Burial of ashes brings family back together

Six months ago, I wrote in this space about the passing of my aunt, at age 98, an extraordinarily selfless person who spent most of her work career with a government intelligence agency and then retired to become the family caregiver to, first, her parents, and, then, her siblings.

She never married, and is survived by one brother and 12 nieces and nephews. After her death, e-mails began zipping back and forth among my cousins, wondering about  how to honor our aunt.

Her ashes were to be buried, as per her wishes, in the cemetery just outside of Waseca, the town where she grew up in southern Minnesota, next to the graves of her grandparents.

Every family is different. Some families stick close to where they were raised, and others scatter to the winds. Some remain close-knit, staying in touch through the years, and others drift apart over time. In both cases, the Wests have tended toward the latter rather than the former.

Although 10 of us were raised in Minnesota, only six of the 12 cousins still live here. The last time I had seen half of them was  nine years ago when we briefly gathered in Colorado for my aunt’s 90th birthday.

Since she died in early November, the first decision was when to bury her ashes. With the holidays upcoming, and knowing that a pick axe may be needed to chisel a grave out of frozen tundra, the cousins opted to wait until the end of April. It seemed appropriate to do it on the weekend of what would have been her 99th birthday.

Then came the bigger questions of what to do, and to guess how many would show up. The husband of a cousin wondered memorably, “Is this going to be a typical West gathering where everybody gets drunk and sings ‘Bill Grogan’s Goat’?”

I need to point out here that my cousins are a fairly restrained group. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but I’ve never seen any of them drink to excess. I don’t consider myself to be a teetotaler, although I gave up alcohol about 30 years ago without difficulty or regret.

However, all of the cousins have many fond memories of boisterous family
gatherings where liquor flowed, voices became loud and many jokes were told.

My aunt had three brothers and a sister. They all loved each other’s company and got together whenever they could — bringing spouses and as many children, including reluctant teenagers, as would come.

I don’t remember anything outrageous happening. What I do recall, however, is the warmth, the laughter and the sense of belonging that I felt being part of it all.

When  we gathered at the cemetery a week ago, nine of the 12 cousins appeared, with only those living in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Colorado absent.

My aunt was born in North Dakota where my grandfather briefly tried his hand at farming before health problems forced him to seek a new livelihood. Subsequently, he became a veterinarian and set up practice in Waseca.

But at the cemetery last week, it was a North Dakota kind of spring day — wind straight out of the north, rain all morning, stopping by the time of the service, but leaving a damp chill behind.

I had never been to a burial of ashes before. Many family members  have willed their bodies to scientific research and others have left in the more conventional casket.

The grave was smaller and not as deep. The ashes were in a pretty piece of blue crockery because blue was my aunt’s favorite color.

Several of us said a few things, reading the Bible or a poem, and 20 minutes later we left for a restaurant for lunch. Survivors of 99-year-olds tend to be getting up there in years themselves, so no reason existed to risk catching pneumonia.

We spent the remainder of the day catching up with each other and sharing family stories.

Reflecting back on the weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about family. It seems to me that “the family” is under heavy attack these days.

I hear lots of stories from people about family feuds, about family break-ups, about “non-traditional” or “blended” families. The fact is, we Americans no longer even agree on what the definition of a “family” is or should be.

This is an outgrowth of three things: First, the urbanization of modern society which has pulled the majority of people out of their traditional agrarian roles. Second, the automation of life, which has lessened the need for back-breaking labor to survive. And third, the communications revolution that has made people aware of all the different ways that people live. While never leaving our homes, we can now join global communities of like-minded individuals.

In spite of those things, however,  the need for “family” hasn’t lessened. Anyone who thinks government programs, with one-size-fits-all mandates, can replace our weakened family ties is sorely mistaken. We need more than bureaucrats following regulations and the letter of even the most well-intentioned laws. Instead, we need mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, spouses, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, etc. who actually care about us and love us unconditionally, as my aunt did her family.

That’s why we gathered in that cold, damp graveyard a week ago, and that’s why later in the afternoon, a few of us sat in a corner and quietly sang “Bill Grogan’s Goat” in memory of happier times and in knowing that she would be pleased.

Tom West is the general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320)  352-6569 or by e-mail at tom.west@ecm-inc.com.