The symbolism of “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Most religions have a rendition of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” to discuss the cycle of life; how we physically came to be and where we go physically when we are done on this great planet of ours. Dust, not much really yet so symbolic; dust is everywhere, it is in everything. We breathe it, we clean it, and we build with it. It really is appropriate that we start and end as it.
Some of us become dust faster than others. Many of us choose traditional burial where we are pumped full of preservatives for viewing and then buried in a cement vault inside a beautifully designed and padded coffin. Still, eventually we will become dust; just very protected dust. Others decide to be cremated, back to dust in a matter of hours. From there we can be disposed of in many creative ways. We can be put into jewelry and worn by loved ones, symbolically taking the journey with them; we can be made into synthetic diamonds and be made part of other types of jewelry. We can be stored in an urn on display for years to come or spread across places that we hold so dear in life; symbolically becoming one with what gave us so much happiness in life. Forever becoming one; is there any bigger symbolism than that?
So we look for meaning in pain; the loss of a loved one becomes a mission to find peace and understanding; to mourn yes, but to imagine and reflect, to rejoice in the love that they had and the love that they gave. Think of the good times as a symbol of what we strive for in the bad. A symbol of what we had, will have no more but will have something that though it is different it will bring a smile; something to help us move forward even in the dark times.
I have assisted in spreading the ashes of a few loved ones. One chose to be buried as ashes, the others to have their ashes spread. I even made a custom chest urn that is designed to help the ashes be spread through the bottom of the chest via a chute with a hidden lever (inspired by grain feeders like those found on farms). It is adorned with pewter accents and made of mahogany, zebra wood, paduak, cherry and a few other woods. It was made when it came time to spread the ashes of my sister Wendy Louise Corson who died at age 35, in part due to lack of proper access to health care. The urns that were commercially available at least at the time were rectangular and opened at a corner at the top. I remember telling the funeral home worker that my sister was not a box of cereal to be poured onto the ground; she deserved better than to end her life like an extra box of rice crispies. I looked everywhere I could to find something that to me would symbolize the love we have for her (love unlike the body, never dies). I decided that this could only be done if it was done by me. I had to move off her ceremony a few days but I designed and built her urn by hand using some of the tools and materials left to me by my late father in law Edward Charles Plihcik, a man who also died before his time.
Every pass with the hand plane was difficult; I was after all making the last vessel my sister would ever be in. Instead of a viewing of her body which she did not want, we would have a viewing of her urn and a few pictures of her. When it came time to spread her ashes I did so alone in what has become our family memorial garden. I said a private prayer in silence, tears filled my eyes as I lowered the urn to the earth and gently pulled the lever; she exited the urn with grace, resting nicely by our rose bushes. Over the years the memorial garden has grown to include a carousel horse that I hand painted, a fence from an historic home, more plants and memorial benches. I have seen generations of people use them, everyone from newborn to retired have found peace in our little garden. Exactly the symbolism we were hoping for.
This past Saturday I spread the ashes of our beloved dog Brucie. He died suddenly at age 11 of a heart attack while playing. Part of him joined my sister, she always loved animals and the rest of him went to the farm. Even though he never got there in life, I know he would have loved the place. The idea of him running free in the field filled me with joy, even as my eyes filled with the moisture caused by his passing.
So as we come from dust, we can make a lasting impact before we again become dust. As we seek to find symbols in life and in death, we often find that symbols are all around and include us. May we all find our purpose.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).