Ashes to Ashes
I have just returned home after having traveled to Florida and back to bury Brian’s ashes there.
I write this because I was once again struck with people’s complete ignorance about grief and what it is all about. I write this because there appears to be confusion about my motivation for taking this journey. I write this because there are questions about the details and my hopes for the future.
“Have A Good Time”
As the day of my trip drew closer, someone told me to “have a good time.” Someone even asked me if I planned to ride any rides, as part of my plan was to bury his ashes at Disney World. While I was in Florida, a few folks mentioned the weather and told me to “be safe” as Hurricane Nicole was making her approach towards the state while I was there. However, nobody asked me about the hurricane raging inside my soul, causing tremendous pain and loss.
On the way down, upon learning that I stopped for the night in North Carolina, one friend sent me a text that said:
FRIEND — “Enjoy. My brother is in NC. It’s beautiful.”
ME — “This is anything but enjoyable. Not in the least. You were joking when you said enjoy, right?”
…I got no response.
One person sent me a text that said:
“That sounds so hard, Scott.”
“What an adventure!”
(I didn’t even bother to reply).
NOT A SINGLE PERSON ASKED ME ABOUT MY GRIEF!
After I had finished burying the last portion of Brian’s ashes, a member of my family called to ask whether I saw any improvement in my state of mind. Another person inquired as to whether or not it was healing.
Let me be clear: this was not a vacation, an adventure, a fun time, an exciting adventure, a thrilling experience, or a joyous encounter.
IT WAS FUCKING HARD.
There were just a few people who acknowledged this reality. And only in a tangential manner, and even then just briefly. People were more interested in the weather than they were in my feelings, and when they inquired about my feelings, they wanted to know if this trip had been cathartic for me.
Let me be clear: People who are grieving do not require healing, people who are grieving are not wounded, people who are grieving do not require resolution of something, and people who are grieving are not unresolved.
I have no idea how many times I have to repeat this. Why can’t people get it through their fucking heads? Grief is not a challenge that needs to be overcome. (That is actually a chapter in my book, “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief”).
What Do You Say?
I am sure, at this point, people see me as the chief of the grief police. There is a good chance that many of my close friends and family members are reluctant to talk to me or even text me for fear of being included in one of my grieving blog posts or mentioned on one of my podcast appearances.
Good. At the very least, it’s good for me. Bad for the other grievers in their life. And bad that their motivation comes from being policed and called out for being a complete clod and not from the motivation to be compassionate and loving.
You may think they are trying to be compassionate and loving. AND YOU WOULD BE CORRECT IN SAYING THAT. I beleive that their intentions are well — yet they have not changed their comments over the months and years since Brian’s death.
Why is that?
It is challenging to make changes since the norms and beliefs around grieving in this culture are so deeply rooted and deeply ingrained.
However, we have to change because of the repetitive nature of these replies, which are condescending, disrespectful, and painful.
Simply ask, “How’s your grief?”
After that, ask open-ended questions that show no bias instead of yes/no questions that confirm bias. (“How was it?” instead of “Was it healing?”).
Here is a list showing an assumptive, biased question followed by an aware, emotional-intelligent alternative:
Do you feel better? (grief-alexithymic) ↔ How did you feel? (grief-aware)
Did it help? (grief-alexithymic) ↔ How was it? (grief-aware)
Are you glad you took this trip? (grief-alexithymic) ↔ Tell me about the trip? (grief-aware)
Do you feel like you can put this behind you now? (grief-alexithymic) ↔ How’s your grief? (grief-aware)
Get it now?
Why Did You Do This?
This question was posed to me by a good friend. And to tell you the truth, I had no idea what the answer was. It is a valid question. After all, why the hell did I do this if I wasn’t trying to heal, if I wasn’t trying to go through some process, and if I wasn’t trying to resolve some sort of internal issue?
This question is of even greater significance when you know that these WERE NOT Brian’s wishes. Consistently in our conversations, he said he didn’t care. So, this initiative with the ashes originated within me. I felt compelled to do it for some reason.
A week’s worth of reflection has gone into this.
