In ODYSSEY OF ASHES: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go Cheryl Krauter describes losing her beloved husband suddenly and unexpectedly. Told in two parts, this beautifully written memoir begins with the ritual of scattering John’s ashes on an important fly-fishing river, since he was an avid fly-fisherman, and then moves to the mythological and spiritual, to address the rocky and isolating emotional terrain of grief. Connecting the two parts is Cheryl’s description of Los Días de los Muertos, the three days each year when she builds an altar to remember and honor her deceased loved ones. This book is a departure for Krauter, whose previous works have been about cancer. Her deeply personal exploration of grief is one she hopes will help others on a similar path.
From Odyssey of Ashes:
Aging, sickness and death are suffering.
Loss, grief, and despair are suffering.
To lose what you love is suffering.
“You can’t go alone,” Diane says after she asks what will happen the day after John dies and I respond by tell her I’m going to sign papers at the mortuary.
“I’ll be okay,” I mumble over the phone.
“I’m coming,” she says without waiting for my response.
“Okay.” This reply comes from somewhere amidst my wildness and numbness. How can I feel so much and nothing at the same time? What is this reality I am living in? I have no idea.
The next morning we’re walking through the massive front doors of the mortuary. They’re so heavy that we have to struggle to open them, to enter the unearthly quietness of the lobby. They certainly make it tough to get into a place where no one wants to enter. People are all dressed in black suits, they seem friendly enough. It’s cold in here. Why do they keep the temperature this low for the living? Are we, like the dead, about to rot if we’re left out too long in the warm air?
Hello. What is my name, they ask. Oh yes. Oh, yes, we are expecting you. I keep expecting the grim reaper to round the corner. Please have a seat, please wait here.
Please … please … make this not be real, I think. Please …
A blonde woman greets us and we move into an austere office. She is sorry. We are sorry. I, most of all, am sorry. If John were here, I imagine him saying, “If it’s one thing you are, it’s sorry.” Greeted by more papers, I find myself for the second time in twenty-four hours signing things that I cannot manage to read or understand. I don’t care what I am scribbling my signature on, I go through the motions of knowing what I am doing, pretending I understand what is expected as I now face the business of death. The contracts, the fees, learning the cost of his obituary, deciding about including a photo for the newspaper which nearly doubles the price of the few words that will describe him and the life he has just exited.
In spiritually oriented cultures, the care of the dead is personal and more meaningful. There are rituals that bless the dying as they move on and comfort the living who are left behind in the wake of their departure. But I do not live on a remote Tibetan mountain, nor am I in a small village beside the Ganges River in India where this perspective on dying exists. I am in a small room in an icy building in America in a mortuary that houses the dead who lie in large freezer containers awaiting burial or cremation. As a spiritual person living in the material, urban world, I worry that I am not sending John off with grace. There is no presence of the sacred in this gray, cavernous building.
“No, I don’t want a coffin,” I say. “He wanted cremation and I will take his ashes.” Our son and I will take his ashes to a trout stream, to a mighty river, which was his request. He wanted what was remaining of his physical body scattered where he might cast his line into the water for eternity. Or at least keep watch on the water for the errant trout he’d love to trick. But today, I must write checks, sign papers, order death certificates. Dully and dutifully, I do what is expected. I feel nothing. “Do you want to watch the cremation?” the blonde lady asks, “Actually, we don’t recommend it.”
“You shouldn’t look,” said the paramedic trying to save John’s life.
“It’s better if you don’t look,” said the mortuary men taking John’s body.
“We don’t recommend that you look,” says the blonde woman now.
No one says, “You should look at him, look at his face, his hands, touch his chest. Look as long as you need to because his soul is leaving this body forever. You will never get another chance to look. You should look and, in that way, honor him.” I feel a sudden, intense need to look at John. “I would like to look at him now,” I tell the blonde. “Do not cremate him until our son comes,” I say. Our son needs to look, to see his father for the last time, to make it real that he is, indeed, dead and to understand that this is not just a nightmare, that death is real. As a twenty-three-year-old who’s lost his father at the pivotal moment when he faces the first real challenges of adulthood, he needs closure. It’s important that he be a part of these final moments of his father’s life. It matters that this life changing event be real. In our so-called sophisticated culture, we barely recognize death let alone honor it. We “don’t recommend” witnessing it …
“Yes, we can do that. There is barely enough time for your son to get here, but we can hold the body for a couple more days.” What is this woman’s name? I wonder for a fleeting second. But it doesn’t matter.
Someone must continue to look, to not turn away, to look upon his face before he’s taken away forever.
“I would like to see him now,” I say.
“We’ll get him ready for viewing,” she says.
For viewing … He’s become an art piece, a photograph, a newly decorated room, an antiquity.
Then Diane and I are being led down a dim hallway. As we pass the receptionist at the front desk, we notice that she’s playing a game of solitaire on her computer. Diane and I look at each other and almost break into a fit of laughter at this bizarre sight. How is the game going? I wonder. Is she winning? I see a game of solitaire on the computer as I walk down a corridor to a room to look at my dearly departed husband. No, I’m not meditating in a cave high up in the mountains in Tibet, praying, or preparing his body for cremation. No, I am not on the Ganges River building funeral pyre for him. Today I pass a woman who is playing computer solitaire on this long, breathless walk to my husband’s body. I walk down a stark hallway devoid of anything remotely passing for sacred.
We enter a large room with chairs set up along the walls. They’re ready for a crowd, but only two of us are present. Three if you count the casket where John is laying, eyes closed, still, so still. I bend over him and sob convulsively, gasping for air as a cold wind chills the room. His face is icy but I cannot stop touching it, smoothing his hair, kissing him. I am crying so hard I might throw up. Diane sits quietly, holding the scene, she doesn’t intrude with attempts at comforting me. She is there. At some point, I turn to her and signal we can leave.
“Would you like to sit for a moment?” she asks.
“Yes, yes, I would,” I gasp
We sit next to one another, looking ahead at John’s body.
Closing our eyes, we begin to meditate. Both of us practice Buddhist meditation and we sit in honor of the dead and in sorrow and suffering for the living.
The quiet surrounds us in the freezing funereal tomb.
Diane begins to offer the words used to honor the dead, to help John on his journey. I sit silently, weeping … weeping … breathing … breathing …
In Buddhism they say that “The soul rises to the nine heavens, the spirit falls to the nine abysses. The living suffers in grief, the dead settle in peace.” And on this unimaginably dark Sunday morning in May, we sit and honor the journey of my husband’s soul with one of my favorite Buddhist meditations:
May you be filled with loving kindness
May you be well on your journey
May you be safe from whatever dangers befall you
May your passage be filled with light
May you be happy
May you find peace
May you be free from suffering
Before we leave, we bow …
© Cheryl Krauter 2021
Cheryl Krauter is a San Francisco bay area psychotherapist with more than forty years of experience in the field of depth psychology and human consciousness. A cancer survivor, she is the author of Surviving the Storm: A Workbook for Telling Your Cancer Story (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Workbook for Providing Wholehearted Care (Oxford University Press, 2018). Find her online at cherylkrauter.com
Photo by Nan Phelps