~Seré Prince Halverson, The Underside of Joy
It was a day reserved for a special occasion – the clouds were ironed out of the endless clear blue sky and a crisp coolness freshened the carpets of grass after a wonderfully long and warm summer. It was Great-Aunt Esther’s day – her day to be remembered and for her ashes to come to rest. She had died in early July at the age of 97, but being the month of summer vacation in Norway, she had been cremated and a memorial service scheduled for late August.
If you were to ask, most Norwegians would choose burial over cremation, perhaps owing to the fact that Norway has a recent history of being a Christian nation. The belief in the resurrection was so pervasive that for many years all graves were plotted toward the East so that they would be raised facing the direction of Christ upon his return. You can still see this in many graveyards with the neat rows of marble headstones carefully lining up, facing the exact direction – line upon line of immovable stone. The pattern eventually disintegrates with graves facing this way and that way, tangibly marking the societal move away from religious belief. With the additional issue of dwindling graveyard space, more and more Norwegians are turning to cremation as a viable alternative to burial. Ashes can be scattered at sea or in the mountains (with an approved application and a neutral witness of the proceedings), buried or entombed.
The Norheim family planned a burial for Esther; so there we were, after a simple and elegant memorial service at church, walking along the picket fence at Fetsund graveyard, a cousin bearing the remains in a surprisingly heavy chalk-white urn. We made our way to the grave at the edge of the yard, next to a field of golden oats, marked “Kirsten Norheim Gabo” where Esther would share a grave with her late niece. It was agreed among those who knew them both – they would be happy to know they had shared their final resting place.
Esther never married or had children. Instead Esther had devoted herself to her career as a physical therapist in Denmark where she served at the same healthcare institution that had trained her for over 50 years, earning her a medal from the Queen. She was also a doting aunt to her brother’s four children, always visiting with a suitcase nearly full of candy and engaging with them by reading aloud or playing games. Two of the children joined her in her chosen vocation; Kirsten had been one of them.
As we stood in a scattered ring around the grave, the pastor said a few words and we sang a hymn. Then with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” the urn was gently lowered into a hallow circle of earth. The stillness was so serene and palpable, I imagined I could reach out and put a piece of it in my pocket, taking it out later to savor it.
We sang another hymn and then the pastor spoke the words of the ancient Mosaic blessing over us:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
I straightened, feeling the firmness of the earth under the soft cushion of grass.
The Lord make his face shine on you, and be gracious to you;
Although scattered by the shade of tall oaks, the sun reached the graveside and enveloped us, the warmness as faint as a tender hand on my shoulder.
The Lord turn his face toward you, and give you peace.
A smooth breeze stirred up and the hair around my face gently fluttered and then fell still.
We stood in solemn silence for a few moments before taking photos and then slowly dispersing. We would gather again for a luncheon with informal commemorative speeches about Esther where her personality took shape for me as the puzzle piece of each speech dropped into place against the framework of her life.
The golden hours of late afternoon sunlight shone as we drove home. The ease of contentment settled over me, this special day – Esther’s day – had been a day of unity and peace, a day where Esther’s love for her family and their love for Esther had brought them together and shone among them. Yes, there was a lot of love on her special day. And really what else is there in the end?