Cremation letter to Karen
2010 August 07
Created by Tom on 08/13/2010
Karen was cremated yesterday, August 6, between 1 and 4 pm PST. The ritual that came together around it (nothing had been "planned") ended up being one of the most important events in my last four months. To share it with you, I decided to write it, in detail, in a letter to Karen, because she was very present to me in this event, and my impulse to talk with her about it is very strong. So, Karen and everyone else, this is what I experienced...
You may already know this, but I wanted to tell you about your amazing cremation "ceremony."
First of all, although this wasn't planned, it turns out that your cremation day August 6 is not only Hiroshima Day but it is ALSO the celebration of the Transfiguration of Jesus (where it becomes clear to his disciples that he's God's son), AND the day that Tim Berners-Lee first posted his vision of the World Wide Web! AND July 29, the day you died, was an anniversary of the inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris AND the birthdays of the early French chronicler of US democracy Alexis de Tocqueville and TV journalist Peter Jennings who did the US/Soviet space bridge that your activist accomplice Fran Peavey was so much involved in AND the anniversary of the deaths of Vincent Van Gogh (who played such a major role in that major perceptual epiphany of mine in 1993 AND Herbert Marcuse, a major figure in your MSW training. So you've been accumulating some pretty impressive accidental dates -- including starting your first chemo on September 11, ending it on Martin Luther King's birthday, and doing your Death with Dignity suicide attempt on Earth Day (as well as almost trying again five days later on South Africa's Freedom Day, the 16th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was elected)....ALL of which we found out after the fact...
But back to the ritual around your cremation:
Here's a summary I wrote for you in five haikus:
We gather for you,
for us, for all who love you.
You are beautiful.
Papers, flowers, grass,
books and cloth into the pyre:
Bishop of your Life!
Burning, you love our
conversations into new
The wind is filled with Karen;
trees breathe your beauty!
When it is over
it is only beginning:
Part of what we did was stimulated by Sylvia Nelson's telling me about the tradition in her family of putting meaningful objects in with the person being cremated (sometimes before, sometimes after) and giving me a piece of Taoist-looking jade and gold jewelry to add to your ashes. I was going to put in some of your notebooks, but what I read in them last night was so compelling I couldn't just put one in to burn. Instead, I went through about a dozen of them and took out pages that were so water-damaged they were unreadable. Then I printed out and gathered up some things to add, and went over to your apartment with Cynthia to gather up more. On the way to the mortuary, Cynthia and I explored views about life after (and before) death and what they imply about people and reality -- a very Cynthia-Tom kind of discussion!
At the Sunset Hills Cemetery and Funeral Home -- the green mortuary that Cynthia collaborates with on her Natural Burial Company -- I did paperwork with Wade Lind, the owner, a very pleasant and down-to-earth fellow. When he filled out the death certificate, he asked your occupation. I said "writer". Then he asked what industry you were in, and I laughed. I said, "Well, she was an activist. What industry is that?" He smiled, and said they had a category for activist, and that there were a lot of them in Eugene. Well!! For better or worse, it has come to a point where people like you and me are now considered part of the industrial economy!
When one o'clock came, we met John Abbe, Liza Robbins, and Sally Nakamura (Sarah, Meg, Star, Eileen, Michael and Mel had responded to my late local invitation about it, but couldn't make it). We walked together with Wade up to the crematorium among the trees, where you were laid out for us to see -- very cold, but very much Karen. Cynthia "smudged" the room with sage smoke. I kissed you and talked to you a bit. John offered the "Breathe" sign you'd made for him. Sally had a bouquet and got us all to write notes on sheets of paper she provided and we placed them around you. Among the things we put with you to accompany you in your journey onward were the following items, which I commented on to the others as I placed them on and around you, sharing their stories and meanings:
* Three books -- Gloria Steinham's OUTRAGEOUS ACTS AND EVERYDAY REBELLIONS (I know how much you respected and even honored her, and the title so suits you!); Michael Newton's JOURNEY OF SOULS about his hypnosis research on the between-lives realm which you found so compelling; and IN THE COMPANY OF CROWS AND RAVENS, the book you had just gotten recently from Martha but hadn't had a chance to read much, representing your guide, companion, and power animal, Crow. I would have loved to put one of your Audubon cawing crow dolls in with you, but they have metal parts that would have damaged the cremation apparatus. I also put in your Doctors Without Borders world map and the paperback World Atlas, since you loved and continually used paper maps -- and because you were so concerned about the world -- and since you were about to become a free part of the entire world.
