Etch A Sketch, by Stephanie French

Every day after school I had to pick up the mail. My family rented one of the bigger mailboxes in our small-town Iowa post office, but sometimes there would be a pink slip in the box, meaning I had to go to the counter to pick up a package that was too big to fit. A few times a year, I would hand the pink slip to the clerk and in exchange be handed a 4”x7”x6” box labeled CREMAINS. Cremated remains. I had always assumed this was a tongue-in-cheek term used only by people in the funeral industry, but it is a real word and evidently in the top 12% of searched words in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Our family didn’t have a crematory—our funeral home business was too small to justify it. When someone opted for cremation, my parents would load the body in the back of our white minivan, drive it 95 miles to the city of Cedar Rapids, and drop it off at Roland Wilber Vault Company and Crematorium. A couple of weeks later, a pink slip would show up in our mailbox. I would get the package from the postmaster, look at who it was—they still printed the identity on the box in the pre-privacy 1980s—and put it in my backpack. I would walk the two blocks home, my steps punctuated by the swish swish coming from my backpack. Arriving home, I would pass by the ramp that led to the casket display room in the front of the funeral home and enter the alley to get to the back. I would pass another ramp, this one leading to the embalming, or “prep” room, and climb up the thirteen steps to the entrance of our apartment. If my parents were downstairs “prepping a body” or “making arrangements” with a family, I’d put the box of cremains on the dining room table with the rest of the mail for them to collect later. It was routine.

One day, a neighborhood friend came over after school, and we cleaned off the cluttered table to set it for supper. She gathered up our homework and put the papers and books on top of the pile of Better Homes and Gardens and The Director magazines stacked on the chair in the corner. I picked up the box leaning against the bouquet of gladioli and chrysanthemums my mom had assembled from a sympathy arrangement left behind after the last funeral. I read the label and smirked.

“Hey, put this on the counter.” I tossed her the box.

She caught it and looked at the label. “Hey! This is my neighbor!” Sure enough, her next-door neighbor’s cremains had arrived earlier that day. She laughed, tossed the box on the counter, and reached up to get the dinner plates from the cabinet. My attempt to freak her out had fallen flat. As the neighbor-friend-cousin to the funeral home family, death had become routine for her, too.

While they of course complied with people’s wishes, my parents have never been fans of cremation. I think a big reason is because, without a crematory, they never made any money from it. No embalming services, no casket sale, no cash. They are also Catholic, and until 1963, when the Vatican begrudgingly accepted cremation, it was forbidden by canon law. In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, known (affectionately, by some) as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, issued new guidelines in Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To rise with Christ,” if my single semester of Latin still serves). Burial is still preferred because it is “above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.” From my point of view, if I could believe in something like the resurrection of the decomposed body, it does not seem like a big leap to also believe that God could put ashes back together and resurrect a cremated body. If the faithful do opt for cremation, they must follow a few rules: bury the ashes in a cemetery or other sacred place; no displaying on the mantelpiece; no scattering; no separating the ashes (i.e., to scatter in various places or to share among loved ones); no using the ashes in commemorative objects like jewelry. In December 2023, the watchdog eased the rules a tiny bit more, allowing families to keep “a minimal part of the ashes” in a sacred place of “significance for the history of the deceased person.”

My mom may have her Catholic loyalty to shoulder her preference for burial, but she also admits to having watched the cremation process and claims it to be “just horrible.” “I hope you have more respect for my body than that,” she has said on more than one occasion.

The process of embalming is not a gentle one. I grew up seeing bodies on the embalming table, old women with breasts hanging off either side of their torsos, carotid artery opened with a tube sticking out of it. Pink fluid, dubbed “bubble bath” by my siblings and me, flowed from a gurgling tank attached to the wall at the foot of the white ceramic embalming table into the artery while blood gushed out of the jugular vein next to it. The blood flowed along the length of the body and drained into the oversized toilet at the foot of the table. My parents deemed gushing blood appropriate viewing for a child, but I was never witness to gluing or wiring a mouth shut. I never saw my parents wriggle spiky eye caps under eyelids to secure them in place. And I never, ever got to watch my dad “aspirate,” the process in which a large needle called a trocar is placed into the stomach, lungs, intestines, etc. to suck out the fluids, which are then replaced with “cavity fluid.” The hole left by the trocar is closed up with a button that is screwed into place.

Embalming replaces body fluids with chemicals. Cremation combusts, vaporizes, and oxidizes dead bodies into basic chemical compounds. One use of chemistry delays decomposition, and one accelerates it. Neither is gentle.

