The Cremains Remain

 by Kim McVicker

The belly button remains intact. After a cremation, it’s quite common for the belly button to remain. How bizarre and yet somehow right. The connection point from she who birthed you, who carried you with her to the store, to work, you an unspeaking co-pilot along for the ride. The belly button still there when all else is gone.

I did not know this until now. Eighteen months after my daughter’s death, her cremation, I had never troubled myself with the details of the act itself. I’d long prepared, or thought I had, anticipating her possible death. That is something you must steel yourself for, if your child is a heroin addict. The likelihood high that you may find yourself “making decisions.” Never had I contemplated burying her, so long constrained by the disease, by prison, I would never have further confined her to the ground. I leave her urn unsealed even now, never wanting to further trap her.  

My husband and I sat in the funeral home, the day after I’d found her, reviewing options. My husband wanted to confirm that the ashes would be only her ashes, that they didn’t cremate multiple bodies at once. I flinched at his question, embarrassed. My God, I was thinking, of course they don’t do that. This prompted the funeral director to launch into a lengthy explanation of state laws, restrictions, ending with an offer to “attend the cremation” if we’d like. I found that so shocking, I stopped crying.

“People watch the cremation?” I asked.

“Yes, some loved ones want to be here, we have a viewing area with chairs,” she responded.

Nope, count me out, I am not interested in that. What the fuck is what I was thinking, people want to watch that?  

Decisions were required, did we want to schedule a memorial service, a visitation? No, no, that wouldn’t suit her. A stuffy, buttoned up spectacle was not her style. She may have wanted something, may have fantasized about the outpouring of grief, former lovers collapsing on the floor, unable to go on without her. The reality was she no longer had any true friends, or very few. Drug connections, people dodging the law, nobody who would send sorrowful floral arrangements, most of them unable to remember the time and location of any memorial service should they even fool themselves they would come. We would be doing something private, I told the woman.

How would I like her cremains divided, I was asked. How indeed, I’d never considered this.  

“Can you divide them into three? One for me, one for my ex-husband (her father), one for her daughter to have at some point?”

I then had to decide upon the division. More for me, with a smaller amount for the others? Equal? My ex-husband could bite it, was what I thought. When I’d called him and told him she was dead, he was too upset to join me. Too upset to drive the three minutes from his house to her apartment. Too upset to be there as I stood with the police, handing her five-month-old daughter to a cop to give her a bottle as I made phone calls. Too upset to be there as I waited for the medical examiner, the social worker, the funeral home pulling up to carry out her body. Too upset to join my husband and I at the funeral home. Not too upset to post all over Facebook minutes after I’d called him, causing my phone to begin ringing off the hook as I stood in the midst of heartbreak and chaos. Such an ineffectual piece of shit.

“More for me,” I said, “lesser amounts in the other two.”

There was no logic to the division of three. Nel’s daughter was an infant, had no use for her mother’s ashes. At such time she might be compelled to want them, I would most likely be nearing the end of my need, able to pass mine along to her. What happens to ashes over the long-term? At some point, who wants them gifted to them? Will Nel’s daughter have children who want to take ownership of a vessel of ashes of a person they never knew? Will they be spilled, stored in a basement somewhere, long forgotten?

I’d told the funeral home director that I wanted to know when it was done, when it was all final. It wasn’t a formal ask, simply something I inquired about as we emailed back and forth as I was drafting Nel’s obituary. I was not anticipating a minute-by-minute accounting. I’d missed a call and checked my messages. Nel died on November 11th. On November 15th, at 3:35 PM, a gentleman named Brandon informed me via voicemail that they would begin Nel’s cremation in a few minutes. I did not need that much specificity, although I keep that message saved on my phone.

A cremation leaves far more cremains than you might expect. There is a lot. So much baggage, broken promises, regret, shards of bone ground into sand. My husband and I drove to pick Nel up. I brought the custom-made urn with me that I’d bought on Etsy, not wanting any run of the mill piece they sold in the funeral home catalogs. They’d told me they would put my portion in my urn so I wouldn’t have to do it myself, the extra divvied up into two temporary containers to be dealt with later.

It was bitterly cold, the roads slick with snow as we left the funeral home with what remained of Nel. My husband was concerned, handling her with tenderness, unsure how to proceed. He buckled her urn into the backseat, secured with the seat belt. We were both crying as he pulled out of the parking lot. I cracked my window and lit a cigarette, saying, “I’m sorry Nel, but I’m smoking even though I know you can’t.” That caused me to giggle for some reason.  I knew it would have made her mad, me smoking when she couldn’t.  