* Plants -- In addition to Sally's lovely bouquet, I put in some nasturtiums to represent all the flowers you love. I put in some tall sere grasses from the overgrown areas around the Walnut St. garden to represent all the tall grasses that you so love. And I put in a chard leaf from the garden to represent all the vegetables that you love (we don't have eggplants, which I know would have been ideal). Amazingly, when Cynthia came to pick me up she asked if she could have a squash blossom from the garden to add. What was amazing was that she didn't know about the major role that squash blossoms (and the cooking of them) played right in the first chapter of A THOUSAND DAYS IN TUSCANY -- which you loved so much even though you seemed already quite unconscious while I read it to you, but you proved you were listening by a few choice comments in response! Cynthia and I also gathered bunches of leaves and seeds from various sacred nature collections around your apartment, and put them in a basket -- which itself represented the dozens of baskets you so love to store everything in. It had many of those other things in it, as well, including a few of your favorite feathers and that woven grass elephant from our Bay Area friend Donna who died of ovarian cancer. (Oh my! I just realized I could have added that GIANT purple felt Napolean-ish hat she made that you wore at your first chemo treatment!! Ah well...).
* The four little hanging-paper and driftwood signs I got for you from Jake. I don't remember the exact sayings written on them, but they were something like "Too much of a good thing is wonderful"; "Old age brings wisdom, but you can avoid it"; "I stumble, I fall, I pick myself up, and all the while I keep dancing" (which certainly does describe you in the last four months!!) and one other which I can't remember right now...
* A check from 2001 from Greta Wagoner for $2000, torn in quarters... I don't remember ever hearing about that. What was the story with it? I couldn't believe that with all our financial struggles you tore up a $2000 check! Probably there was a good reason; perhaps Greta sent you a replacement for this one that was lost, so you tore up this original one when you found it? Or something... And then kept it, all torn up... Anyway, it felt like a perfectly mysterious symbol for the wild trickster role money has played in your life ... It was also a great representation of Greta, who I keep forgetting was ESSENTIAL to our meeting each other, since she's the one who, despite her very conservative politics, took you aside at Thanksgiving at her house in 1985 to tell you that she wanted you to go on this Great Peace March thing -- and that she'd pay for it -- because she was so concerned about her kids dying in a nuclear war. I took her address and phone number off the check to contact her, to tell her about your journey, and to THANK her for helping you become part of my life.
* The sad, colorful paper/plaster mask you made of your face in the Grief workshop many years ago, representing your deep sorrow at the loss of your sacred nature place, the starkly beautiful national monument Pinnacles, in the massive flood that destroyed it in the mid-1990s. I put with it the tiny model of a hummingbird that I'd made to hang in front of the mask to represent that miraculous time at Pinnacles when the hummingbird hovered right in front of your face for about a minute. Cynthia and I put the check from Greta in the mask's mouth; there was something surreally appropriate about that.
