What will happen to my body after I am gone? People have answered this question differently for millennia. From mummification to Norse ship burials to a New Orleans style jazz funeral where the body accompanies a big brass band on its way to a humid grave.
And Grandma had her own kind of answer; the kind of answer that left her son Jim shaking his head on the way home from a visit, and maybe even gave her grandchildren the heebie-jeebies once or twice.
I sat at the kitchen table in Grandma’s cottage, swimsuit still dripping wet. I was pulled out of the water by some adult or other who thought eating lunch was more important than swimming for reasons my childhood brain couldn’t comprehend (I still don’t really get it now). And Grandma, sitting back in her recliner, from which she balanced books and kept meticulous journals of each day’s events, thought it would be a good time to tell me her plans right as I bit in to handful of okie dokie popcorn. “I want to be buried under Nod,” she said. Under Nod?
Under Nod to me then, was a place where lost Frisbees and baseballs went to die, not a place for Grandmas. An image flashed into my mind of Grandma dragonlike in her undercottage cave hoarding children’s toys instead of gold. The image stuck as my parents’ vacuumed our bedrooms, and as I traded my dripping suit for laymen’s clothes. When we were finally packed into the car and done with goodbyes, I asked my father “What’s up with Grandma wanting to haunt us all?” He shook his head and said, “She has a lot of time left to change her mind.”
But we Stokeses are a stubborn stock, and Grandma’s mind didn’t change on this matter. In fact, we will place some of her ashes beneath the cottage later today.
What was right about what my Dad said way back then was that Grandma did have a lot of time. In that time—Christmas eve after Christmas eve of Grandma laughing and shaking her head no as Grandpa tried to get us to open the presents a day early, summer after summer of Grandma greeting guests up north, learning the names of new friends brought along by renters’ children, and watching the humming birds out the window with her husband—in that time, Grandma changed my mind about what it meant for her to rest under Nod.
In Romans 8:6, Paul tells the Roman Christians: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” And yet, wasn’t it Christ who came down to the world, who took on our flesh, and told us in John 6: 50-51 “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Some churches, not Grandma’s, believe that the Eucharist turns into the flesh of Christ and the wine turns into the blood in a process called transubstantiation. But with or without that change, with wine or blood or grape juice, Christianity is united in knowing how powerful and loving Christ’s gesture of living and dying embodied as one of us humans was. Christ knew the power of flesh not just as symbolism. He knew it in his bones, the bones he had for a while, the bones he had for us.
So now when I think of Grandma under the cottage, I think not of a dragon or some ghost. I think of the life Grandma led on this earth. The way she acted as a foundation for this family. Making sure every summer when I brought up a group of friends up north in college that we all got together for a group picture on the last day. I rolled my eyes the first time she did it. But last week on the last day up here with friends I found myself making everyone line up for the photo and thinking of Grandma.
One of my father’s earliest memories and one he shared often was of a time Grandma found the pillows of his bed on the floor when he was two or three years old. She had made the bed, she knew and she became certain her Linda and Jim had gotten into a pillow fight. Jim was punished. Throughout the punishment he swore he didn’t get to have the joys of the pillow fight he was now being blamed for. Just after the punishment ended, Grandma reached back into the depths of her memory and realized she had put the pillows on the floor in the process of fixing the sheets. She had gotten distracted by the many crises of motherhood and forgot. My father told the story not because of the punishment but because of how kind and apologetic Grandma was afterward. It was a story that told me not just of the fallibility of adults, but of how to admit when you’re wrong, even when it’s hard, even when it makes you feel silly.
Grandma was there for all of
us: somehow teaching us life lessons in between cooking her millionth family dinner and reheating Grandpa’s coffee for the third time that day. She was like the foundation holding up Nod, you forget how integral it is to the structure until you lose a Frisbee underneath it and take some time to really look.
What happened to Grandma’s body after she was gone? It was cremated. It will be spread around the places she loved by the people she held together with kindness and photo albums and journals of names and hot coffee. While Grandma’s life in the flesh is over (her hugs, her smile, her laugh, no longer here to comfort us) her spirit (found in the pew on the Sunday mornings of her life learning parishioners’ names as fast as renters) is at peace. Her memory—foundational to our family— resides in the bones of the cottage she held together. But she cannot be reduced to that symbolism either. The time we had with Grandma here on earth in the flesh is what gives our memories of her life.