My husband is the unsung hero of this tale. He hadn’t signed on for this when marrying me.  No idea that we’d spend more than a decade trying to fight Nel’s demons, that he’d have to care for a grieving wife who’d lost her only child, that in our fifties, freedom from work on the horizon, we’d have an infant thrust upon us. He is worthy of a tale all his own. Unbeknownst to me, he had signed on for this, his heart bigger than a full moon, wrapping himself around everyone with an abundance of love.

A couple of weeks after Nel died, a thought occurred to me. Could I send her into space somehow? I was drying the not-quite-dry dishes I was unloading from the dishwasher, pondering this. The next morning, it popped into my head again. She’d always said she was a star seed, not of this earth, she longed to be among the stars.

I sat down and Googled it, found that yes you can, you can send cremains into space. On a whim, I paid a small deposit to secure a spot on a future launch, scheduling a call to discuss the specifics. The day of the call I was nervous, what if I didn’t want to proceed? I’m horrifically bad at saying no, a fear of disappointing anyone, even a stranger looking for a sale. I was locked in, likely forced to proceed even if it didn’t feel right. After the call, I felt good and sent the remainder of the payment immediately.

They sent me a box in the mail, a tiny spoon for scooping the cremains, a small vessel to fill with her ashes and anything else we might want to join her. Weight is an issue, with any space launch, heavy jewelry, wedding rings are challenging. It was the first time we’d opened her urn, saw what the ashes looked like. We’d carefully snipped some of her daughter Ruby’s hair and did the same with mine. Nel’s ashes, Ruby’s hair, my hair sealed in the container and shipped back, ready for launch.

The launch was months away, she would be part of a secondary payload, a small container secured to a SpaceX launch that would have proceeded with or without her. It was scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. It gave me something to clutch onto, to look forward to. A day came when it was no longer months away, it was real. I was so sad, my dream of sending Nel into space had given me something to anticipate, a future for the two of us. Once it happened, there would be no more, it felt final, she would be gone, even as the bulk of her ashes would remain on my shelf.

I worried about an explosion upon launch, what if the rocket burst into flames, I fretted? As if it mattered, she was already dead. She wasn’t going to die in a rocket launch. I’d contemplated a launch party, but when the day arrived, I chose to watch alone. Live streaming, watching the countdown, as the timer clicked down from 10, the flames and smoke curling around the rocket as the counter crept towards 1, then suddenly propelling upwards. I cried with unexpected joy, Nel, hurtling skyward, leaving this place that was too rough for her always exposed feelings, unaccepting of her quirks.

I can track her, she’s still flying around, I see where she is, how fast she’s going, her altitude, driving around in a low earth orbit. She’ll fall out of orbit at some point, crashing through the atmosphere and bursting into flames, a man-made shooting star. I’ll miss watching her, when that happens, unable to take comfort in seeing where my Nel is, flying over Egypt or the South Pacific. I track her travels in a notebook, dates and locations detailed. I suspect it will make me feel lonely when I’m no longer able to do so. I can always wander over to her urn at that point, give it a gentle rub and say, hi my Nel.

I now find myself contemplating navels. Not in search of a juicy orange, but in search of my daughter’s belly button. Now that I’ve discovered that her belly button might be there, in the urn, I’m obsessed with thoughts of this. Is it in my urn? Is it in the temporary container for my ex-husband, which still remains in my basement eighteen months later? That wouldn’t do, for it to be with him, should he ever choose to claim the ashes. That is mine, I birthed her, it was our connection point, the physical connection between her and I, he doesn’t deserve it.  

There are more cremains than one might imagine, pounds in fact. How would I find it? I don’t think I can fit my hand into her urn. It would require that we dump them into another container, something that would allow me to sift about, feeling for something I expect would immediately shock my body if I touched it. This piece of Nel, also a piece of me. I’m afraid I would be very disappointed if it weren’t there, it doesn’t always remain intact. I’d then want to dig around in the other containers, seeking it, in search of her belly button. But what would I do if I were to find it?

For now, I think I’ll just enjoy the idea of it, the thought that one day I might hold that in my hand, that small thing that made the two of us one many years ago. In the meantime, I’ll track her circling overhead, speeding over places unknown.     


Kim McVicker is a life-long resident of Iowa but has no cows, chickens nor any farming experience. She worked for decades in the financial services industry, which is as dull as it sounds. Mother of one, now gone, she finds solace in writing about her experiences with her daughter, even the ugly memories. When not reading, writing, or listening to NPR, she enjoys letting her granddaughters squish mud, fingerpaint and otherwise make whatever messes bring them joy. Her other pieces have been published in a folder labeled Writing on her desktop. She lives in Des Moines, IA with her delightful, patient and mess-hating husband David.