* In addition to the messages Sally invited us to offer you, I printed out the two main poems I'd written for you that I've read to you so many times and posted on your memorial website (I also wrote the closings of both poems on the sheet that Sally gave me) and a lovely poem Jean used when her mom died, "Give the rest of me away". I also included a large photo of a cat -- I'm pretty sure it was your crazy, beloved, uncoordinated Gooch who you put in your freezer when he died and then in the planter, but that Gooch soil got stolen off the sidewalk when you moved in 1987. And I also put in your lap a brochure from West Palm Beach, representing a significant piece of your family past and your homeless brother Bo. I also included a section of your journal from December 1992 -- one third of the way through our relationship -- that I stumbled on last night and I typed up -- in which you expressed intense concern that our relationship was falling apart because I was so world-concerned and filled with energy and possibility about what felt to you like abstract co-intelligence ideas, in the face of which you felt much smaller and wanted something solid you could put your hands on, and how you felt you couldn't live into or up to my beliefs in your capacities and my idea of your role in the world. Wow! Very poignant! I know this energy has hovered around our relationship all this time, but I never heard it so clearly before. I am so sorry. I will reflect on that shadow of my love of possibility; I know it applies to my relations with others, too. But I have to tell you that I noticed that that journal entry was followed on the very next page by your brilliantly visionary write-up about the Oakland Tribune, the local paper in our town at that time, which was folding, and which so much didn't live up to your dreams for what an excellent local/international paper could be. As I read that next page, I saw you being alight with possibilities about that newspaper in the same way I was alight with possibilities about you and the world. I also noted that this was from the period right before you created your amazing class "Creating a Life that Makes More Sense" which became the three-year high point of your creative activist career, a landmark of your brilliance. I was reading the words you wrote as you swam in the darkness, before the blinding light of Karen Inspired broke through the clouds...
* I also included a map of the layout of Valley West nursing home which had helped orient you, as well as a list of your drugs before going there and one of the drug schedule charts I made for you to use there -- all to represent our move into this remarkable institutional home that served you so well in your final two months.
* Your favorite deep red and purple shawl and the white silk scarf from Sally blessed by the Dalai Lama. We put those around your neck and a party hat on your head -- since you so loved to make parties and silly fun with Everything. Two of the hanging-slogan papers sticking out from the hat made it look a bit like a mitre, or bishop's hat, and the flowers and grass sticking out of your hand on your chest looked like you were holding a crozier (bishop's staff) -- so you suddenly looked like a very funny spoof of a Catholic Bishop. This seemed really appropriate given your lifelong dance away from the Catholic Church, and I could imagine it as a very Karenesque Coyote/Raven scheme to stir things up at a traditionally solemn occasion (like when you insisted on tickling me in the middle of Thich Nhat Hanh's silent Zen meditation retreat many years ago). None of us tried to create this bishop-like appearance, but when we stood around you after giving you all our offerings, it jumped out at me and made me chuckle so I commented on it to the others. I can't help but wonder if you had a hand in it!
* For later, I have Sylvia's jade jewelry, the little heart-shaped rainbow pin with "Karen" printed on it, and your little marble globe, all of which I'll add into your ashes after I get them from Sunset Hills Cemetery and Funeral Home on Wednesday.
Once we had you all decked out in your Karen-significant paraphernalia, Sally chanted for you. Then we stood around you for about ten minutes, first by ourselves, then together near you in a semi-circle, holding hands. I told you that you could go if you were still here, and I told Sally, John, Cynthia and Liza about the little funeral circle we had around your mom after she died in March 2007 and how, when Jay-Lyn said "You can go now" to her, someone outside the mortuary revved up a big motorcycle and roared off, prompting me to say, "There goes Emily!!", at which we all laughed, knowing your mom's basic wild nature, finally fully freed. There are similarities here...
Then the crematory folks wheeled you into the crematory room, put you in the crematorium, and opened the blinds so we could watch (although we couldn't see you and the fire, just the giant metal box you were in, and some dials and digital temperature lights). Cynthia told us you were being cremated in a rare, state-of-the-art cremation eco-oven made right here in Oregon (you always liked "local"). It has virtually no particulate emissions, and takes about three hours to complete its work at extremely high temperatures.
As we sat before the crematory window, I sat in a chair and our four friends stood around me. We were silent a bit, then soon mostly talked. I can't remember how it started but -- and I am convinced that this and every subsequent conversation among us was inspired or arranged by you, wherever you were or are ("Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am") -- an amazing thing happened. I got Sally to describe her work on her beautiful book about socially responsible tourism in Cambodia, with its incredible description of the genocide and the sex trade, and its references to restaurants that work to heal Cambodia. And Cynthia responded that she'd worked on a website for a Cambodian fellow and learned not only about the genocide but about the amazing culture that has been eclipsed by that horror, and how she loves the food of that culture. And John described a camp where he was a counsellor where there was a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. Someone asked where they could get the book and Sally said "Friendship with Cambodia", a Eugene nonprofit. Liza said she knew a top staff person there, at which point I encouraged her to talk about the project she's working on to link up all the nonprofit organizations in the Willamette Valley who are working on women's issues both here and internationally (talk about a project you'd love!)...
