I Scattered My Dad’s Ashes

There is another isle as beautiful
Where the laurel once bloomed


All photos courtesy of the K-Man.

“Oh, you’re just like your father!”

This comment from my mom, usually accompanied by eye-rolling and mock disgust, was directed at me and my brother, Karl, after we’d engaged in some of our trademark silly antics. We always took it as a compliment, and, I suspect, she intended it as one.

My dad was special, as was his sense of humor. Not everyone got it. Certainly those who spend time with Karl and me are sometimes baffled and often annoyed by our weird exchanges, stupid charades, and fits of giggling. In this way, I’m quite honored to be “just like my father.”

On August 11, we celebrated my dad’s 75th birthday. Unfortunately, he wasn’t with us. He passed away in 2002 from congestive heart failure. My Aunt Margaret, his sister, lived closest to him. She found him sitting in his leather recliner, Comedy Central on TV. He probably went out laughing. He certainly went out smoking—a forbidden activity given his state of health. We later discovered empty cigarette packs stuffed behind his bookshelf. All we could do was laugh.

The four of us—me, Dave, Karl, and his girlfriend Wannee—decided to honor Dad’s birthday by finally making up our minds about what to do with his ashes. He’d specified cremation but provided no further instructions. For the last 5 years, the urn has been sitting in our china cabinet. It might’ve sat there forever had Dave not brought up the rather obvious but heretofore unconsidered point that we probably aren’t going to be around forever. I hated to think of Dad’s ashes getting thrown on some garbage pile once we were all gone, so we discussed our options.

I was against burial. In my opinion, being stuck in the ground came in second to being left on a garbage pile. I felt like Dad would’ve wanted to be with us, his kids, but we weren’t always going to be here. Finding a meaningful spot—both for us and our dad—to scatter the ashes seemed like the best idea.

Before leaving for our trip, we made a CD of some of Dad’s favorite music to play as we drove around his hometown. We included the main theme from The Guns of Navarone—one of his most-loved war movies and one we often watched with him—as well as the theme from “Mannix,” some classical guitar, and, because Dad would have appreciated the humor, a song he hated. You may know this version of the song or the version featured here, or maybe you know it simply as “Ma Na Ma Na.” We knew it as an annoying and hilarious song played on Wally Phillips’ radio show, which Dad listened to in the morning before leaving for work. Every time it came on—and it came on a lot—he grimaced. Hearing the song on our “Dad” soundtrack cracked us up, as we imagined the look on his face.

Driving by the sites of Dad’s youth—schools, places where he worked as a young man, various residences—we drilled my Aunt Margaret for more details of his early life. When we found out that Dad and his siblings had all been born at home, Karl and I immediately started making jokes about the “birthing bed” that we kids must’ve slept on during our summer visits to our grandparents. When we passed our grandparents’ house on our tour of Dad, there was an old, beat-up mattress out at the curb. “The birthing bed!” Of course Karl leapt out and took a picture.

We arrived at our destination: a body of water whose location I’d like to keep to myself, for our family’s privacy and also because I’m pretty sure our scattering ashes there was illegal. Um, Dad would’ve wanted it that way? Anyway. It was very hot and muggy but otherwise a beautiful day. We found a perfect spot and risked life and limb carrying the 30-pound urn down some slippery rocks to the water’s edge.

Standing on the rocks, we all said a few words. Karl in particular delivered a touching tribute, only to interrupt himself halfway through:

“Look, it’s a duck!”

We all looked out at the water and, indeed, it was a duck. He swam benignly back and forth close to the shore where we stood. He seemed to approve of our being there. If a duck can look pleased, this one did. There were no other ducks or birds or people or fish in sight. Just this one, solitary, ordinary duck that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere to join our ceremony. Could it be . . . ?


My aunt is convinced that the duck was Dad . . . and . . . who knows? It would be so Dad-like to come to us as a duck. He wouldn’t choose a swan or a hawk or even a goose as his earthly avatar. No, a duck was perfect. We stood and watched that duck for quite a while. He didn’t leave. When we started scattering the ashes, he pulled back a respectful distance and then returned when we had finished.

The appearance of the duck added just the right touch to a very meaningful experience. So many things could have gone wrong. We could have forgotten the urn, left it somewhere, dropped it on a foot. Karl expected to see a state trooper standing behind us as we finished scattering the ashes. In fact, a noisy family appeared just as we were ready to leave. A few minutes earlier, and our Dad experience might have been very different. I was afraid Karl and I might get carried away and get way too silly, with our soundtrack and picture-taking and birthing-bed jokes. But I think we struck just the right balance.

So . . . ducks, heaven, afterlife. I don’t know. But I do know that wherever he is, my dad is reading this blog article, glad that we paid him such an appropriate tribute and that we had so much fun doing it. And he’s laughing.

Dad, I just wish you could post a comment.