“Is this a good spot for you?” I ask. I try to get her attention respectfully by touching the white denim elbow of her jacket.
“I think so. I think that this is what he would have wanted, you know? You can see the lighthouse, right here.” The woman totters on her feet and grabs my arm as our boat rocks in the swell. She’s not cut out for walking on a moving vessel. She can’t focus on even the most basic personal safety through her current sorrow. She gives a tired sigh. Her lower lip quivers and finds it’s way into her mouth with a series of heaving breaths. She clutches a mashed claw-full of tissues and flowers in her right hand. Her left hand alternates between quickly wiping her snotty tears with a bare palm, and grabbing at my arm or shoulder to stay on her feet. “He just loved the ocean y’know? He grew up swimming right over there at Black’s beach. I think this is where he would want to be scattered, y’know; to go back to the ocean.”
And there it is; the idea that our rituals surrounding death are about the wishes of the deceased.
Even when the final ceremony commemorating a person’s departure from consciousness is created with that person in mind, the event is inherently about those left behind. Mourners commonly say things like, “He would have wanted it that way”, or “She would be so glad to know…”. At best, altruistic funeral services are a balance between the desires of the deceased and the needs of the living. We have a hard enough time interpreting each other’s motivations in person. Translating what someone wants from scant legal documents and our own impressions of their life, is near impossible. The resulting ceremonies reflect our own ideas, and are colored by our own feelings of loss. Consider that the best plans are laid while the group making them, is collectively taking a plunge in the submarine of grief. Now, take our group of upset monkeys, add the unpredictability of the great outdoors, and voila! Comedy! Like every pre-mixed, ready-made, one-step recipe or home-experiment, our most hopeful plans degenerate into uncomfortable goo as soon as you “just add water.”
Scatterings at sea are an easy staple for charter sailing companies. With few exceptions, they are not the type of celebration that people want to spend time savoring, aloft on chilly waves. Friends and relatives feel obliged to attend, despite weak constitutions or unease with nature. Passengers just want to spread the cremated remains of their loved one, drop their sentiment into the sea, and return to shore to move on. These sails tend to have an expectation of a short turn-around. They are easy to squeeze in between other charters. How many upset families have I met over the years because of people I will never know? How many different flavors of remembrance, or exaggerated family dynamics have I been party to? I can’t recall how often I have been a guest of grieving; offering semi-anonymous support while handling the practicalities of operating a boat. The services range from the kind of attendant wailing one imagines in war zones, to true drunken celebrations of life. Most are mediocre. Without fail, each comes with that moment of indignity where the perfected plans of ritual are bludgeoned by the prescribed chaos of the ocean. You can’t avoid it. People trip and spill their drinks on the elderly. A seasick someone vomits upwind of their cousin, or in a couple of cases, directly on their spouse. Children are handed bouquets in attempts to include them in flower tossing rites, and they just chuck the whole thing in at once. The folks who go sailing for funerals are often the kind of people who have no real interest in nature, and would never put themselves on a floating platform in any other circumstance. They shake with upset, and are simply too distraught to focus on safely conducting themselves about a shifting yacht.
This particular family is one of the solemn bunches. These are the type of white folk who recite monotone passages from the bible, and make their halleluiahs sound like they are a bunch of cubicle workers on a morphine binge. They mope. They cry. They are sober. They tell themselves that what they are doing is the will of their loved one who no longer has a voice to demand that they all feel miserable in a group. This type of service always sparks my internal comparisons to the fabulous memorials of gay men whose friends have taken it upon themselves to coordinate nautical-themed accessories and take a shot of booze to the dome for every story told. I cry a little at those. Our current service is presided by a gizzard-necked beta male with good intentions and a mild case of self-importance. His efforts to impose solemnity are offset by the t-shirt tucked under the braided leather belt that cinches the acid-washed jeans over his little belly. It’s as if a cruel god heaped the worst fashion of the early 90’s upon him, and he has responded with glowering religious silence like Job of Wal-Mart. His cell phone catches the sun in its belt-holster and he peers over his mirrored Oakley sunglasses as he drones through some bible passages that evoke no sign of emotion from the other passengers.
