They spent $83.07 to overnight the package from Georgia to New York. When the delivery man knocks on our front door, he looks solemn. “This must be very important to you,” he says, handing me a digital sign pad. A smile slides across my face, an unconscious and generally unwelcome reaction to any stranger’s attention. I sign while thanking him and smiling. I can’t get the smile off my face even though I know it’s an inappropriate reaction. Cloth ghosts and polyester spiderwebs spin in the wind as he walks back to the truck.
It’s the Wednesday before Halloween in 2019 when my uncle’s remains are delivered to me by UPS. $83.07. Death has a weight and postage. A final transaction. My uncle was a large man, but now I hold the box of what’s left of him easily. I don’t strain like my father did carrying his mother’s coffin. This box I could hold all day if I needed to. What a strange thought. The lack of ritual around the box’s delivery made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know what I expected the delivery driver to do. Wear black? Play solemn music? Say a prayer? And my own damn smile made the whole thing worse.
Holding the box in my living room, its sides covered in bright red stickers that read Human Remains, I start to feel afraid. Such a silly thing, to be afraid of dust. Later, I research the cremation process. That dust is made up of the left-over bits of bone and base elements, calcium phosphate and carbonates, that are too strong to burn even in the 1,400 to 1,900-degree heat of the cremation chamber. These are the last markers of our uniqueness, something cremation websites refer to as your “distinct elemental fingerprint.” Many of these websites also offer a range of options for how to process those elemental fingerprints. On creamtionsolutions.com, for instance, you can have your loved one’s ashes turned into glass and molded into a bowl/pipe for $190 or have a bit of carbon from the deceased’s bones grown into a “Red Cremation Diamond” for $3,299. While this may be a marketing technique to assuage family members of fears that cremains are indistinguishable from one another, it also highlights an extraordinary depth of identity. The things we do that make up parts of who we are can saturate even the carbon in our bones, can withstand temperatures of 1,900 degrees. I didn’t know any of this when I received the package, but I did know that the presence of the box felt heavier than its weight.
My husband and I live in the house my father and his two brothers grew up in. We are fifteen minutes from St. Margaret’s cemetery where my grandparents are buried, where my uncle’s dying wish was for his ashes to be spread. We are the only family left in New York and that is why his other brother sends him here. Initially we planned to do what he had asked, but the dead don’t get to advocate for themselves, especially if there isn’t a will or an attorney to execute it. Other relatives, his adult children and ex-wife, had conflicting requests. They wanted him sent to them, but they left no address and once they receive the money he left for them through a bank transfer, we don’t hear from them anymore.
“Put him down in the workroom,” my father told me over the phone earlier that day. “It was his favorite place.” I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but when I stand in the doorway separating the boiler room from my grandfather’s old workroom, I see a sticker on the wall above the light switch with a message written in pencil: STAY OUT. THIS MEANS YOU! Perhaps this really was his favorite place, a space to work on weird inventions or create abstract pieces of art, or whatever my uncle did in the boiler room as a teenager. I’m sure someone smoked a spliff in here at least once.
I feel better after putting the box on a shelf, but the Human Remains stickers face a window. There’s no way around it. They are stuck on each side. I worry sometimes that the delivery men can see the box when they fill our tank with heating oil. What must they think of us? It must seem dishonorable, to keep our dead wrapped in a plastic bag and encased in cardboard on a shelf in the basement. In reality, they probably can’t see it through the window. They’d really have to be looking for it. Maybe one of them saw it once and thought it was strange, but now it’s been three years and the box still sits on the same shelf. In truth, I can’t imagine anyone other than me caring all that much about it. Everyone has their own boxes of dead relatives to think about.
But I think about him, that box, and the series of events that led to this spot turning into his final resting place pretty often. Not every day, but a lot. The Keep Out sticker and the four Human Remains ones announce themselves every time I go down there to check the oil levels or grab a roll of toilet paper. A macabre juxtaposition. One, faded and written in a child’s hand, accosts you as you turn on the light, remnants of a young boy’s bravado and his attempt to lay claim to a space. The other, bright red and manufactured, screams its warning that this box holds all that is left. This isn’t where he wanted his final resting place to be, and I can’t help but think about how little control we have over our bodies once we die. That seems obvious as I type it, but it scares me to think that the thing that’s been my own since I gained consciousness will stick around without me. The body is both incredibly personal and completely detached. It rarely does what we want it to. My other uncle was with Michael when he was dying. He told me that when he sat with him in the hospital, Michael took off his oxygen mask, turned to him, and said defiantly, “I’m not going to die.” But he did. His body didn’t listen.
I realize that this is the first time I’ve written his name. Michael, whose remains are in a box in my basement. Maybe now’s the time to write the whole thing: Michael Paul Capelli. Michael was born on January 16, 1955 and died on October 15, 2019 in Acworth, Georgia. There is no searchable obituary for him online. What I’ve written here is perhaps all that will ever be written down on this man, which is sad because I’m not the best person for the job. Even though our lives overlapped by thirty-five years, I never really knew him. His presence was adjacent to my own, for the most part, parallel with rare points of intersection. A few Christmases surely. A family wedding? I have a couple “Happy Birthday” messages in my Facebook inbox, but I have no clear memory of he and I ever interacting though I know for certain we did. I could imagine how it would have gone or build an anecdote from photos I’ve seen that we are both in, but that would be unethical, wouldn’t it? The truth is that I think about him more now that he’s dead than I ever did while he was alive. I’m the one keeping his “elemental fingerprint,” what’s the verb here, certainly not “alive?” Safe? What is the word for the one who remains with the remains?
