For just a second or two after I dropped my mother’s ashes into the ocean a few yards from the Diamond Head buoy last week, you could see a green glow as the filtered sunlight found the ti leaf container, or puolo, which carried her remains. The glow quickly faded as the precious bundle sank below the waves.

A second puolo, carrying my sister followed a minute later.

My mother and sister had each chosen to have their ashes consigned to the ocean near the buoy.

The puolo carrying the ashes of my mother and my sister.

Ian Lind

On one level, it made sense. My uncle — my mother’s younger brother — was scattered in the same spot after his death in 1994. And the ashes of my sister’s husband had been added in 2007. My dad’s boat took us out to the buoy on those occasions. 

This latest trip to the buoy on a chartered yacht was a beautiful occasion, but it left me with a nagging uneasiness. I wanted to understand how and why they had chosen this option. I couldn’t help feeling it was inconsistent with how they had lived their lives.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. These were, after all, their lives, their deaths, and their choices. But my feeling remains, and I suspect I’m not alone in second-guessing a loved one’s choices.

Selfishly, perhaps, I wish that both my mother and sister had left a more permanent mark, rather than slipping away.

After cremation, there are three options for disposing of ashes, referred to in the funeral industry as “cremains.” They can be placed in a burial plot or a niche in a columbarium, scattered on land or sea, or retained in a place of honor in one’s home or, alternatively, retained after being incorporated into jewelry, art glass or other forms of memorabilia.

Several years ago, Time Magazine cited statistics from the Cremation Association of North America showing “one-third of people who receive cremains bury them, one third keep them, and the last third scatter them.” 

And available statistics show a lot of people in Hawaii will face that choice. In 2014, Hawaii’s cremation rate was 72.6 percent, the fourth-highest among the 50 states.  Today, according to national statistics, Americans choose cremation over traditional burial 48.6 percent of the time. That’s a dramatic change from 1960, when the cremation rate was just 3.5 percent.

Tracing My Unease

I’ve tried to put my finger on exactly why I came away uneasy about the choices made by my mother and sister. 

Here’s the thing. Both were master genealogists. They were intent on and deeply immersed in their genealogical research. Both were passionate about unraveling the family’s past, and it became an all-consuming search. Each of them spent countless, often-frustrating hours over several decades seeking out the pieces of the puzzle, pursuing and eliminating false leads, constantly intent on extending their knowledge back another generation or out to draw in more cousins and in-laws, and then sharing the results of their digging with anyone who would listen as they progressed.

My mother, Helen Yonge Lind, on her 97th birthday in May 2011.

Ian Lind

Family history involves searching for and then piecing together documentation of births, marriages, remarriages and deaths, then clarifying relationships between individuals and their part of the family, mapping where each person belongs in the spreading family tree.

Finding this documentation isn’t always easy. Birth and death certificates are relatively modern bureaucratic inventions, and digging back in time required searching for other forms of “proof.” Sometimes births were recorded in a family Bible, documented by the local church, perhaps noted in an area census, recounted in private journals or retold in oral tradition.

The problem is locating them, or evidence that originated in them. Documenting deaths is equally challenging. But they pursued their digging, my mother during the era before computers, and my sister after the internet opened up vast stores of documents.

My sister, Bonnie Stevens.

Ian Lind

Often they would come to a dead end in their research, and appeal for help from a broader community. I remember my mother placing ads in genealogical magazines seeking information about a particular person, couple or family in a particular county at a certain time in history. Later, my sister would prowl genealogical websites seeking others in search of parts of the same families. These would often result in clues coming back from distant places.

And it was not uncommon that finding a particular person’s grave would be cause for celebration, because a grave marker often yielded not only their date of death, but a birth date, a spouse’s name, even possibly a list of children, while surrounding graves could provide other clues to relatives by blood and marriage.

Both of these women knew the importance of cemeteries and graves as markers for future generations trying to re-create their knowledge of, and appreciation for, those who have gone before.

Why did each decide to avoid leaving those valuable signposts for future genealogists and family historians? That’s the question that gnaws at me.

A Complete Surprise

For most of her life, my mother said she wanted to be cremated, and her ashes buried in one of two plots she owned in Nuuanu Memorial Park, where her parents were also buried. When I was growing up, we visited their graves quite often. My mother would bring flowers, and she would point to surrounding grave markers and explain the ties of family and friendship between my grandparents and those buried nearby.

I knew, through most of my life, that someday my mother would join her parents and other old family friends in that quiet spot, knowing we would still have this tangible connection to focus memories of their lives. 

So it was a complete surprise when my mom suddenly announced she had sold both of her burial plots. I think she was at least 94 at the time. She never talked about the choice, which came as she was starting the task of settling her affairs, tying up various loose ends. She was still sharp, had all her faculties, and knew what she was doing when she made the choice, even if she didn’t bother to explain it.

I prepare to drop the ashes of my mother into the ocean next to the Diamond Head buoy.

Ian Lind

Was it a sudden decision? Or something that percolated for years, a decision made but not previously announced or acted on? What triggered her apparent change of heart? Why did she choose to be scattered in the anonymity of the ocean, even knowing how rich in history and meaning a simple gravestone can prove to be for those who follow?

Unfortunately, that’s a discussion we never had, as I never pressed for her answer.

Truth be told, I like walking through cemeteries. I feel much the same way that I feel in a library. Walking down a row of books, or a row of gravestones, I feel surrounded by their wonderful sense of potential. If you had all the time in the world, you could read each book, and research the history of each person, and what stories they would yield!

Of course, you and I won’t ever do that. But you might let a particular book catch your eye and draw you in, or find a grave that provides previously unknown answers about yourself or your family. Spreading ashes in the sea offers no such opportunity for future connections.

Selfishly, perhaps, I wish that both my mother and sister had left a more permanent mark, rather than slipping away. But I’m trying to understand their choices.

In one of her genealogical charts, my sister noted a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Come not when I am dead.”  

Here’s the first half:

“Come not, when I am dead,

To drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,

To trample round my fallen head,

And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save.

There let the wind sweep and the plover cry;

But thou, go by.”

Bonnie had told me: “Helen Lind reported that her father used to quote this poem when talking about his own burial. He said it expressed his feelings about mourning at funerals and at the gravesite.”

I recently found a partial copy of the poem written out on a scrap of paper, perhaps from memory, in my mother’s handwriting. It appeared to have been written years ago, possibly when my grandfather died in 1950.

Perhaps that’s how my mother felt toward the very end of her long life. Just let the wind sweep and the plover fly. People, keep walking. Nothing going on here.

I don’t know. I wish I did.

So here’s my advice to the large majority of Hawaii residents who will, if trends continue, choose cremation. When the time comes, let your family know your choice for final arrangements and why it is meaningful for you. It’s a simple discussion that could make it easier for all who will be affected by your passing.

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