On the submerged sections of the wooded path, the water is dark as coffee from decomposing leaf matter. I skirt the edges of the trail, trying to find drier footing as we traverse the sodden ground. Only a few leaves still hang on the bare-knuckled branches as we press further into the woods. Winter pushes Autumn out early in central Michigan. The gray afternoon is cool but not quite so cold that I can see my breath, though there was snow on the ground a few days ago. I carry Dad’s gun over one shoulder and a heavy little container under my other arm, while Curt grips the handle of an unpainted wooden box with the other trappings we’ll need.
We reach a clearing, and I decide this is the spot. The circular area that Dad once kept mowed, where we sometimes shot clay pigeons together when I was a boy, has half filled in with huckleberry bushes and young pines over the last couple decades. These trees are the descendants of the many Scotch pines Dad planted in neat rows before I was born, trees that are now thirty or forty feet tall. The land bears all sorts of marks of my father if I look around me.
We veer toward the northern side of the clearing where it’s a little more open. I set down the black plastic container for a better hold on the gun. The old-fashioned muzzleloader has a sort of beauty missing from modern firearms, with its octagonal barrel, brass fittings, and rich brown patina on the steel. The cocking hammer and trigger guard are curvy and elegant. It’s the sort of gun that looks like it might have a proper name, though naming a gun would be out of character for my father. He put this one together from a kit my mom got him soon after they were married, and he hunted these woods with it until he died two years ago.
I hold the gun upright with its hardwood stock on the ground while Curt opens his box and measures out the black powder. This is one of Curt’s qualifications to assist me on this venture; he’s familiar with muzzleloaders, whereas my limited shooting experience inclines toward shotguns. Add to this that Curt married my sister a year after she was diagnosed with cancer, the year before it took her. That not only makes him family, it means he knows about loss. He understands what today is about. Dad, ever practical, left his guns to Curt, wanting them to be used rather than collect dust. I too was glad for them to go to an adoptive home rather than languish under my neglect. But Curt and I agreed I needed to keep Dad’s muzzleloader.
The black powder goes in, poured down the barrel. From his box Curt produces a cloth and cuts a small piece off – the patch that goes in before the ammunition, creating the tight seal that forces the exploding gases to fling patch and projectile through and out the barrel when the shot is fired. Just one step left until the gun is loaded.
I open the black container, and the bag inside holding Dad’s ashes. I’d been surprised when I first saw them, both at the amount and the density. I had imagined cremated remains to be similar to wood ashes: light and fluffy, almost weightless and imperceptible in the hand, blown away with a breath. Human ashes are more like whitish-gray sand, with gravel-like bits of bone throughout. It feels like seven or eight pounds worth.
For this first shot, we decide to push the cloth patch partway in, letting it form to the inside of the barrel and making a little pocket to contain the ashes. Then I scoop out a portion of the remains with a 1-Tbsp measuring spoon and drop them into the funnel Curt holds over the barrel. Drawing the ramrod from where it lies snugged under the barrel, we tamp down the load firmly against the black powder at the bottom. It’s necessary for the shot to be seated right up against the powder or it won’t fire correctly, but no matter how respectfully it’s done, it feels a touch unseemly to tamp your father down with a stick.
Not my father, I remind myself. My dad is a person, a man who still exists somewhere – not this bit of dusty grit he left behind. These ashes are no more than clothes grown out of, the former dwelling of someone since moved on.
The gun is loaded. Curt shows me how to set the little copper nubbin of firing cap in place, where the hammer will strike it to ignite the powder. I take the muzzleloader in both hands, raise it to something close to shooting position. I should say something. I had meant to prepare something eloquent beforehand, but the moment crept up and now everything’s ready but me. “I love you Dad, and miss you. I’ll be happy to see you again.” It’s enough. He wasn’t much for ceremony anyway. I cock the gun.
With the butt pressed to my shoulder I lift the barrel. Should I aim it up at the sky, launching him to the heavens? Do I shoot horizontally into the woods, the earth that will one day be refashioned and raised imperishable, just as Dad will? What will make the best and truest picture of the soul’s arc? It takes more theology than you’d think to scatter someone by firearm.
I compromise, settling on a forty-five degree angle. At least nothing should come drifting down on us. Aiming at nothing in particular, I press the trigger. The gun jumps a little in my hands with a bark that leaves my ears ringing, and I think I see the scrap of cloth – and presumably its contents – disappear over the trees.
Success: ashes scattered, and the gun and I both still intact. An idea, probably irrational, had persisted in my mind that the unorthodox load would somehow block the barrel when the powder went off, blowing apart the gun and possibly my head, leaving my mother alone in the world and tormented by the viral spread of the bizarre headlines. Back at the house, she‘s probably hearing the shot and thinking the same thing. It’s true that I’d made some attempt to calculate just how much human ash, by weight, an average charge of black powder could fire, because that’s what my engineer father would have done. But because I’m not my father, just his son, the attempt was last-minute and quickly abandoned when the problem proved complex. I figured I’d just pour some in, and whatever happened happened.
Curt begins measuring out more powder. I had assumed we’d find all the needed accoutrements among Dad’s things, but we only ended up with two firing caps. One more shot. I heft the bag: there’s going to be a whole lot of ashes left. Which is fine, since Dad mentioned other places he wanted to be scattered besides the woods behind our house, including my sister’s grave, and then one or two other haunts that he and his hunting-buddies frequented. I like that he couldn’t limit himself to one spot. The world was made for us and pronounced “very good,” and I’m glad that Dad found so much in it to love.
Emboldened by the success of the first shot, I suggest we first tamp the cloth patch all the way down against the powder, then pour in some remains on top of that. I scoop a good bit more into the plastic funnel this time, but fragments of bone are blocking up the bottom and not much is coming out. Curt shakes and shakes the funnel, but eventually we tip it sideways and try to trickle it into the barrel. Some of the paternal sediment spills, dusting our clothes. Sorry Dad. I put in as much as I dare and we set the last firing cap.
I fire along the same trajectory as before, westward like we always did when shooting clays back here. Again the bang and the bounce of the gun, and this time the larger portion of ashes, not contained within the cloth but loose, spreads out in a satisfying cloud over the clearing. We grin like boys at the sight, at the whole wild idea – burial by gunblast. We watch the white cloud settle out into the grass and trees. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I hadn’t really expected a sudden sense of closure, and none comes. When the air clears and the stillness prevails, I’m left with a lot of dusty remains still unscattered. Yes, there was bright moment of rightness in celebrating a life and proclaiming that love still binds me to my father across the gap. Yet as I turn back to the trail toward home, the sense of incompleteness, of waiting, lies heavy all around me.
But it’s worth making the gesture. To thumb our noses at Death when he steals from us, to plant or scatter his leavings not just with tears but with songs and celebration, or even gunshots. Let him hear the echoes and remember that it is he, ultimately, that is mortal, and we his prey will live to see his end. Let the empty seats at our tables prompt us to sound off again about our great, carefully-tended hope. “O death, where is thy sting?” we say, even as we massage the sore spot where death has touched us. It’s true, we’re caught between I go to make a place for you and I am making everything new, but we must practice jubilating now, so that when everything sad has come untrue, we won’t have forgotten how.
No snow falls to soften the landscape as Curt and I walk the trail back toward the house. The trees are bare and the sky is still gray. But however long the path, I know that at the end of it is Home, and love is waiting for me there.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.