Our captain John has turned us upwind to more or less maintain our position at sea. Our Boat Manager Kat takes down the GPS coordinates so the family’s memorial certificate will mark the spot of moving water where the ashes were scattered. I usually opt for the mucky job of holding the passengers who are distributing the ashes themselves. We open up the back steps where it is easiest to dump the gritty remains downwind and closest to the waterline. The bay in front of the Boardwalk is glassy and oddly illuminated by the green-gray overcast clouds. The yacht gently rocks at odd angles. It’s a lovely scene, but this is the kind of disorienting motion that vacates stomachs and makes passengers wish they were joining the dead. The crew has already stuffed extra puke bags into their pockets when no one was looking. Today is the annual Wharf-to-Wharf marathon where the local citizens engage in a day long party with a running problem. Crappy amateur bands line the marathon route as front-yard BBQ entertainment for the runners and drinkers. The low hanging clouds and still water, pipeline the irritating sounds of the practicing bands into my skull. The mourners take no notice of the music as their spokesdweeb calls for a moment of silence to remember the dead. The quiet reflection gives them time to feel their own mortality. They are finally brought to tears.
The crew and I wait them out. The woman in the white denim jacket finally breaks ranks and says it’s time to commit her brother’s remains to the water. This part is tricky. I hand her the opened ash container and explain that I will need to hold on to her arm while she stands on the bottom swim stem to pour them out. I wrap my other arm around the stanchion to lock us to something secure. At this point, passengers are usually so overwrought with emotion that they have lost any reasoning ability. My heart goes out to them in these moments. I talk to them in specific short commands like a delicate child. “Put your hand here on the railing, and hold on. Now step down to the bottom step. Sit there with your feet on the bottom step, and I will hand you the ashes again.” Usually folks have decided how they will distribute the remains ahead of time. Most do a slow pour from a standing position, which can cause ashes to billow around the aft of the boat if it is windy. Sitting there with my arm through hers, this woman opens the ash box to reveal an ordinary laundry scoop. I feel the moment of indignity begin to unfold before me when, as if to be blatant, the music from the practicing band shifts loud in my ears. The woman’s hearing is apparently dulled by suffering. She seems not to notice the caterwaul of untrained female vocals smashing out the chorus of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. Here it comes. That moment is here. The woman’s choice of ash distribution utensil doesn’t work the way she had hoped. It isn’t like a spoon or small shovel. Most people have never practiced tossing the contents of a square laundry scoop for accuracy. “Dooown’t stop, belieeeeveennnn”. She includes herself in “most people” as her powdered brother fires from the scoop in a forceful jet onto my bare feet. The ocean giggles up just enough water onto my toes to make him mud instead of washing the ashes off. Still the awful music comes, “Houwld on to that feeeleyyyiyeen!” This blows. I look at her anguished face, and realize that we are having two very different experiences. “Streeeetlights, peeeople oohowooooahhh!” The sister looks me in the eye before she returns to laundering her brother. For a fraction of a second I think she notices the laughter threatening to erupt through my stoic façade. I grind the inside of my cheek between my teeth and realize that the crew has become painfully quiet. They have stopped moving or offering words of consolation. They’ve heard the music and noticed my predicament. Crap. Don’t look at the crew! Don’t look at the crew! Don’t look at the crew! Don’t look at the c… I looked at the crew. The sister is blubbering unintelligibly to her now dilute and sinking brother. Tears well up in my smiling eyes. I suck in my bottom lip and clamp down as I watch Kat make a break for the cabin to hide her erupting smirk. Poor John can only look the other way and maintain his best captain-staring-at-something-important-in-the-distance look while he guides the steering wheel. When I finally turn back to attend to the sister, I let my tears flow freely and pretend that I am moved by this powerful experience we have now shared. After she’s safely back on the deck, I shake her brother from between my toes and close up the safety lines. This has been a tough one.
The rest of the trip unfolds in much the same way as any burial at sea. The usual wildlife goes about their daily business of feeding and breeding. Pelicans coast like squadrons of pterodactyls lifted on the tiny air fronts created by the waves. Sea lions chase anchovy clear out of the water. Then there are those pesky dolphins. This is when mourners say the things that grate the edges of my mind the most. As sailors who are on the water more days than not, we are familiar with the ocean’s daily dramas. Bottlenose dolphins are notoriously aggressive animals that somehow enjoy humanity’s adoration despite the distressing truth. Deep down, even as children, we know in our bones not to trust something with a permanent smile. Look at clowns. Yet a couple of male dolphins show up with murderous intent to kill some fish for food; or even slaughter a harbor porpoise while pretending it’s their own offspring, and the crowd just vomits smug platitudes. Grieving people desperately attribute everyday nature to signs from their own lost loves. They marvel that gray whales, doing nothing more than breathing at the surface, are somehow commemorating Mom’s passing. With a deep sigh they’ll drivel, “It’s like the whales just know she’s joining them. She’s finally home.” Worse still, is when animals are accused of possession by the spirit of the deceased. “It’s aunt Jodie, I just know it!” This last problem is frequently inflicted upon even grubby seagulls who would just assume eat the bobbing flowers from aunt Jodie’s death bouquet. They simply happen to hover around most watercraft waiting for discarded fish or food scraps, and so bear the burden of representing nature’s condolences. Frankly, this is far too much responsibility for an animal that will spend hours with an entire sea star lodged in its throat because it tried to eat the whole thing in one stupid gulp. “It’s like she’s right here with us.” I silently mull over how inane that statement sounds. It must feel quite awkward since they’re on this voyage in first place precisely because dear aunt Jodie will never be here. I won’t comment on this of course. At least no one has mentioned the sea otters.
