What I Learned by Moving 3,000 Miles Away from my Mom’s Ashes

My step-father kept his mother’s ashes in the brown mailer box they came in for almost a decade. His mother Margaret expressed wanting her ashes taken to Hawaii, and instead the box lived behind his button-down shirts, in the back of the closet. My mom didn’t want that to be her.

Photo credit: Jennifer Mathews, 2007

Before her surgery, when we didn’t have a clue she had pancreatic cancer, my mom said she wanted to tell me her wishes in case she died. She hadn’t expressed this to anyone else. I asked if she could wait and tell me in 25 years? She gave me a long hug.

She said she’d like to be cremated and for her remains to be “scattered with the birds in Vermont.”

My mom loved birds. She watched them every day in her backyard and took photographs of them often. And although she lived in Western New York, Vermont had been my home at the time, the place I lived and loved for fifteen years. I was her only child. So her request made sense to me.

But I immediately knew what she meant on a deeper level. She was asking for her ashes to be set free among the trees and sky. Don’t leave me in a box. Promise me my body will fly free.

Translation: Promise me my spirit will fly free.

She died 16 weeks later.

Freeing my mom’s ashes in Vermont

Ten years ago on September 24th 2004, I hiked the heavy little black box with my mom’s ashes to the spot we agreed upon. Bus loads of school kids were on the trail that day, and I wondered if I would have the solitude I craved. Luckily, as my girlfriend Kate and I hiked up, the rowdy children hiked down. We had the special spot all to ourselves, surrounded by brilliant fall foliage leaves of orange, red and yellow.

Releasing her into the air and earth was liberating and poignant. Sure enough, the wind was blowing. My mom once made a joke about the wind, and about a potential Seinfield moment if I forgot to have the wind at my back during the ritual. I couldn’t help but laugh when the breeze suddenly shifted, and Kate and I began brushing ashes off of our clothes.

I knew the ritual was complete when two hawks circled overhead, representing us both flying together.

Though Vermont was my adult home, three weeks after setting my mom’s ashes free, I began traveling across the US and Canada. The following year, I moved to Mount Shasta in Northern California, three thousand miles away from the ground my mom was a part of now.

This life choice raised an important question for me: What did it mean to honor her request to be in Vermont now that my life unexpectedly changed and I no longer lived there?

I knew it wasn’t really about being in Vermont. She wanted to be free, and she wanted to be with me. And now this bird of hers lived in California.

Connecting my mom to my new life

A few years later, I hiked up that Vermont trail again on a foggy, damp day. I brought a small stone – one that looked like a Buddha holding a heart – from the South Fork river in Mount Shasta. I placed it in a moss crevice to be a witness to the beauty of the mountain and to connect my mom’s energy to my life on the west coast.

Then I collected a tiny amount of dirt, along with a few leaves from the place I had scattered her ashes three years ago. Bringing Vermont soil back with me felt symbolic of my mom’s presence and a way to acknowledge her memory and her wishes.

On a warm, sunny autumn day, after it had snowed on Mount Shasta, I knew it was the perfect day for my California ritual.

As my partner Kate and I hiked closer to the special place I had in mind, we could see at least two other people there. Not a bus load of kids, but not ideal. Kate remarked that it looked like they were doing a pretty involved, long ceremony.

We sat on a rock, waiting, and I tried to be patient. Eventually, I thought that perhaps they were waiting for us. We gathered our water and backpacks and continued walking toward them. As we did, we noticed they were on their way down, just in time for us to have our own private memorial.

As I walked closer, I saw that someone had placed twigs and branches around the stone circle where we were headed. The closer I got, I realized they weren’t twigs at all. They were dozens and dozens of huge feathers – all kinds of feathers – outlining the circumference of the circle.

A clear message waiting for me

I burst into tears of joy, gratitude, grief and amazement. Here I was, symbolically bringing my mom to be with the birds of Mount Shasta, and in front of me was a beautiful display of almost 100 feathers, creating a perfect healing, sacred space for my ceremony. I could tell by their depth and dryness that the feathers has just been placed into the snow and wet earth. We arrived exactly on time.

As I got even closer, I saw there was what looked like a greeting card in the circle. And so I walked toward the center.

The front of the card read, “A Mom is a special friend.”

I could barely believe it. I appreciate clear messages, but this felt over the top. The day had been much more orchestrated than I had first imagined.

I discovered that this ritual was for me, not for my mother. Yes, it was my way to honor her. And it was a way to settle into my new home in California. But more than anything, it was a way for my mom to remind me that she (feathers and all!) was already there, already here, already in Mount Shasta, already everywhere.

Well done, Mom.

I will never forget that day, when my mom honored me in such a profound and tangible way. I could hear her voice in my mind: “You don’t need to bring soil with my ashes where you are to know my presence. I am here. Let me show you. I am here.”

She was already there, before I even arrived on the mountain.

And she is always wherever I am – because her spirit is flying free. 

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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5 thoughts on “What I Learned by Moving 3,000 Miles Away from my Mom’s Ashes

  1. You write so beautifully from your heart Jen! I love what you’ve shared. It’s so true, our moms are with us, all-ways. :o)
    Now I understand why you mentioned that the feather and the quartz stone had significance for you. Your mom must’ve been guiding those ‘gifts’ to you on 9/9/15… I’m so happy to have been the conduit!
    Bless you!

  2. Oh so beautiful ~ thank you Jen. This article is a beautiful blend of vulnerability and knowingness; of a fresh grief mixed with joy and gratitude. I love this comforting article. You beautifully show a progression into your journey of knowing we don’t die. Thank you for sharing your desire to remain connected and honor she who has passed; for sharing your awe, surprise and willingness. Jen, you are in your element! I will keep coming back to this site to tune in, connect and find comfort. I will most definitely direct people to this beautiful site. The Light seems to come through your typing fingertips! More! More! Well done my friend!

  3. I love that I can hear your voice in your writing. Home sick with some sort of funk, I decided to read your most recent post. Coincidence? I think not. My childhood friend, Amy Schlagter, lost her mother yesterday. Certainly I am going to guide her here. Keep inspiring My Friend!

  4. Wow, Jen, best post ever. Each time I read a new post of yours, it seems like the best, because that is the absolute truth of that very moment. ;o) Or maybe it’s because I am thinking of my own mom, and thinking of *being* a mom to my daughter… it doesn’t matter; Your train of thought here really touched me.

    Thank you so much.