I do not say this to my family. We are a burying family. Period. We are a family that puts value on giving families the opportunity to say goodbye, preferably to a body that looks exactly like they did when alive and well. Even if someone was not awarded a lot of dignity in their final weeks or moments of life, they get it in spades after it is over.

As we prepared to sign the consent papers to take our newborn daughter Cecilia off of life support, I remembered something and stopped the pen in midair. I straightened up and looked at the ICU nurse who had been with us the whole night.

“Can we donate her organs?”

She inhaled. Exhaled. Her shoulders collapsed just slightly under the military-like epaulets of her Namibian nurse uniform, her brown-eyed gaze never leaving mine.

“That’s very generous of you to offer, but since we don’t know the cause of death, we won’t be able to use her organs. I’m very sorry.” She knew that no matter how kindly she said it, it was adding insult to injury. My mind’s voice asked, “Not even her corneas?” but my body’s voice stayed silent, and my hand signed the paper.

We had to leave her at the hospital; with an unknown cause of death, she was destined for autopsy. We left her wrapped up in a yellow-and-blue striped receiving blanket in the incubator. I found comfort in her face not being covered by a sheet, but at the same time that made it feel like abandonment, leaving my daughter like that. That was my gratifying goodbye, my last image, a swaddled eight-pound baby, alone in the middle of a fluorescent-lit room next to a disconnected ventilator. Maybe they covered her after I left, to make sure no frazzled ICU visitor stumbled upon a dead baby. After they were sure we had left the hospital, attendants would come with a gurney and take her body to the morgue. Sometime after that, her body would be transferred to the Namibia Institute of Pathology, stacked in the back of a truck filled with the weekend’s other casualties destined for the same process.

Though we had said goodbye, my partner and I still had to decide what to do with our daughter’s body once the autopsy was conducted. A few days after her death, I received an email from the HR department at work telling me they could assist me to get her body repatriated, which was covered by insurance. My parents had cemetery plots; should we bury her there? But in my family, a burial plot is a place of obligation—you visit on the person’s birthday, the day they died, Memorial Day, after mass on holidays. You leave bouquets of flowers, maybe a plant in the late spring when the risk of frost has passed. When our family’s miniature schnauzer died, my mother brushed his hair till it shone, laid him in a white baby casket, placed one of his favorite hot-dog shaped treats under his chin, and buried him behind the bushes in the backyard. His grave was marked with one of the temporary grave markers cemeteries use until tombstones arrive. It read: “Chekal Schnapps French 1983-1993.” My mom visited him every time she went to turn on the hose to water her rose garden.

If I buried my daughter in Iowa, I would spend the rest of my life feeling guilty for not visiting her grave enough, abandoning her again. We could bury her in Namibia, but we lived in Angola, so that did not seem right either.

We decided to cremate her.

We bounced around ideas: we could bury parts of her ashes in Namibia and in Iowa, scatter them in a meaningful place. My mom had wanted her baptized before we disconnected the vent to assure her soul’s salvation, but like a good cafeteria Catholic, would not be a stickler on the Vatican no-scattering rule. But Cecilia spent her seventeen days in a cookie-cutter short-term furnished rental apartment, with a few outings to her grandparents’ house. Not a lot of meaningful places. My partner wanted to scatter them at the Angolan beach where he fished for threadfin. But that was not meaningful to me. Plus, the beach was dirty, and that just felt wrong.

Eleven years later, she is at home. The fourth home, to be precise. She is now in our bedroom, on a shelf by my jewelry boxes from Mozambique and India. My partner kind of hates it, but I like it best this way. I don’t have to visit. I am more like my mother than I realized.

My parents used to complain about people who did not come to pick up their wife’s or husband’s or father’s cremains. They would sit on a shelf in the funeral home closet, next to memorial cards and boxes of French Funeral Home pens. I remember one woman left her husband’s ashes for over ten years. He died of cancer, relatively young. Oh, did my parents complain. But I understand. It is hard to make a decision. I never made one about Cecilia’s ashes; I just got used to the circumstances.

Though my partner and I agreed on our decision to cremate our daughter, I dreaded telling my parents. I put it off a couple of days, but I knew they would ask if I did not tell. Of course, they would. One night, no doubt after a couple of whiskeys, I called them and blurted it out. “We have decided to cremate her. We just don’t feel comfortable burying her in the US or Namibia, since we don’t live in either of those places. It doesn’t feel right.” I inhaled; held it.

“We understand in your situation. We thought that’s what you might do,” my dad said.

