When my mother Laura died, my brother Bruce and I could not decide on what to do with her cremated remains.
Laura had said she didn't want to be buried in her home town of Bishopville, SC. My first thought was to scatter her ashes over the hillside opposite where we grew up in Pittsburgh. Our side of the street was a row of modest suburban houses, but it always gave us great joy over the years to look across the street to the hills, woods and meadows of the beautiful farm there.
Then I went back to Pittsburgh and discovered the farm had been turned into some sort of industrial site. I didn't think Laura would get much eternal peace looking out at the Jersey barricades.
Bruce decided to bury half of Laura's ashes at his vacation property in Mendocino County. From what I understand, this is a very Japanese decision. First of all, the Japanese have an interest in cremated remains. They venerate larger pieces of bone that survive the cremation process, doling out the fragments to family members. They also have a great reverence for ancestors, so it makes sense to them to put someone to rest at a place where the family visit frequently.
As an American, I had a somewhat different attitude. To me it seemed strange to place Laura in a place that she had never even visited.
But what should I do with her?
She wouldn't want to be composted, like I do.
Laura always had a great interest in Native Americans, particularly the plains Indians. In fact, in her younger days she had many strong interests like this. She was one of the more widely read than most people I have ever known.
People who met her in her later life might be surprised by this. They probably perceived her as an extremely grouchy old lady with no known interests except cats and television. I could not argue with them about that. But she was a different person when she was younger.
Laura had her faults, but part of her was strong, proud, and fiercely independent. I chose to honor that side of her personality. That's why I thought scattering her ashes over a site where the plains Indians once lived would be an appropriate gesture. The lives they lived always epitomized courage and independence.
I had wanted to scatter the ashes at Wind Cave National Park. I knew there were some areas there that are excellent examples of native prairie vegetation. Unfortunately, our trip to Badlands NP took up all all our time yesterday. So Wind Cave was out. As we drove through the Dakotas and Montana today, I was scouting for an appropriate location.
The fallback was Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monmument.
It's a beautiful spot, a sweeping vista of gently rolling plains and hills with mountains in the far distance. We walked up to the hill where Custer made his last stand, learned about the battle, then walked down a coulee, as they say here, until no one else was near. Meadowlarks were singing, which I took to be a good omen. I scattered Laura's ashes over the edge of that coulee while saying a few words about the proud, strong Laura that I remembered.
I think she would have taken ironic pleasure from knowing that her ashes were scattered here at the Little Big Horn.