I discovered there was a lot to sort out, and there was no quick answer to this question.
My beliefs regarding death, including whether or not there is life after death, rituals, and other topics, were brought to my attention as a result of this. In what follows, I will make an effort to explain this motivation as best I can. And to fully understand it, you need some history.
Brian and I talked about death during our 31 years together.
Brian was clear on two things:
(1) He didn’t care about what happened after he died. He said, “Just throw my body on the compost pile.”
(2) He didn’t want any type of ceremony or funeral. He said, “If people don’t give a shit about seeing me when I am alive, I don’t want them to come to see me after I am dead.”
I have endeavored to honor these wishes.
After he died, I ended up with an urn full of ashes. The ultimate impetus that prompted the journey. What, after all, am I supposed to do with all of these ashes? Should I put them to rest in a more conventional cemetery? Do I get one of those tree pods that are available on the internet to create a living memorial? Should I disperse them atop a mountain somewhere? Should I mash them up with some ink and get them permanently etched into my skin? Dump them in the ocean? Put them on the mantle? Do I turn it into jewelry or some other keepsake? Do I toss them in a bowl with some flour and make some sugar cookies to give as holiday gifts to my friends? (yes, someone in California really did this).
Factoring into my decision of what to do with the ashes were horror stories I had heard from other people of dumping their loved one into a storm drain and stories in movies like the final scene in the Big Lebowski.
My previous encounters with conventional burial grounds served as a further consideration while deciding what to do with the ashes. My mother would make regular trips to the cemetery to tend to my grandparents’ graves, bringing flowers with her and maintaining the site. Since my mother has passed away, I don’t think anyone goes to those gravesites any longer. I think of my parents’ own gravesites — my mom visited my dad, and we would go to the grave after he died together. Now that my mom is buried there, I don’t think anyone (including me) has visited their grave site.
Another issue factoring into my decision of what to do with the ashes was my experience doing genealogic research for my family. These burial grounds give one the impression of being connected to times gone by. They also serve to verify our understanding of the past. In the course of my investigation into the history of my family and Brian’s family, I came across several instances in which I discovered gravesites and papers that were inconsistent with one another, including contradictory birth and death dates. I also identified ancestors I had no prior knowledge of by looking at grave markers that were located next to those of family members whose histories I was investigating.
Another issue factoring into my decision was what I would call the whole gay thing. Although it may give the impression of arrogance, I honestly believe that my partner and I were an example for other gay couples. A part of me that identifies as a gay activist wanted to make sure that I was leaving behind the legacy that it is possible for gay men to be married and maintain loving relationships. A gravesite in a traditional cemetery and a grave marker would ensure that.
After giving it some brief thought (I am the kind of person who is swift to deliberate and act), I came to the conclusion that I wanted to purchase a plot in a conventional cemetery that also included a grave maker. I also decided to bury only some of Brian’s ashes in that plot. I would bury the rest in locations that were significant to him (and me — us as a couple). Aside from the conventional burial site, every other site I picked had an interesting history behind it and was situated in an area that people might be able to visit at some point throughout their journeys. I wouldn’t just scatter the ashes to the wind. They would be buried in a particular spot chosen by me. And not just a thimble’s worth of ashes here and there. I would divide the ashes equally amongst all the locations. And I would determine the exact location via GPS so others could find them. These exact locations could be recorded in our family’s ancestry / genealogical archives.
What Is Geocaching and What Does It Have to Do With Brian Stephens?
Geocaching is a type of “Outdoor recreational activity in which participants utilize a Global Positioning System receiver or mobile device in addition to other navigational techniques in order to hide and seek containers referred to as “geocaches” or “caches” at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world. Common materials found inside caches might include foreign currency, keychains, ornaments, or booklets. Valuable objects, food, or other items that could be easily damaged are not allowed in geocaching.”
Applying this concept to Brian, I purchased a Garmin GPSMAP 66s. I have precise GPS coordinates for the location of his graves. I have also determined the What-Three-Words identification of his burial spots, and I have descriptions and images available to help anybody who would like to memorialize Brian find their way there.
