Caryl Chessman - 1

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy

A few years ago, in 2004 to be exact, Rosalie Asher died.  After her funeral, her niece Bonnie Fovinci was sorting through Rosalie’s office, making two piles of stuff.  One to save and one to throw out. 

She picked up a black vase from the shelf next to Rosalie’s desk.  Junk, she thought, preparing to toss it on the ‘throw out’ pile.  Instead, she weighed it in her hands.  It was heavier than a vase needed to be.  Looking closely at it, she discovered it was metal.  And not really black, but more of a dark, smokey gray color.  There were some scratches on the base.  No, they were letters inscribed into the metal.  A name and two dates.

Holding the vase up to the sunlight, she angled it so she could read the name.  When she read it she stopped breathing for a few seconds.  Slowly she sat down in Rosalie’s chair behind the desk.

Setting the black vase on the desk in front of her, she stared at it, lost in thoughts of a past gone by.  It wasn’t a vase.  It was an urn.  The kind of urn that held the cremated remains of dead people.  Only this urn was empty.

Thirty years before, in early March 1974, Rosalie had arranged to have the ashes scattered from an airplane – a red and white Cessna – just a little west of Santa Cruz, California.  At an altitude of 2000 feet, the door of the Cessna opened and the dusty relics of a human being were sprinkled out.  No ceremony, no prayer for the dead, not even a wish. 

Caught by the wind, the ashes wafted and twirled, finally settling on the surface of the blue ocean water below.  The Channel Islands poked up nearby, like the fins of some giant water beast.  Leviathans, real beasts of the ocean, swam beneath the waves – humpbacked whales.  As the whales breached, little flakes of a burnt, dessicated body rode upon their backs, then were quickly washed aside. 

Fourteen years earlier, in early May 1960, the cremation had taken place at the Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, California.  It was Monday afternoon.  Two people watched as the cremation occurred:  the mortician and a woman who had placed two red rosebuds on the coffin before it entered the oven.  The woman’s name was Bernice Freeman.  There was no ceremony, no religious rites.  I’d like to believe the woman said a silent prayer for the dead man, that she broadcast an uspoken desire to God.

After the cremation, the mortician put the ashes in a cheap metal urn, dark gray in color.  He set the urn on a shelf in the mortuary and awaited instructions as to what to do with it.

The dead man had wanted to be buried in his mother’s grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calfornia.  Rosalie Asher had contacted Forest Lawn regarding the arrangements.  The man at Forest Lawn had said he would get back to her in a few days.  When he called back, he told Rosalie that her request would not be possible, as the dead man “was urepentant and an avowed agnostic.”  His presence in Forest Lawn “would detract from the spiritual values of Forest Lawn.”

When she hung up the phone, Rosalie Asher sat down and wept.  A week later she drove to the mortuary in San Rafael and picked up the urn.  Setting it on the passenger’s seat, she drove back to her office where she set the urn on the shelf next to her desk.

Rosalie liked having the urn close by, it made her feel less alone.  So it took her fourteen years to get around to a final flourish, to concluding the matter.