Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down

Jesus statue, Putnam County WV | february2022 | photo

By Doug Minnerly | For | march30.2022

My mother died in February 1996, just at the midpoint of my time in seminary. Her death was not a surprise. She had been on a steady decline since retiring 10 years earlier. Her work had given her the strength of will she needed to combat the rheumatoid arthritis that had been steadily crippling her since her 40s.

At the time of her death, my sister and I were, let’s say, not on good terms. We had never been close siblings, certainly not since she married at 18 (I was 14) and moved from our home in Virginia to her new husband’s home in San Antonio, Texas.

Four years before my mother’s death, I had unleashed a raging torrent of anger, resentment, and recrimination against my sister, following a 50th Wedding Anniversary Party we held for our parents. What tenuous relationship there may have been before that was irreparably torn asunder that night, never to be restored.

When it was apparent Mom was nearing the end, since I was on a short winter break from seminary, I went to visit her. I had just arrived back to the seminary I was attending in Decatur, Georgia, when my sister called to tell me Mom had died.

My wife, Susan, who had remained in our home in Charlotte, NC, while I attended seminary arranged for a plane ticket for me from Atlanta to Charlotte (the airlines still offered half-price “bereavement fares” then), and Susan and I then drove from Charlotte to Newport News, VA.

“How much of the stuff is there?” I asked, always imagining that, cremated, a person was reduced to just a handful of ashes.

Upon our arrival at my father’s house, we all drove over to the funeral home to make the arrangements. Mom had always wanted to be cremated, so we had to choose an urn to hold her ashes. The funeral director pulled out the urn catalog and, looking at the various designs and descriptions, I imagined myself in a scene from Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One.”

Out of nowhere, my sister said, “Well, I want some of the ashes.”

Then, looking at me she said, “Don’t you?”

No, I thought, but only smiled and looked to Susan and said, “What do you think?”

Though keeping her composure, she gave me a horrified look of: “How could you?”

Instead she calmly said, “Well, that would be nice.”

The funeral director said we could divide the ashes into three child-sized containers.

“How much of the stuff is there?” I asked, always imagining that, cremated, a person was reduced to just a handful of ashes. Turns out, an average adult is reduced to enough ashes to fill a large coffee can — as is hilariously demonstrated in the film “The Big Lebowski.”

So, we chose three child-sized urns, each containing one-third of Mom.

Somehow, Susan and I managed to leave ours at my father’s house.

I found myself with this variety of containers containing the ashes of my family.

My sister died in May 1999, the result of long-term alcoholism which had pretty much destroyed several key internal organs. Her death was lonely and anonymous and she spent several days as a “Jane Doe” in a municipal morgue until a friend of hers tracked her down.

Now living in West Virginia, working in my first pastorate as a recently ordained Presbyterian minister, I made another trip to my father’s house and we made another visit to the same funeral home.

My sister was also cremated and Dad chose an adult-sized urn that looked similar to the three small ones that contained my mother’s ashes.

My father died in the spring of 2004, having entered the hospital to have a cancerous kidney removed. He left that hospital not only with one less kidney, but one less leg than he had gone in with, due to years of sedentary life and heavy cigarette smoking that had essentially cut off the circulation to his legs. Though he technically recovered from these surgeries, it was not long before the other leg began to die. He did not recover from the surgery he chose to try to restore circulation in his remaining leg.

Dad, too, was cremated and his ashes were placed in the temporary container from the funeral home, this one in Charleston, WV where I live.

Susan suggested we take the ashes to Bermuda for interment since, as she pointed out, “That seems to be the only time your family was really happy together.”

It happened that Susan, our son Nathan, and I were taking a cruise to Bermuda not long after my father’s death. My family had lived in Bermuda for three years when I was a small child. Susan suggested we take the ashes to Bermuda for interment since, as she pointed out, “That seems to be the only time your family was really happy together.”

The funeral director who had taken care of us when my father died worked with a funeral director in Bermuda to arrange this for us.

We purchased a “double urn” — a brass box with enough capacity for the ashes of two adults — and a space in the only churchyard that had places for urns of ashes. Since I had the ashes of three adults, we decided to take some of each and mix them together to fill the two-person box. This was shipped to Bermuda ahead of us.

On the appointed day, we were met at the dock where our cruise ship was berthed by the Bermudian funeral director who, it turned out, was an elder at one of the two Presbyterian churches in Bermuda.

We had a very nice service at the Anglican church in Bermuda, up on a hill overlooking the ocean, and the ashes were reverently deposited in the little crypt in the church yard.

Cloisonne funeral urns.

The funeral home in Charleston still had the remains of the remains, which I soon forgot about. Some time later, maybe a couple of years, I got a phone call from the funeral home, which was closing, having been bought by another company. They asked that I come to retrieve the remains. I promised I would, but again let it slip out of my mind and never did.

More years later, I presided at a funeral out at Tyler Mountain Cemetery, some distance from Charleston. As I was leaving, one of the staff asked me to come to the office. She told me that they had the remains of my family. They had made their way out there from the West Side of Charleston as funeral homes had merged and consolidated.

“Can’t you just dispose of them?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “they are human remains and by law we have to keep them until they are claimed.”

So, I signed the requisite paperwork and carried away a plastic storage bin containing the leftovers of my family’s ashes. They sat in my office until I retired in 2019, when I moved them into our storage locker at our condominium where they are to this very day.

The moral of this story is this: No matter how hard you might try, you just can’t get rid of your family.

The Reverend Doug Minnerly is an Honorably Retired Minister member of the Presbytery of West Virginia of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which means he has lots of leisure time to indulge his fondness for good cigars in good company. He occasionally works at his previous calling of directing and designing theatrical productions. He is currently working with his wife Susan Marrash-Minnerly as she markets and performs her one-actor show “You Might As Well Live,” a tour-de-force journey through the life of legendary writer and wit Dorothy Parker. Doug directed Susan in this production and created the stage setting for it.


REVIEW: Channeling Dorothy Parker in West Virginia: october1.2021: Dorothy Parker was a figure out of a Dorothy Parker story. Fleshing out the life of the critic, poet, short-story writer and screenwriter after seeing her depicted in a fine new production of “You Might As Well Live” in St. Albans, W.Va. | March 30, 2022 ISSUE

1) Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down’: What are you going to do when your complicated family just won’t leave you behind? A personal tale from beyond the grave. | by Doug Minnerly
2) West Virginia Hero’s Life Screens at FestivALL 2022 : Dave Evans lost both legs below the knees in a Vietnam War ambush. What happened next is the stuff of a legendary life told in the new documentary “The Wake Up Call.”
3) Many Fights, One Big Fight: A new book chronicles the history to stay the course of Local 1199, and the longing for fairness within an often heartless industry. | by Eric Neudel
4) Barriers to Mental Health Care for Black West Virginians: Black West Virginians are at a significant disadvantage when dealing with mental health issues. A reprint of a BLACK BY GOD piece by Haadiza Ogwude
5) ‘First Streets in West Virginia:’ A photo-essay on how much the streets of Huntington have changed since the author first stepped onto them in 1980. As well as him. | by Douglas John Imbrogno
6)A Tragedy Full of Joy’: The Complicated American Dream of West Virginia’s Jerry West: Pondering Jerry West life after encountering the star’s 2011 memoir “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.” | Reprint of a John W. Miller essay from
7) ‘Ukraine Update: ‘Day 34 of Russia’s Cowardly Invasion of Ukraine’: A former West Virginia residents latest posts on Vladimir Putin’s attempted mugging of Ukraine, where two of his daughters live. | by Michael Willard

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