The Train Case

When I tell people my mother’s ashes have been in my closet for seven years, they always look a little shocked.

Some might think it’s sacrilegious, or even downright creepy. But you have to know my mother to know why.

My mother passed away from cancer at 67—she had fought it for 10 years, outlasting the doctor’s prognosis of stage IV uterine cancer by five years. But by the time it was finished with her, she was ready. She was weak, nauseous all the time, in a lot of pain, and wasting away to nothing. She said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And told us, “Take good care of your father.”

At the time, we knew we would not hold a funeral or wake for her—she thought such services were morbid. Her father had died when she was nine, and that traumatic experience left such a pit of anxiety in her stomach she never got over it. She only attended a handful of funerals in her lifetime—she avoided them as much as possible.

So we honored her wishes, and did not discuss the idea of a funeral or hold any services for her. Friends said to me, “Yes, but the service is for you, the family!” But the truth was, losing her was so devastating that none of us could handle it at the time anyway.

We talked about burying her at the family plot in California—we’re 6th generation natives, and so her mother and father and grandparents and a few other generations are buried there. But we didn’t like the idea of her being so far away. We discussed spreading her ashes on Stinson Beach in California, but technically, that’s not legal, and none of us have been out that way anyway. We thought about creating a memorial garden for her, with an engraved rock as a headstone. Our father even bought a brightly colored glass vase to put her ashes in, but he could never figure out how to make a lid to seal it, so her ashes just stayed in my closet.

When our dad died at the end of March, it was an easy decision to bury him at the New Hampshire Veteran’s Cemetery. He was enlisted during the Korean War, and he could have his deserved place in this peaceful spot among the other heroes. So we asked about burying our mother there at the same time. They said, “Of course you can!” It was only $350 to add her, they could share same headstone—his information on one side and hers on the other.

It was serendipitous—we loved the idea of the two of them being buried together at the same time. They could even share the same urn—while we were at the funeral home planning everything out, the director told my sister and I that we could find unique box to put them in if we wanted to, rather than a traditional urn. So we had plans to search something out.

Before we left, I went to get my mother’s ashes out of my car. They were in her old train case—a small, hard suitcase for her cosmetics that she took with her when she went on La Liberté to France at 17 years old. The case still had old paper LAX tags on the handle from her several different journeys, and stickers from all of the places she had been. When we cleaned out our parents’ house, we couldn’t bear to part with the case, but what else were we going to do with it? It was as heavy as a rock. So it sat in my closet with her ashes inside for seven years.

After we gave the funeral home director her ashes, my sister and I stood in the parking lot, next to the open case, talking, and a thought suddenly occurred to me.

“What about if we use this as their urn?” I said to my sister, pointing to the case.

“Oh, that’s a great idea!” she said.

We rushed inside with the train case to talk to the funeral home director, and he said the case would work just fine. It was just the right size for the two of them, and would be buried at their internment ceremony.

Our parents had loved to travel together—some of their happiest times were on cruises to Alaska, Iceland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. They learned to ballroom dance on board, played bingo and shared high tea, went to fascinating lectures about culture, history, and people. My mother always took a thousand pictures to share with us afterwards.

It’s comforting to think about them being together again, ashes touching, in a tiny suitcase for their final journey.