And then Rick, the crematory staff guy, told us that you were now hot enough to be going up the chimney, so we flocked outside to watch the chimney and breathe you in. Of course you were invisible, but John noticed that where the sun shone through you, the heat made beautiful rippling shadows on the ground. So we waved directly at you and at your shadow, and felt your presence, and breathed you in, breathed you in, breathed you in and out. And the wind changed directions, sometimes blowing you out into the open space, sometimes blowing you towards the blackberry bushes and trees who, since you were mostly carbon dioxide by that time, busily breathed you in. A few birds soared through the billowing heat of you.
Cynthia hugged us and left to do some work in the mortuary office. A while later, Sally hugged us goodbye and left. And then the next stage of your Karen-invoked conversation blossomed. I got Liza to describe more about her coalition-building project to John -- specifically how she was working to pull together all those women-oriented nonprofits into a conference in October about funding. So what happens (of course) is that it turned out that John knows the communications director for one of the biggest local foundations. Not only that, the foundation had worked with John and his colleagues to create a massive open directory of Oregon non-profits (connectipedia.org), using and funding the early development of Wagn, the software they had created together. Liza's jaw dropped. This could incredibly ease her workload, engaging John's foundation connection and radically speeding her initiative to map out and connect the local nonprofits that work on women's issues -- a real grassroots effort whose name had only recently revealed itself to Liza -- Women's Opportunities Worldwide (WOW). Did you get that as you zoomed up into the sky? Did you notice the energy between them? As I stood with Liza and John, I kept looking up at you coming out of the chimney and saying to you, "You're doing such an amazing job here! You go, girl!!"
When Liza left, I hung out with John, watching you, eating the blackberries whose bushes were eagerly breathing you, and chatting about you and our lives. Rick came by and told us that you were basically done and gone, but that it would take another hour and a half before your ashes were ready for me. I had no need to rush getting your ashes, and I felt the energy of our goodbye ritual was richly complete, so John and I went down to the mortuary to connect with Cynthia again. Oh, my! She showed us the most amazing eco-caskets she and others have been designing, some incredibly beautiful made of paper mache with raised curved lines like vines on them, looking like some mummy-sized cocoon of some giant Egyptian moth. They were breathtaking -- and totally biodegradeable. And then Cynthia said that if you had wanted to be buried, she would have given you one for free! And then she showed us gorgeous ceramic ash urns and other things she's been working on, incredible, genius stuff for her innovative little Natural Burial Company. Then John and I helped her carry stuff to her car and she and John got to talking. Suddenly they found themselves at a near-agreement for John (who badly needs an income) to work with Cynthia (who badly needs a Jack-of-all-trades assistant to break through in her breakthrough business). I couldn't help but think you'd done it again -- this time with virtually no involvement from me.
Nobody who came to this ritual missed coming away with something of incredible value from the conversations that happened. I told these folks what I often told you, that God moves in strange ways, and you are definitely one of the strange ways God moves in. It is often very nonlinear, but it just doesn't happen the same way without you there. True, I in this case I was a catalyst at most of those conversations, but i felt like I was a hammer in the hands of a master carpenter. I was the right tool for the job you had in mind. The people who came were, as they say in Open Space process, exactly the right people ("Whoever comes is the right people"). You gathered them, you connected them, and possibilities bloomed.
I feel truly blessed by what happened and by the very vivid sense of your spirit presence and involvement. It was extremely healing for me. I feel well companioned by you, even as you continue your journey and spread yourself on the winds and through all the diverse leaves and lungs throughout the world. Blessings on your Journey, Karen. And so much love!