Everyone needs to work through these feelings in their own way. I’ve experienced a fair share of death myself. I’ve seen enough commemorative rituals to come out of it with my own firm perspective. People’s emotional needs are consistent in these situations. We struggle with the void left in our lives when we loose someone. We are reminded that one day, we too must join them in their predicament. This is the crux of the matter. The idea that our conscious selves will just cease to be is terrifying. We don’t know what happens to the stuff that makes us, us. It’s painful to think that this has happened to anyone we care about. I understand why people turn to natural phenomena as readily as they do religion to comfort them in the face of the most frightening unknown. I can hardly blame them. I empathize and let them have their reassuring explanations for this imposing mystery, as I have my own. It is enough for me to take the scientific view. I don’t need to know that something comes after all of this. I trust in the basic methods of science to narrow down the explanations of what we don’t know. After centuries of dispelling ideas of angry gods by explaining such basics as weather, diseases or human teenagers, I am content with the way that science explains the little bit that we do know about the world. The practiced practical methods for asking questions about life’s mysteries are at least tangible and repeatable. These slow solid practices for describing the world have held up over time while explaining the gaps in the human understanding of things. It’s not that science will solve all of the mysteries of death or even of the ocean, but the answers I get from asking the right way are more reassuring, and are returned to me far more often, than any I would get from even the most verbose imaginary friends in the sky. There doesn’t need to be a meaning behind it all. Maybe it’s there, and we simply don’t know yet how to ask the questions that will chip away at the answers. Yet. In any case, if this is all there is to life, doesn’t that make it more precious? Doesn’t it make it all the more important to be your best? Doesn’t it make it all the more urgent to love your family and friends well? Shouldn’t we be doing everything within our power not to deceive ourselves about the world in order to live on after death in the only real way that we can: through our children? If so, shouldn’t we leave this rock a better place than we found it for them?
In between charters, we quickly scrub the powdered glaze of uncle Billy from across the transom. John replaces the tip jar from where it is tastefully hidden during scatterings and hangs it in plain sight. The first crowd of daytime drinkers has amassed for the next sail with their party pants on, none the wiser. It’s days like this when we’ll find sea-cast flowers from the morning scattering which have been blown into clumps along the edges of the kelp forest. Afternoon passengers will remark on how pretty that is, and drunkenly wonder aloud who would be so sweet as to decorate the ocean with red roses.
The practical dumb way that the world just plows forward reminds me that when it is my time, something is bound to get bungled at my own funeral. I think it would be a terrible loss if it didn’t. I’m sure someone will feel compelled to say a few words, but I certainly won’t need it. Let them. It is my sincerest wish that the members of my community take time to swap a grip of embarrassing stories about me that the others don’t know. I want them all to have hearty drink, and move on to the business of getting to know each other. My sample size may be statistically insignificant to form a proper scientific opinion here, but these are the best people in the world. I won’t have any excuses to bring them all together after this, and I can’t think of a better gift to leave for them than each other. I don’t want to be cremated like so many who are committed to the waves. For one thing, I’ve watched enough high frequency radar (CODAR) animations of the surface currents in Monterey Bay, to think that my ashes would stick around anywhere close to the coordinates of my interment. As powdered Chris, I would just be filtered out by larvaceans and end up taking the long creeping snot-train of marine snow to where I want my bits to land anyway. Yes, that’s a real thing, but you’re just going to have to look it up yourselves this time. I don’t want to add to the entropy of the universe by vaporizing the precious rear-end that I have worked so hard to preserve up until my last day. Nope. Not for this boy. I want the ultimate recycling. I want direct delivery of my unpreserved body to the deep. I suspect that, should I shuffle off this mortal coil while I’m still young, my family and friends are incredibly likely to hook a stray limb on a boat railing in their distress. They’ll catch my toe on a jib sheet on the way over the side because they were too busy schlepping the upset from their faces to give me a proper heave-ho. Maybe they’ll just plain forget to weight my body. I imagine my anonymous shroud bobbing in our wake; a tenacious gassy nuisance, until Kat gets up the gumption to hook me and stuff some lead in my bag. My body will give up one last note of flatulence to add to that long legacy as the water pressure squeezes upon what’s left of the final tacos in my guts. Then I plummet.
