How to Scatter Your Father’s Ashes

Press play to listen to me read this post aloud:

My dad had a debilitating stroke in the summer of 2004 and then died a full eight years later at the very end of 2012. He hadn’t left much in the way of a will, so my family and I did the best we could with the wake and funeral arrangements, guessing at what he would have wanted.

Terry Felus

(I will always be proud of my insistence on playing The Spaniels’ “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” as mourners filed past the casket for the last time on the day of the funeral. My dad often ended his gigs with a tape recording of the song, and, even though the funeral home attendant rushed, slightly panicked, to turn down the volume on the stereo when that first bass vocal riff DA DA DUH DUH DUNH kicked in, it’s just the sort of impish, slightly inappropriate joke that would have tickled the shit out of him.)

The other major decision that needed to be made at that point was burial or cremation. He’d never said much about what he’d wanted, neither while he was healthy nor after the stroke. My maternal grandmother had at some point purchased, for herself, the plot at the cemetery next to my mother’s gravesite, but then at the last minute, before her own death in 2002, decided she wanted to be cremated, with no funeral, no fuss. But the process of transferring the deed to that space to my dad was never pursued, and then it was too late. Also, it’s not like our family was swimming in money, and the precious little that had been set aside for the wake didn’t go very far, so, all things being equal, it seemed to make the most sense to skip the additional cost of a gravesite and headstone and whatnot and just opt for cremation for him as well.

My boyfriend drove me back to Northwest Indiana in early January 2013 to unceremoniously pick up the cremains from the funeral home on a grey weekday morning. It was a plastic bag filled with ashes inside a cylindrical metal canister, inside a sturdy black box with a lid, inside another slightly flimsier box with a label with his identifying information on it, inside a heavy black bag with straps that closed shut with thick strips of Velcro. We drove the 45-50 minutes back to Chicago with the bag in the back seat. The tiny one-bedroom apartment where we were living at the time had next to no storage, so I ended up putting the whole grim package, of all places, on the top shelf in our kitchen pantry. (Lest you get the wrong idea, we had plenty of other stuff on that shelf as well—art supplies and rubber stamps, a broken flashlight, and one of the cat carriers.)

With my younger siblings’ full agreement, I’d decided that, once the weather got nice again, the best place to scatter his ashes would be in Southern Indiana. We actually ended up making the trip in early September, the weekend of what would have been his 64th birthday.

My dad’s undergraduate years at Indiana University were among the happiest of his life, and at some point early in their relationship, he and my mom started vacationing in Nashville, Indiana, a small town less than 20 miles away from Bloomington, known mostly for its arts and crafts community and for its relative proximity to the Brown County State Park. In a short journal of the first year of my babyhood that my mom kept for me, she lovingly described Brown County as “our place.” We subsequently spent many, many years vacationing there as a family, both before and well after my mom’s death.

black and white 1950s baby photo

There’s a bit of family lore about a time when, as kids, my dad and his younger brother were being so naughty that my grandparents packed them into the car late one night, took off from their home in Hammond, and threatened to drop the two of them off at one of the oil refineries in nearby Whiting. The boys, being young, impressionable, and credulous, were, of course, terrified.

Haha, hilarious bit of parenting, right? It was the 1950s, things were different then, my dad and uncle grew into upstanding citizens as adults, no harm done, right? Sure, I guess, but I’d also argue that this incident did no favors for my dad’s subsequent ability to separate out from the family group and define himself as a man.

terry sign says closed keep out

He spent the majority of his adulthood, until he went into the nursing home post-stroke, living no more than a 20-minute drive away from his parents and two younger siblings. Which is why I think his school years at Indiana University and his vacations spent in Nashville with my mom were so important for him. Even if he would not have described it as such, Southern Indiana represented personal autonomy. It was the one place on earth where he’d had the experience of being, blessedly, his own man. No wonder we vacationed there so frequently! While he maintained his devotion to our extended family for the majority of the year, there was always at least a week or two set aside for a road trip, when, while still being a good parent and caring for me and my siblings, he could also reconnect with the energy of his own first, joyful, youthful separation.

But, because traumas and internalized assumptions that go uninterrogated tend to keep trickling down the family tree until they’re consciously disrupted, I actually was dropped off in the middle of nowhere as a young child, as I’ve written about before. What felt like being abandoned for no reason that I could make any sense of at the time consequently passed along to me that same compulsion to stay connected to my loved ones at all costs, fearing for my safety, while I simultaneously, desperately craved the permission to claim my own sense of distance, of silence, and of personal space.

During the first year of my training as a clairvoyant, I received a profound reading from a classmate—she saw an image of me rowing myself way out into the darkness at the center of Lake Michigan in an effort to get myself away from the tyranny of other people’s thoughts, emotions, and demands. I was astonished that I’d never thought of my need for silence in quite that way before. Despite my years of sitting in Zen meditation and attending silent retreats, I’d never consciously acknowledged that I actually needed silence, that it wasn’t just something that I made do with when there was no one around for me to entertain and/or take care of. And not only did I need the silence, but I was actually allowed to claim it for myself regularly, simply, rather than going to increasingly outlandish lengths to find it. I was relieved and grateful to have had that aspect of my spirit recognized and validated with neutrality.

Photo by Rose Trinh
Photo by Rose Trinh

And so I came to deeply sympathize and resonate with my father’s clear but unspoken longing to carve out a place for himself to be free. After eight years of watching him suffer the purgatory of an uncooperative body, an uncooperative body which of course needed constant monitoring by nursing home staff (that is, the complete opposite of autonomy), I resolved to frame the scattering of his ashes as a significant act of mercy.

It’s not really illegal to scatter ashes on public property. But darting in and out of my boyfriend’s car in Nashville, poking through the underbrush near the Jordan River on campus, and trying to choose the perfect scenic spot on the route between the two towns, all the while looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was going to give me shit about what I was so furtively doing, still felt a bit like a scavenger hunt in reverse. Or like TPing a friend’s house in the middle of the night, or some other bit of benevolent mischief. (Lord knows that the catch-as-catch-can quality of it all would have driven my father’s perfectionist Virgo side nuts.)

But even though the actual, physical process of doing so felt anything but mystical or holy, I knew that, with time, the experience of very deliberately scattering his ashes in three specific places where his biography overlapped meaningfully with that particular bit of landscape would reveal itself as a course correction, a healing on my family line, and most of all, a magical spell to release him back to his own selfhood.