“I got my wish before she died. That’s your decision.” My mom’s signature phrase: That’s your decision. So many times, in my younger life, had that phrase frustrated me. I wanted my mom to give me her opinion, some tangible advice rather than demurring in this way. This time, the most important time, it was the perfect answer. I exhaled, the weight of thirty-seven years in a burying family lifted from my shoulders.

My partner’s father took care of everything after that. He chose a funeral home, contacted them, paid the bill, picked up the urn and brought it home without me noticing. My sister, who is also a funeral director, emailed me and told me I should keep some locks of her hair. I did not understand, but I asked my father-in-law if there was still time to do it. He most definitely did not understand, but he went to the funeral home and snipped a few pieces of her fine brown hair, which he gave to me in an envelope. I stashed it in an A4 manila envelope filled with sympathy cards. That envelope is now stashed in an orange plastic bin with broken clips that is filled with letters and photos from graduate school, on the top shelf of my office closet. Hair is another thing people make jewelry out of or scatter, but I am happy with the envelope.

We did not do a funeral or memorial service. A funeral would have overtones of heaven and resurrection that my partner and I were not comfortable with. A memorial service seemed wrong for a seventeen-day old child. For a memorial service, you are supposed to have memories; we didn’t have time to make many. I love ritual, but I could not find one that worked. I untaped her tubes and I put a diaper on her. I wrapped her, held her, and cried on her rapidly cooling body. Then I left her.

Caitlin Doughty devotes a section of her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to online cremation arrangements. She disparages it, compares it to ordering takeout or delivery online. Says the idea “crushed (her) with loneliness.” “A nine-year old girl named Ashley, who had just finished the third grade, died at a hospital, where her parents left her body, went home, typed their credit card into a website, and waited two weeks for her to appear in a box by mail.” She quips about the credit card being denied several times because it was actually a Sears Department store card.

I love that book, but oh did that chapter rankle me. Caitline paints a picture of online cremation arrangements as an escape hatch for people who do not want to face death. And—she might be right in a lot of cases. But I took particular issue with her portrayal of Ashley’s parents as avoidant or callous.

Had I not had my father-in-law, I would have loved the option of ordering cremation online—to avoid having to talk to yet another stranger about my daughter’s body. Like the mother of that nine-year-old, I probably would have pulled out an old university ID and typed in my student number instead of a credit card number, given the fog I walked around in those first days. Maybe Ashley’s parents had been sitting by her for days or weeks. Maybe it was not denial. Maybe it was grief. Oh wait, psychologists say denial is one of the stages of grief. It is well-documented. Joan Didion needed to crawl into bed so she would be there when her husband came back. I am pretty sure denial passed me over, but I really would have loved a little.

I was there for my daughter’s last moments. I wrapped her, I held her; I cried over her.

It is true that my father-in-law suggested, “Why don’t you guys get out of here and let me take care of this”— this being turn off the ventilator, of course. He offered out of love, but I did not consider it even for a moment. For me, that would have been hiding from death. I said to him. “She’s my daughter. This is my job.” For me, being there was duty—duty I learned from a family that makes a living trying to make dead people look not dead. At the age of thirteen, my dad spent Christmas sitting by his father after his third heart attack, hour upon hour, until he finally died. My mother’s mother, at the age of ninety-one, fell and hit her head at the nursing home she had been living in for three years. She was not found immediately. My mother and her siblings did the non-American thing and declined to send her to the hospital for lifesaving treatment, knowing there would be no quality of life after such a brain bleed. They instead sat by her bed for two days, talking to her and holding her hand, listening to the death-rattle breath till she succumbed.

My mother did her dead mother’s hair and makeup before she and my dad placed her diminished body in a “blue sapphire” 18-gauge steel casket. My embalming family does not hide from death. We hide decomposition—I will give Caitlin that. But never death. Death is omnipresent, witnessed, discussed ad nauseam with nary a detail omitted, with never a euphemistic substitution.

Four years after Cecilia died, a college friend lost his one-year-old son to brain cancer. This boy and a team of Chicago’s best pediatric oncologists battled it for nine months, but the cancer was wily and kept finding ways to come back bigger and deeper. My friend is a theatre technical designer and stage fightmaster; his wife, a stage manager. They have a wide circle of creative friends who put together a stunning memorial service. I confess I was envious of my grieving friends, because they had enough photos and videos to put together a montage for the service. The only video I have of my daughter is of her crying and lifting her knees to her stomach in pain, the one I showed to the vaccination clinic nurse who dismissed the pain as gas—but it was likely an early sign of something more sinister.

