Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

The pastor led in a final prayer of the private ceremony.

I stood at the back of the small group of relatives and friends of the deceased man I was about to help bury. It was my first experience covering the ashes of a person laid to rest in our church’s Memory Garden.

The day was hot and sticky, as many have been here in the Shenandoah Valley this summer. Earlier, I had helped the pastor set up the canopy to provide shade for the mourners. The giant pin oak tree in the center of this solemn place also helped scatter the sun’s blistering rays.

After setting up the canopy, I turned to dig the hole that would contain the cremated remains of this distinguished and much-loved man.

The summer heat and humidity spawned frequent scattered afternoon thunderstorms. This made the digging easy compared to the only other cremation hole I had dug before the rains came.

The small garden shovel easily sliced into the dirt. The top layers came out in clumps. When I switched to a hand trowel a foot below the surface, the moist earth crumbled as I tried to make the temporary incursion as close to round as possible.

I placed the clumpy clods on a sheet of transparent plastic between my excavation and the limestone wall that served as a solid privacy barrier to the memorial sanctuary. The garden is meant to be a place of rest and solitude for the living and the dead.

The man’s widow, three sons, and other family members arrived before either the pastor or me, and we were both early. They sat on padded chairs beneath the canopy as the pastor said a brief homily that clearly moved the small group of mourners.

I stood behind them, respectfully observing. After the final prayer, the pastor opened the urn and carefully poured the ashes into the hole.

I walked to the front and stepped onto the raised garden covered with newly planted myrtle sprigs. A few violet blossoms already appeared on the young plants.

I had never done this before and wanted to be as inconspicuous and respectful as possible. Though I didn’t look up, I sensed all eyes were on me.

I took the hand trowel and carefully scattered dirt to cover the powdery remains of this honorable man. I dutifully and diligently refilled the hole as compassionately as possible. I wanted my simple efforts to mirror their love for the husband, father, and grandfather.

When I reached the bigger clods of dirt that had been the first to be removed, I switched to the garden shovel. The hole was soon refilled. Without looking up, I used the hand trowel to softly scrape the remaining marbles of soil onto the top of this man’s resting place. I shook the finite remnants from the plastic as a final ceremonial blessing and quietly returned to my designated spot behind the mourners, tools and plastic in hand.

The pastor dismissed the mourners to the church for a light meal, but no one moved except to wipe away tears. The love for their husband, father, and grandfather hung heavy in the air, though sweetly, silently.

After the family finally retreated to the coolness of the church, I broke up the bigger clods of dirt, hoping they would settle more quickly over this learned man’s final resting place. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The Memory Garden.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Tassels at Sunset

Please click on the photo to enlarge it.

I am always looking for new locations to capture sunsets. I accidentally found this spot on a dead end road.

While the sunset wasn’t spectacular, something else caught my attention. The sweet fragrance of growing corn filled my senses. Then I noticed how the soft evening light highlighted the emerging tassels of the cornstalks. The flow of the large cornfield took my eye right back to the Allegheny Mountains and the setting sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

A Day With My Grandson

Grandson Davis enjoyed the view from the overlook deck at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia.

Weather nut that I am, I check the forecast regularly. Monday looked to be decent weather for hiking. Cooler temperatures in the higher elevations and no rain. That would work out just fine for several reasons.

Our daughter and her husband had left the previous Sunday to take our oldest grandchild to his college orientation in Richmond, Virginia. Of course, the university had nearly four days of activities for the new students and their parents.

That left the middle grandchild, Davis, and our only granddaughter, Maren, to check on. With them both being responsible teenagers, that didn’t require much.

With school out for the summer, Maren loves to help Nana with puzzles, baking, and other hands-on chores. She also mows our lawn. That left Davis and me to find trouble together.

Since we both like to hike, we visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. It’s an hour and a half drive for us. We left mid-morning, but Davis didn’t take long to nod. How he could snooze in all that hilly, twisting driving I was doing, I don’t know. He woke as I slowed to photograph a Ruffed Grouse strutting its stuff on the Forest Service road near the mountain top.

Male Ruffed Grouse.

After taking a few snapshots of this often elusive bird, we were soon in the parking lot. Other than a Forest Service employee, we had the place to ourselves. However, we hadn’t even started on the trail when I realized I had forgotten the insect repellent. Fat flies buzzed nearby, but none landed on us the entire time we were there.

Spruce Knob affords beautiful views on a clear day like today. Only a few puffy clouds formed over distant mountain ranges to the west. The air was a pleasant 66 degrees with little humidity and no haze to obscure our views.

We walked the loop trail that leads from the parking lot and back. The scent of the spruce filled the air. Wildflowers and birdsongs were abundant. We basked in both.

I know I slowed Davis down by constantly pausing to photograph wildflowers, birds, and butterflies. Trooper that he is, Davis didn’t complain.

I wanted Davis to enjoy this trip. It was one he was supposed to do at the end of the school year with several students and six teachers. The trip was canceled at the last minute when three teachers came down with Covid-19. In the end, all six were sick.

They were to camp out and visit Spruce Knob, Seneca Rocks, and Dolly Sods. All were in the same geographic area of the old folded mountains and valleys.

So, while Nana and Maren were enjoying each other’s company, and Davis’s brother and parents were occupied with college orientation, Davis and I explored some of the wilds and wonders of West Virginia.

We studied the large piles of giant rocks along the path and at the slope of the mountain, long ago rounded by millenniums of erosion from wind, water, ice, and snow. The teacher in me quizzed Davis about how the rocks got where they did. He graciously played along with my lame attempts.

We saw migrant birds and birds that should be migrants but reside here year-round. Dark-eyed Juncos commonly nest in Canadian provinces. The exception is the Appalachian Mountains.

Because these beautiful ridges hold the same habitat and provide the necessary nutrients, the birds live here and farther up the Appalachian range into New England. Davis wanted to know why the other Junocs migrated when the birds we saw stayed. I hope he seeks a better answer than I gave him.

We enjoyed the views east and west and headed to Seneca Rocks, where we would eat our brown bag lunches. When we arrived at the valley picnic grounds, it was 82 degrees and humid.

From there, we could clearly see the face of the vertical rocks jutting straight up. Eons ago, they had been parallel until the collision of continents forced them to fracture and face the sky.

Unfortunately, no rock climbers could be seen. The day was likely too hot for such strenuous activity.

We gathered our things and headed up. The trailhead started at the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The bridge that crosses it goes by the same cumbersome name.

Davis was eager to let his long legs glide him up the well-maintained trail. My old weathered ones weren’t so cooperative. The first third of the path is the steepest. We rested according to my needs. Davis never complained or barged ahead.

We passed other hikers on their way down, and other younger hikers passed us on the way up. I noticed some of them didn’t have hiking shoes or water. We later trekked by some of those same hikers, now fatigued. We reached the top more than an hour after we had started.

The trail leads to an overlook platform that provides gorgeous views of the mountain ridge west of German Valley that the river continues to carve out. We rested and talked with other hikers who soon reached the summit.

Going down took half the time. Davis wondered about going on to Dolly Sods up the road a piece. I wisely said we would save that adventure for another outing. We still had that long drive home.

Adventures like these are the reason we moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia. Now, with the birth of our fourth grandchild in Rochester, New York, we have additional opportunities to watch our grandchildren grow.

Grandson Teddy was born on May 14.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Evening Light

Our neighbors recently had us over for an evening of card games. When the late evening sun poured through their west window, my attention turned from cards to capturing this beautiful still-life portrait.

I just had to share it with you!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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