The deep sea is dark, really dark. With no sunlight to power photosynthesis, the critters who live there have to wait for food to fall from above. Particles of food in the form of decaying plankton constantly rain down from surface waters. Once in a while, a really big “particle” touches down. A hunk of protein like a whole whale, or an expired science educator is a veritable feast. I love the idea that I would be cause for one last freaky party, attended by every manner of odd life form. No, I’m not talking about engineers. I want to be a hagfish fiesta! The glorious hagfish is most assuredly deserving of its own thorough explanation. More on them another day. Hagfish can smell a decaying nerd on the seafloor from tremendous distances. They flock to flesh like college boys to free beer. They begin the process of decomposition through the clever use of mucous and tying their own bodies in knots. Hagfish are messy eaters and litter the surrounding seafloor with bits of food that sustain a staggering array of other organisms. After a long succession of animals and various bacteria work to prep my skeleton, I will be slowly crumbled by lovely bone-eating Osedax worms. The carcass of a dead whale can support an entire ecosystem for up to 40 years. Many of these animals are not found anywhere else on earth that we know of. I am charmed by the idea of reducing my own complexity to contribute to another whole community. I wonder how long I will last compared to a whale.
Luckily, with the help of modern science, we can find out! It turns out that there are even more uses for a dead whale than feeding Japanese children and making obsolete women’s accessories. When a whale dies, organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute will drag the carcass to sea and sink it at a specific depth and location. Researchers will visit in a submersible over the years to study the succession of organisms who colonize the remains as it is broken down. This part is key to my hopeful plan. I would love to be plopped down next to a whale and dropped in on from time to time by scientists whom I will never meet. Despite themselves, my family would eventually give in to the irresistible urge to look at MBARI’s photos of me on the internet, feeding my new seafloor friends. Hopefully someone will publish a scientific paper on either the colonization of my body, or my family’s morbid sense of humor. This will be my last direct contribution to any meaning in the world.
Back on the water, I am a passenger this time. The wind is up, and we are beating into icy, steel-green chop. A handful of my coworkers from the marine lab and I are scattering the remains of our friend Roy just off lighthouse point. I had called to check in on him the week before to find that his niece Sheri was taking care of him in an assisted living home for the elderly. She didn’t know who to call, and no one was notified when his congestive heart condition began to get the better of him just a couple of weeks prior. This is terrifying to me. Roy almost passed his last days unnoticed, without the love and support of the friends and community he had cultured for decades. A few very dear friends and I were able to take Roy on one last walk outside to see the ocean he spent his career teaching about. In his room at Sunshine Villas, Roy held my hand and with a struggling smile sputtered the most he had said all day, “I hope I see you again.” It was the last thing I heard him say. The next day, he died in his sleep. Today on the water, Sheri and I are the service. Kat handles all of the practicalities as usual. I am grateful that friends from these two areas of life have come together to send Roy off. We follow his last wishes as best we can. He didn’t want a service, so we swap a few blunt stories and pretend it’s not ceremony. We’re all scientists and sailors here. We are all dealing with the same feelings. No one bothers to make any cliché remarks about death being a part of life. I hope no one does that for me either. The seas are a little rough. Sheri dumps Roy’s ashes in one efficient pour. Human cremains dispersing in seawater spread in a white-gray cloud. They sink with surprising speed. It is lovely to watch. I feel privileged to have the means in life to do this for a friend. Gray whales make an appearance a few meters off the starboard bow, and it doesn’t mean anything. It is precious just the way it is.
2012 appears to be dishing out a blinding amount of crap, to a lot of people for whom I care deeply. The best and the worst milestones in life seem to coincide within months for a great many of them. As my dear friend Marisa puts it, it’s not that it’s a year of death, but that the fat of life is definitely being trimmed for many folks. I have shared the gamut of sentiment with them, both triumphant and self-loathing. Like anyone in emotionally charged situations with loved ones, I feel the tug in my gut that longs for meaning. I don’t need revelations or a pattern in these events myself. I just ache a little for truths that might comfort my extended families. It’s about the living.
This is for Roy, for Donovan, for Lambert, for little Killer, For Mel’s sister, for Hannah’s grandmother, and for the seeming many folks lost this strange year. This is especially for the people who are missing them. With trepidation, I sincerely hope we have experienced the last of it, at least for a short while.
To the dolphins, seagulls, and sea otters: I’ll make it up to you later.
Hagfish: your time is coming.