A spot in the woods by running water, and another spot in the woods at the top of a knoll; a farm in New England on a windless and slate gray November afternoon. I have eaten from the fields on this farm, chased my children through rows of peas, pulled apart owl pellets, and danced at a wedding. Today I'd come to witness with the family as they released their elder father's ashes to water and to earth, as they improved the flow of the brook and stood a stone to honor his rest and his return to the elements. A little singing, tears and laughter, and plenty of time to listen to the water flow and encourage the trees as they lean into winter.
It was already dark when I turned for home. I drove away humble, loving and loved. It is the great blessing of my life that I get to join people for these sacred times. There was nothing elaborate planned for this ceremony today and certainly nothing religious; it was enough to gather the immediate family, a box of ashes and a silver spoon. Two shovels. As requested I had words prepared, but only a few and the rest came on it's own. Each person's offering fitting with the next, each person true to themselves, each one loving and loved.
It pleases me immensely to have been useful to people in a way that has let them be themselves, has included shared and personal grief, has provided a moment for everything: everything small and everything important and everything huge and everything unnoticed and all of it at once. A moment for being very alive because we are in the presence of death. And whether I am at the dais of a cathedral before a gathering of hundreds, or off in the woods with a small family, being useful is the same: to be a witness so you can carry your heart and be whole, even if your heart is also breaking.
The threshold to the country of death is not a place most people want to stand for long. We mark deaths and raise a glass to the living. We say our tributes and carve stones and turn away, but inevitably living requires that we come again and again to make peace with loss and with mortality.
The man we celebrated today was a rare sort of person whose teaching, curiosity, and work ethic changed the lives of hundreds of people who research, teach, and innovate in the world today. Out in the back forty on the farm, on a gray November afternoon, what mattered most of all is that he also was loving and loved.
All of these thoughts as I was driving home, hoping to hold onto the threads of this reflection long enough to get them on the page. This ceremony was a study in vulnerability, a visit with the long arm of time, and a journey there and back again that included the impromptu and sacred standing of a stone at the top of a wooded knoll. One of the most simple and direct goodbyes I have seen a family collectively invent.
And for me, loving and loved, a good day at the office!