“Monterey is the best place in the nation to view a variety of marine mammals and seabirds.”
--From the Monterey BayWhale Watch website
My mother, brother, and I were too overcome with fatigue at the time of my father’s death to plan a memorial. For months his ashes sat in my mother’s bedroom in an unadorned metal box next to those of my sister, who died two years before him.
My family is used to a certain sadness clinging to our homes. It’s made us distrustful of public spectacle, and we belong to no church through which our grief could be channeled. But at some point, the lack of a public goodbye began to feel stranger than a tangible acknowledgement of my father’s death.
So near sunset on summer solstice, we tossed his ashes into the cold grey swells of the Monterey Bay.
The thing that made this beautiful to us (so different than a funeral and subsequent burial) was that the ocean still teems with life despite the presence of the dead. How unlike the protected realms of the sealed plastic encasement California law requires for coffins.
Plus, the boat we rented served multiple purposes, more often used for whale watching excursions than ash dispersal. The captain and deck hand, while mindful of our mission, were also clearly at work. The sense that they were performing a job gave the whole event a mundane commercial quality. I found their strict crew hierarchy, careful; steering of the boat, identifying sea otters, and cueing us to the journey’s halfway point (we'd agreed to hourly rate) comforting alongside my grief.
The young deck hand, too young it seemed to be taken seriously as a partner in our mourning, was nevertheless accepting of my family’s sense of comedy. No matter how hard we tried, my father’s urn would not open, yet we’d already given over our $300 to toss his ashes overboard. Were we unsuccessful in distributing them, would we be getting our money back?
First, the young deck hand’s knife tip broke along the urn’s metal seam. Then he took it up to the captain’s galley. After a long and awkward wait, he returned, the urn twisted and bent, an ugly gash of long metal teeth exposing its innards––a plastic bag of ash.
We laughed to see it. In the presence of such laughter, we recognized Dad. The solemnity of the occasion was shattered by the crude work of daily life in a manner that felt true to how my father lived: caught up in things; open to new experiences; unafraid to be the butt of other people’s jokes.
Our family and friends, who took this short journey with us, tossed white roses into the sea, having been instructed to think about people they love and have also lost. Then my family threw handfuls of my father into the sea. Brisk sea air dampened our hair, and we cried as his ashes landed in our wake. Just as quickly time was up. Another family had booked the boat for similar purposes, and we needed to quickly return to shore.
This was exactly what I liked about the whole event. It was apart of a set of larger routines: commerce; the life of sea and shore; the gathering of family and friends. Afterward we ate together at a touristy restaurant that overlooks the same bay where my father’s ashes now reside.
On the boat, we were sea sick, and fearful of ten foot swells, sad about losing my father while a grey heron (his favorite bird) flew overhead. The clanging of the buoy, the deck hand’s youth, the moon rising up over the low California hills, the constant vocalizations of the sea lions and seals, created a sensation of togetherness and renewed our certainty in our own mortality, while also, somewhat strangely, allowing us to experience liberation in the ritual honoring of someone we loved.For saying a final goodbye to a loved one, I recommend ash dispersal at sea.