My friend and his wife cremated their son and each sprinkled one baby-spoonful of his ashes in seventeen different places across the country, one for each month of his life. The bit that remained is now in necklaces they wear and in a little Tupperware on a table in their living room. As they planned their trip, they learned about all the laws surrounding the transportation of human remains (including cremains) across state lines. They completed all of the paperwork and got all of the permits and certificates.

When they told me this, I felt like an idiot. The funeral director’s daughter, yet I had no clue. I had put my daughter’s remains in my backpack in Namibia and carried them to Angola, like I had as a child. I walked through immigration and customs, unknowingly breaking Namibian and Angolan laws. I should have been carrying her death certificate, cremation certificate, removal order, mortician’s affidavit, and a health certificate. At best, I may have had a death certificate in that manila envelope of sympathy cards and wisps of hair.

I do not remember if I scanned my backpack on arrival; in 2011, Luanda customs was pretty lax, the officials being more interested in rifling through the really big suitcases coming with merchandise from Shanghai and Dubai. Had they noticed it, though, I can tell you how the interrogation would have gone down, in an over-air-conditioned back room with fluorescent lights and no windows, a police officer still too young to have a pot belly looking at me across a small desk.

“If I understand well, officer, you mean to tell me that I cannot bring my daughter’s ashes into your country?”

Não pode! Not without authorization and appropriate documentation.”

“I am really sorry, officer. I didn’t even think about it. I used to do this as a girl, and never imagined I should not do it today.”

“Yes, but this is Angola, and we have our regulations. It is our responsibility to enforce them, and it is your obligation to comply with them. We will have to confiscate your daughter’s remains, and you will have to pay a multa. Do you know how much the fine is?”

Here, we would begin the negociação.

“No, I don’t know. How much is the multa?”

“It’s a lot. And you cannot have your daughter’s ashes back until you pay it.”

“Well, how much is it, Officer?”

“It’s a lot.”

“Where do I pay it, Officer? Can I pay at the bank in the airport?”

Não, não pode. You have to go to the bank in the center of town. It’s closed on the weekends. You will have to go on Monday morning. You will have to get there at 5:00 to get in the queue to be attended to that day. Then you will have to go to the customs office and submit the receipt. But first you will have to get the declaration of guilt. Then they will have to examine the ashes to make sure they are not dangerous. That might take a week. Then you can request for them back. If they have not lost them.”

“Where do I get that declaration of guilt?”

“You get that at the office next to the bank. You have to pay for it.”

“How much?”

“A lot.”

“How much, Officer?”

“Look, we know that a senhora is tired and sad. We can find an easier solution.”

“I would like that, Officer, very much. Por favor.”

“Yes. What kind of solution can you propose?”

“What kind of solution do you suggest? My abilities are rather limited.”

“Well, what can you propose? I can try to talk to my supervisor and see if he will be understanding given your circumstances. He has given us strict orders to enforce the regulations, but I can try to convince him, for a senhora.”

“I know, I know. Can you explain that I didn’t do it a propósito? It was not on purpose, officer; I just didn’t know. It was due to ignorância; I want to respect the laws.”

“I can see that you are not a senhora who breaks a lot of laws. Tell me what kind of a solution you can propose, and I will ask my supervisor if he can accept it.”

How big a bribe would a seventeen-day old’s ashes warrant?

Some months after my daughter died, I was chatting via iMessage with a friend. Somehow our chat got onto the topic of Cecilia’s ashes. I think she asked me what I had done with them, knowing that decision had caused me stress in the early months.

Oh, most of the time they just sit on the windowsill in my yoga room. Sometimes I pick them up and just give them a little shake. For some reason the swishing sound kind of comforts me.

You shake them?


Pause. Long pause

Like an etch-a-sketch?


Oh god Erika. I just dropped my phone. That is the best! (crying laughing emojis)

Oh, good. I was afraid your silence meant it was too much.

No, it was perfect. I am still laughing. A fucking etch-a-sketch. That’s exactly what it’s like.

I imagined making an Etch A Sketch out of someone’s ashes. Etch A Sketches are filled with aluminum powder, not dry calcium phosphates and minerals that make up bone matter and therefore cremains. So, I doubt it would work. I never wanted an ash locket. But I do think an Etch A Sketch is a “commemorative object,” heretical though it may be, that I might actually want.

Stephanie French is a humanitarian worker who has lived in several African countries for the last 20 years. She is writing a memoir exploring how growing up in a funeral home shaped her approach to grief and death. Her work has recently been published by The Keepthings and Hearth & Coffin.

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