January 24, 2013
I’m a pretty regular reader of http://youcallthatart.wordpress.com and it was in a recent post there that I came across the word “cremains.” Now I consider myself a half-bright guy and fairly well-read, with an IQ easily the equal of any of the higher primates, with the possible exception of man, yet I had never heard of the word “cremains.”
American society (and possibly world society as well, been awhile since I traveled) takes making things easier than necessary to a stupid degree. That’s the thinking that has given us spray cheese, Scar-Jo, and more versions of the iPhone than we will ever need. (Hey, hear about the iPhone 6? Word is it will come in a 1/8 brighter box. The Apple Store in Times Square is already surrounded by geeks in a mob 15 deep.) It has also given us mashed up words like “cremains.”
“Cremains” means “cremated remains,” as you probably guessed, and while I had not encountered the word before I had encountered cremains before.
When I was a young boy, citizen’s band radio was in. This was the 70’s and everyone had a CB, including us. In fact we had two, one in the car and a base set at home connected to a huge whip antenna on the top of our apartment building. The antenna was 15 feet tall, on the top of the tallest wall above our six story building. It was as high as it was possible to get in this neighborhood without smoking pot and it was connected to a pretty powerful receiver. Dad got in people from all over the country and at times, when conditions were right at night, from outside the U.S. Even better, he often talked to a lot of people right here in Brooklyn because quite frankly it was a waste of time talking to a guy in a boat off-shore of Nova Scotia.
“Ahoy Big Mariner. How’s the tuna? This is Big S from Brooklyn.”
“Should have been here yesterday.”
“10-4 good buddy. See any smokies on the I-95?”
The antenna lasted a lot longer than the CB craze. It stayed on the roof through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, right into the 21st Century, when it finally rusted and fell over in a stiff wind. By then not only had we not used- or even owned- a CB in years, we had moved so the antenna was not even connected to anything. When it finally fell down, it ironically pulled down the only other CB antenna on the roof, one which belonged to the former building superintendent who had died a few years earlier, and thus officially ended the CB era as far as I was concerned.
One of the good things to come of out the CB craze, along with, um, trucker caps? CW McCall? -was that we met Ed, who became a good friend to the entire family. Mom and Dad met him on the CB but soon meet him in person. Ed was an older man, old enough to be my grandfather, but he had no family of his own. Our family sort of adopted him as our own and he was a part of every family event and gathering. Ed was a good man. We knew him for years but he was an old man and eventually he passed away. No big fanfare, no real illness. He just got old and time seemed to run out for him and he passed away in his sleep.
He lived not far away and Mom checked on him a few times a week and spoke to him every day. As he got older it wasn’t unusual for him to not hear the phone or answer for a day or two, but when Mom went over to check on him he always answered the door.
Then one day he didn’t.
Mom, worried, called me up and I rushed over and we used a spare set of keys to go inside, and sadly our fears were justified.
Ed was a good man and I miss him and I’ll skip over the details of dealing with the police and paramedics. I will note that while he left a will naming my mother as the executor of his meager estate (very little money, no real property), the police somehow contacted his ex-wife and it turned out that she and Ed were not divorced at all, despite what Ed had been telling us for years. She lived way out of state and had not heard from him in years but flew back to take care (meaning possession of) Ed’s estate. What this meant in reality was that my family did not get the contents of Ed’s checking account (less than $50) that we were promised in the will- since the sudden presence of the long-lost wife voided it- and the rest of the things, mostly furniture, was tossed out to the curb for the garbage men to collect, with the sole exceptions of two air conditioners which the “ex”-wife took with her.
She had no intentions of doing any kind of funeral and left his body to the coroner’s office to do with whatever they did with unwanted bodies. I asked Dad what would happen to Ed and we figured that he would be cremated and the remains (see? Hadn’t yet heard of “cremains”) buried in Potter’s Field, wherever that was. Ed had never given any indication of what he might like after he died and since other than my tiny family there was no one else to ask, we decided it would be best that way.
End of story.
It was a Saturday morning a few weeks later. I was up but I can’t remember what I was doing. Mom was still asleep and aside from that, until the doorbell rang I really don’t recall much.
After the doorbell rang I remember everything.
It was the mailman and he had a package for us, addressed to my mother. I had to sign a few slips, more than I ever had simply to sign for a package, and when the mailman handed the box to me he warned me it was heavy before he left.
It wasn’t large, but it was heavy. It was about the right size, shape, and weight to make you believe that it contained a brick. But who would mail us a brick? I knew Mom wouldn’t have ordered anything like that. The return address was simply a P.O. box registered to the NYC Board of Health and then my Spidey-sense started to tingle.
I went and got Mom, who wasn’t too happy about being waken up early, and showed her the box. She was as clueless as I had been and told me to open it.
Inside the box was a plastic wrapped brick, it seemed, but I was pretty sure by now I knew better. I unwrapped the plastic and held a brick-like object covered in thick black rubber with something stamped on top.
There was no paperwork in the box but before I read the stamp that said “human remains” I already knew what, or perhaps who, I held.
Mom: “What is it?”
Me: “It’s… Ed.”
Mom was utterly shocked and can you blame her? Have you ever unexpectedly received a deceased family member in the mail? I was slightly less shocked but put the rubber brick back in the box and washed my hands.
I’ve been describing it as a brick but that wasn’t accurate. Only when I unwrapped the plastic and held the rubber covered object did I realize that while in general shape and size it resembled a brick, it was actually much more like those blocks of freeze-dried coffee you buy in the grocery stores. Not only did they cremate Ed, they vacuum sealed him.
Once Mom calmed down we discussed our options.
1- Mom: “We were not keeping him.”
2- Mom: “Get rid of him.”
3- Me: “Where?”
That ended that.
We had no idea why he came to us and no idea why the city had not taken care of the remains, and we especially had no idea why this package was sent to us and not Ed’s wife.
We had a few ideas like taking him down to the beach and scattering his remains to the wind. I had an idea (probably the worst one but I really liked its appeal) to take it down to the nearby cemetery and under some cover dig a shallow hole and bury him there. Mom felt it would never work, and even if I did bury him he’d be found and taken out eventually. My plan B became to just slip him into the cemetery and leave him there, intending that he would be found. We went with neither of these ideas, and good thing too as in retrospect they stunk. I must have been more upset by signing for Ed that I thought.
In the end it was Dad’s common sense idea to walk down the block and talk to the priest at a nearby church. We explained that we were Jewish but had no idea what Ed was, other than he wore a cross and a saint’s medal. (I didn’t know which saint and looking back, what happened to it? Did his wife get it? An unscrupulous paramedic? Inside the cremains?) We had no clue about his religion.
The priest was frankly and obviously confused. He had no idea what to do either but promised us to take care of Ed. After a handshake Dad and I left, leaving Ed on the priest’s desk and the priest subtly frowning at it.
I have no idea what happened to Ed from there but I do feel that whatever it was, it is better than if I left him out in the open inside the cemetery gates.