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

Author: Bruce Stambaugh

Writer, marketer, columnist, author, photographer, birder, walker, hiker, husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, township trustee, converted Anabaptist, community activist, my life is crammed with all things people and nature and wonder. My late father gave me this penchant for giving and getting the most out of life, my late mother the courtesy, kindness, and creativity to see the joy in life. They both taught me to cherish the people I am with. I try and fail and try again.

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