The phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is a not so subtle suggestion that human beings don’t ultimately amount to much as far as corporeal matters go.
Just ask Hamlet. Here he is next to Ophelia’s freshly dug grave ruminating on what base uses we may return:
Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
Yesterday, we disposed of Aunt Virginia’s cremains, which, and I’m not making this up, smelled like cigarettes. My brother Fleming kept them in his car, and as soon as he opened the door, I could smell that distinctive Virginia smell.
Nothing dealing with Virginia was ever easy. We had planned to scatter the ashes in the Folly River via kayak from our dock, but when Fleming arrived, it was dead low tide, so we decided to try the dock at the Folly River Park instead, hoping on such a chilly day that at 5 o’clock it might be deserted.
The park is across from a Catholic church, which was celebrating mass, so parking was a problem. Nor was the dock deserted. Three young men, National Guardsmen as it turned out, were fishing. It occurred to me that dumping human remains in water where people were fishing would be a gross violation of the Golden Rule, but as luck would have it, they started packing up their gear to leave. As I glanced down the long dock, another man was approaching in the far distance with his dog.
“Look, fellows,” I said. “I want to give you a head’s up. We’re getting ready to scatter my aunt’s ashes, that is, if y’all don’t object.”
“Not at all,” the tallest one said. “Sorry about your loss.”
So Fleming opened the velvet bag, brother David cut open the plastic bag inside, and Fleming poured the contents over the rail and into the water. I had never seen human ashes before, and I was quite shocked how beautiful they were as they drifted down into the water, creating a cloud as they dispersed, as if matter cannot really be created nor destroyed, as if Virginia were getting a second chance via recycling.
As we made our way down the dock to Fleming’s car, as if on cue, the church bells began to chime as mass let out, a beautiful sound, and I thought of this poem by Richard Eberhart:
For a Lamb
I saw on the slant hill a putrid lamb
Propped with daisies. The sleep looked deep
The face nudged in the green pillow
But the guts were out for crows to eat.
Where’s the lamb? whose tender plaint
Said all for the mute breezes.
Say he’s in the wind somewhere,
Say, there’s a lamb in the daisies.
 I.e., Alexander the Great
 A word I learned from the presiding priest at her funeral.