General Grave Locations
This section lists the seven grave locations, their respective status, the story behind the location choice and even a few pictures and videos
Gate Garden, West Fairlee, Vermont, USA
During his final year on Earth, Brian spent much time planning, building, and constructing a gate and concrete platform. It was one of many projects Brian conceived and built here at the rescue and something he was quite proud of.
Status — Complete as of June 15, 2022
Wild Hill Cemetery, West Fairlee, Vermont, USA
This will include a grave marker.
For all to know.
That we were a couple.
For all time.
Status — Planned
Walt Disney World, FL
After winning a contest for a Disney vacation during the opening of a local grocery store, Brian and I attended the parks hundreds of times. We even did tours that took us behind the scenes at the parks and celebrated our 25th anniversary with our Mom, Emily, at the parks.
Status — Complete as of November 8, 2022
New Smyrna Beach, FL
We had many, many great vacations at this beach, specifically Canaveral National Seashore. It was our “spring break” location.
Status — Complete as of November 9, 2022
We spent a lot of time learning about Williamsburg’s history thanks to our annual passes. This is where Brian got me (after a passing comment) the 800-pound concrete Buddha that watches over our property. In his last few years, we made a point of attending the Winter Blues Jazz Fest in Williamsburg.
Status — Complete as of November 5, 2022
New Orleans, LA
One of my favorite memories is lying in bed at Hotel Maison Pierre Lafitte, listening to Brian play “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the balcony to the people walking toward the French Quarter below. Like so many of the places we frequented together, we would go to Felix’s Restaurant at the end of our first day to eat oysters and drink beer.
Status — Planned
San Francisco, CA
We did so much in this city, from biking across the Golden Gate bridge to hiking Angel Island. Like all of the places we frequented together, we had our traditions. This always included segwaying in Golden Gate Park, spending a half day at the traditional Japanese Baths, and eating sushi afterward.
Status — Planned
For sure, that is the million-dollar question. I have two more locations to travel to and have to coordinate a gravestone. My wish is that my ashes are divided and placed in these same locations when I die. They were important to us — and I couldn’t think of better places to be buried.
Are These Really Graves?
I gave this some thought — are these graves? The definition of a grave is a “place where someone’s remains are buried.” Brian’s ashes from the cremation are what’s left of him. Because his remains have been scattered in many places, I do think of these spots as graves.
I want to be clear that this is not some trivial sprinkling of a thimble-full of ashes. Each spot has at least a cup’s worth of ashes buried in it. For your reference, a typical amount of ashes of a person after cremation is around 10 cups — I have worked to divide Brian’s equally amongst the various burial sites.
Do I Think People Will Really Visit These Locations?
Visiting the cemetery of a deceased loved one is considered an act of respect and honor by the vast majority of people. When someone visits the places where Brian is buried, they not only demonstrate that Brian’s life had significance on earth and that he is not forgotten, but they also get a glimpse of who Brian was and what mattered to him, gaining a greater awareness into who Brian was, what he valued, and where he connected to others. This is because Brian chose to be buried in places that had significant meaning for him, including places where he spent significant time and had significant experiences. I hope people will choose to visit these locations if they happen to be in these areas. But if they don’t want to, that’s totally fine with me.
If family or friends are interested in the specific site, all they need to do is get in touch with me, and I will provide them the precise coordinates.
These articles, as well as my book, “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief,” expose the truth about grief. I am blunt. I don’t sugar-coat what I have discovered about grief and how we deal (and don’t deal) with it. Grief is too important of a topic for me to beat around the bush.
I want you to know that until Brian died and I directly experienced powerful personal grief and loss on a level that completely rocked my world, I had my head up my ass just like some of you reading this article probably do. And I was a therapist. I hurt a lot of people because I didn’t have enough self-awareness and I didn’t have enough empathy. I thoughtlessly bought into the lie that we are told about grieving.
When I wrote the book “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief,” I thought that my understanding was complete. I was wrong. That is why I continue to share my insights in these articles. Thank you for reading this, and I invite you to learn more about what grief truly is. You can read other posts right here on Medium, and you can get my book in digital, audio, and print versions.