Caretaker, perhaps. That’s fitting. For the last few years, I’ve been curating a private museum of our family in this house, so it makes sense to keep his remains as yet another one of my artifacts. The opportunity to live here arose from chaos. In March of 2017, my 90-year-old grandmother died unexpectedly in a car accident. By May, both my husband and I had landed jobs that required us to move from Louisiana back to New York. In August, we moved into my grandmother’s house first as a temporary rental and then, after a year of searching, as our permanent home. There’s the nostalgia we feel when we visit a place from our childhood that makes us blind to its imperfections and then there’s the reality of having to live there. For me, that reality hit as soon as I walked through the front door. I put my first bag down and felt my body undulate with panic at the realization that we were moving directly into someone else’s life. The sheer amount of left-behind things overwhelmed me almost immediately, which is strange because I knew it was all there. I had just been there for the funeral, but somehow the space had seemed less daunting, less filled. It just was. But now, as I tried to fit my own life in, it all quickly became claustrophobic.
My life transformed into a strange beast staggering between the past and present. This house is a palimpsest, the traces of other lives still legible, bleeding into my own. What does one do with the remnants of a family’s lived existence: the carefully cared for things my grandmother kept for ninety years, the boxes still marked by my grandfather when he retired, the minutia that their three sons forgot about or didn’t want when they moved away, a giant art piece by Michael, Matthew’s boat strung up on the inside wall of the tiny garage, a panoramic photo of my father on his senior class trip to Washington D.C., the box marked Jennie that contains the few personal effects left behind by my great grandmother who lived and died in the house long before I was born? On one hand, it’s a privilege to have access to such a wealth of history; I get to peel back the curtains and peer into the boxes of other people’s lives. But with no one left who knows the secrets, the meaning is left up to me to decode.
I start having recurring dreams that my grandmother comes home and walks through her house looking for her belongings. This is the guilt, I suppose, that comes with the juxtaposition of caring about objects while also not wanting to live with them all. Or perhaps it’s that old fear rising again, that realization that our lives only amount to the things we leave behind. That goes against what we want to believe, that our memory is enough. That our legacy transcends the physical. What happens to us, or at least the sense of self that is embedded in the things we own, when someone else throws those things away? Is it another kind of death?
In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust marvels at the capacity for the physical to connect us with that which has come before, specifically the “that” we don’t already know about: “the past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.” For Proust, finding that connection to the past is uncontrollable. If we stare too hard, we’ll never see it. This is the root of my desperation to know, to be sure that the things I have either mean something or don’t. But the meaning within the things and the memories themselves feels difficult, if not impossible, to understand. I try to transcribe it and make meaning through the writing, but each stroke feels like the construction of fiction, that by trying to contain the memories in prose, I am somehow robbing them of truth. But I suppose that this essay is an exercise in letting go, a loosening of my own vision for what history should be versus what it is. I search for the point outside the realm, but I think that wholeness I am searching for will have to come from within. I don’t know what’s real, but maybe it doesn’t matter. The meaning is a construct, but it’s something to hold on to, something to pass along, and, eventually, something I too will have to leave behind.
I’ve found a lot here that I remember, memories of my own lived experience as well as the stories I’ve heard from family members, but much of it is fragmented, and all of it is touched with the grief of loss and the fear of forgetting. I’ve tried to reconstruct Michael’s memory, to build it from the bits left behind in the old photos, in the dust and structure of the home that housed him and now houses me, in the old letters from old girlfriends I found in a box under the house, and from the stories I’ve heard. I remember the Sherwood Anderson line, “All our lives are controlled by some trifling incident.” This line was part of an editorial Anderson wrote for Squib and it would be his last piece published while he was alive. On February 28, 1941, Anderson boarded the cruise ship Santa Lucia. Two days before the cruise, and after multiple martinis, Anderson swallowed a three-inch toothpick of olives in its entirety. His biographer, Walter B. Rideout, suggests that Anderson had a history of “carelessness with toothpicks,” but that this was the first time he had swallowed a whole one. On March 1, the pain in his stomach had grown so intense he could no longer eat. He died in Panama on March 8, 1941 of peritonitis. His autopsy revealed that the toothpick had done irrevocable internal damage.
All our lives are controlled by some trifling incident.
When Michael was in his twenties, he fell down a ravine up in the Catskill mountains. He was there for a long time. Alone. He broke many bones. Had to be airlifted to a hospital in Syracuse. Almost died. Such an incident changes a person. Maybe he already was different and the fall clarified the difference, or maybe I’m just building meaning out of the pieces I know, adding significance cobbled together from what others have said. But the fall wouldn’t be a trifling incident. It was a major one, like the swallowing of the toothpick. We don’t know about the trifling incidents that control us, or rather, the ones that control other people’s lives.
There’s a price we pay in the remembering, in the narrativization of our lives. In becoming story, we have the capacity to outlast our bodies, but even when we tell the stories of ourselves, we get it wrong. Our memory is full of ruins. The left-behind things help to tell those stories and we do our best to fill in the gaps. It’s all broken bits stuck together, filled in, fallible, even the ones we have of ourselves. I don’t know what’s real, but maybe it doesn’t matter.