We left my mother’s ashes in a crypt in a city she hated. Dead is dead, we said. A bunch of years later, I was coming out of a latrine with my toddlers and there she was. A wisp walking across the dunes toward the lake. Stopped me dead in my tracks. Had to shake it off though. I had the toddlers, and a husband waiting. We had miles to travel still.

When my dad died, that’s when my sister and I decided. Let’s bring her north, put her beside dad. So I called the cemetery where we left her, and said we wanted to ship her out of Houston, send to Seattle to be by her husband. The guy shouted at me. You can’t do that. When you die in Texas, you stay in Texas.

Well, we got busy then. My husband’s a lawyer and he called the Texas funeral association right quick. Told him who he was and what was happening, and what we were thinking of doing. We called the first guy back. What do you know! He would be happy to ship my mom’s ashes, tell  him where they should go, where to bill.

And yes. The ashes officially arrived. But none of us want to look too closely. Whose ashes were they really? I figure the guy didn’t want to send them because he’d probably disposed of her, made space for others. You know, we didn’t live there, come to visit, so who would know?




  1. Neil Clark

    Yeah I’ve thought about this as well. How do we know our loved ones’ ashes are really their ashes, and does it make a matter?

    You explore it well well in this piece, but I wanted to know more about the mother and father. What were they like? What were their beliefs on death? How did the father take the mother’s death?

    I enjoyed the piece, Martha – really got me (re)pondering the questions you raised. I would love to see how this one shapes up!

  2. David O'Connor

    Martha! Great first two lines, love the sounds, and sets the scene/tone. Love this: You can’t do that. When you die in Texas, you stay in Texas. So Texas sounds and feels true. Wondering if we even need the last paragraph? Or perhaps add another to veer off into another direction? Bring it back to hating Seattle or some family moment that solidifies–an image you want the reader to keep… Great draft, thanks for sharing!

  3. Bud Smith

    Goddamn! This is so good. I guess the answer to the question, is that the mother’s ashes is answered by the story itself in a way which is really wise. I love when a narrator asks a question but we as the reader already know the answer. If we are going to subscribe to some Christian notion of life and death and an afterlife where a ghost would be sentenced to purgatory as a waiting period to get to Heaven or Hell, or if a spirit is in unrest because it was never given a proper burial, than maybe I already have my answer. If the body was at rest then the spirit would be in the next realm. Instead we see it here on earth so it must not be at rest. Whether it was disposed of improperly in Texas or what. That’s so cool, you already answered your own question. The mother is not at rest. We might have to go back to Texas and have a talk with this man at the funeral parlor.

  4. Janelle Greco

    I really love this Martha. It’s so succinct but every line is doing something, doing the work. I love the line, “Well, we got busy then.” So great. Adds so much to the tone of this piece. And like Bud and Neil said, it poses so many questions to the reader. Are these really her ashes? What happens when we die? Does it matter? I wonder more about the mother–what was she like? I wonder about her relationship to the father since the kids think that bringing her to be with his remains seems important. It left me wanting more, which is a good thing. Whether or not I’m entitled to more is of course up to you as the author; I just wondering what adding another paragraph here would look like. Like David indicated, what would it look like to swerve at the end or in the middle and go off in a different direction with this? I think there’s so much room for play here, but I also think that, wow, this is its own beautiful monument and do we really need to touch it? Thanks so much for sharing–this really struck me.

  5. Taylor Grieshober

    Love this piece! The opening line is a stunner and pulled me in immediately. A lot of other lovely sentences too, like “A bunch of years later, I was coming out of a latrine with my toddlers and there she was. A wisp walking across the dunes toward the lake.” I thought the use of “latrine” was interesting here and I wonder if the voice isn’t a little inconsistent at times. The use of “latrine” feels so formal, almost old-fashioned (in a really good way) but then there’s sort of informal, conversational lines like “What do you know!” and the use of “So” and “Well”. I guess what I’m saying is in the opening paragraph it seems like it’s going to be an uncanny story, perhaps with a ghost, but then it becomes this sort of everyday scenario. I don’t know how to reconcile it; I like both styles, I just don’t know if it entirely benefits the story.
    This seems to be about, in part, retroactive change, the character doing the thing they meant to do from the beginning.
    Nice work, thanks for sharing!

  6. Amy Barnes

    That opening line! There are so many flowery and personal stories about how ashes are scattered on a mountaintop or over the ocean’s wave. I like the simple matter-of-fact tone of doing it this way instead. It feels more real somehow, rule-following but also the wondering if the ashes are really hers. Love the personality of the funeral home owner, it feels like they could have even a stronger voice. But again, makes this feel very real and personal — dealing with people holding things up even in a difficult situation like funeral and arrangement planning.

    “We left my mother’s ashes in a crypt in a city she hated.”

    That doubt and haunting by the mother are such a powerful way to approach grief. The narrator tries to do the right thing but is tripped up “when you die in Texas, you stay in Texas.” Wondering if you have more stories to tell about this mother/daughter — especially with the “encounter” outside the public restroom. The complications in that relationship come through here without being laid out, even after death. Does the mother haunt her in other ways? Or is this just a one time wisp of ashes?

  7. Samantha Mitchell

    Thanks so much for sharing! I have to agree – the opening lines are spot-on. I love how you flip the title Ashes to Ashes immediately on its head and take control of the cliché in such a unique and compelling way.

    This piece is already incredibly tight, definitely journal material so I hope you send it somewhere good soon. The only suggestion I have is to focus on the last paragraph. I think there’s room here to end on an image that signals to the reader all the questions asked here without explicitly writing them out. What if the family does decide to look at the ashes closely at this moment? What would they discover, or not?

  8. K Chiucarello

    Wow, dang. What an opening line. There is wayyyy too much to love here in such a short short amount of space!

    Here’s a few fragments/lines/passages I’m especially drawn to: “The guy shouted at me. You can’t do that. When you die in Texas, you stay in Texas.” “Dead is dead, we said. A bunch of years later, I was coming out of a latrine with my toddlers and there she was.”

    I’m hesitant to suggest to keep expanding this because I fear it’s perfect as is and don’t want to risk ruining that. But the dynamic of the family really resonated with me. The desperation of wanting to keep the mother here physically, to be near the father, is such a universal feeling when it comes to death (perhaps unnecessarily?) Really though all the relationships here — the husband/wife, the sister/sister, father/mother — I’m so hungry to know more about them. I can definitely see this turning into a series and rotating through POVs.

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