but the two men exchanged insurance information in what seemed to be a civilized manner.
We got back in my car and talked some more. After a little while, the van man approached. I rolled down my window, and he said that they were done, and I should come in. So we marched back.
The two men waited in the rear of the room; I walked as slowly as I
could until I stood in front of the crematory door. One guy grabbed the
handle on top and lowered the door. I gaped inside and saw the glowing
remains of what must have been my father's rib cage. I felt the heat on
my face, and quickly
I straightened myself up and walked to the front followed by Warren and the two men. The first one asked me if we were going to wait until "it" cooled off, which would take another few hours. No, I said, and he earnestly shook my hand.
I got a little lost taking Warren back to his friend's house. I was still trying to be casual; as I headed over to my mother's condo I tried to see how I felt, checking all systems like a NASA technician. I felt sure I should have some emotion I could name. But I couldn't feel anything.
When I got to Mom's, I had a glass of some uncharacteristically good Scotch my father had left and avoided telling her and Darlene as much as I could. They didn't ask very much. I was glad. I was beginning to feel again, and what I was feeling was revulsion.
I'm not angry at my father for not thinking this thing through, which was his only mistake; Pop wanted to make sure that his wishes were carried out, nothing more. I was his trusted aide. I'm sure he didn't think for a minute that it would be painful or unpleasant for me to witness the burning of his dead body.
But it was. Sorry, Pop. But I did it anyway.
Later, after dark, Warren, his wife, Marilyn, Darlene, my mother, and I all went out for dinner. I felt better in the glow of their company (and after a few beers).
Nice meal, too. Sushi.
(Thanks to Harry Broertjes, Tom Shroder and Bill Rose.)