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How I Dumped My In-Laws in the Pacific Ocean

It's not as simple as it sounds

By Denise SheltonPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
Photo by Lalit Gupta on Unsplash

“I didn’t hear you say that.”

Mary, the administrative assistant at the cremation service, looked grave. I didn’t realize she was giving me the old wink, wink, nudge, nudge. She sensed I did not compute.

“Comingling of cremains is illegal in California.”*

What Mary “didn’t hear me say” was that my husband and I intended to mix my in-laws’ cremated remains before scattering them at sea. I nodded in understanding.

We were going to do it whether it was illegal or not. Better to face an unlikely tap on the shoulder from the long arm of the law than to go against my mother-in-law’s last wishes. If she was able to give me grief from the afterlife for anything, believe me, it would be that.

Helen and Jess

The author's in-laws on their wedding day, 1947 (Source: Shelton Family Archives)

My in-laws met at a St. Louis YMCA dance during World War II. Jess’s kid sister Jean had brought him in hopes of setting him up with one of her friends. He was in the U.S. Coast Guard on leave, and the Y allowed enlisted men to attend as long as they were in uniform.

As they entered the building, Jess’s attention was caught by a ravishing brunette standing in the stairwell. Much to Jean’s dismay, her brother made a beeline for the girl and didn’t leave her side all evening.

Although Jean recognized Helen from school, she wasn’t part of the same crowd. In fact, Helen wasn’t part of any crowd. Her mother kept her on a tight leash. Everything was about to change for the shy teenager.

Her knight in Operational Dress Uniform

Helen had a secret. Her mother was physically and verbally abusive to her for as long as she could remember. When a teacher noticed bruises on Helen’s arms in elementary school, she called her mother Ethel in for a conference. It only made things worse. Ethel made up some excuse, and when she got home, there was hell to pay for Helen.

Members of the St. Louis police force in the 1930s (Source: theoldmotor.com)

One of the most shocking things Helen told me about her childhood is that one day when she was about seven, she was looking out the window at the couple who lived across the street. The man was beating up his pregnant wife.

The police arrived, and, this being the east side of St. Louis in the 1930s, they didn’t arrest the abusive husband. Instead, they beat the crap out of him and told him if he ever laid a hand on his wife again, they’d come back and finish him off.

Helen told me that her principal thought at the time was, “When are they going to come to my house and do that to my mother?” She wasn’t frightened; she was hopeful, but they never came.

Ethel’s mother was violently opposed to Helen’s relationship with Jess. Since she was underage, she couldn’t marry him without her parents’ permission. But once Helen’s father Rex was sure that Jess was committed to giving Helen a secure and happy life, he signed the paperwork and forced Ethel to as well.

The marriage was happy, although Helen and Jess endured much hardship off and on throughout their lives. They were devoted to each other. When Jess developed dementia later in life, Helen cared for him at home. He died in her arms.

Switching coasts

After Jess’s death, Helen’s grief was profound. She lost weight. She began stockpiling tranquilizers to kill herself when she just couldn’t take it anymore. So, my husband and I invited her to live with us and our three-year-old son in the San Francisco Bay Area. She sold her home in New York and moved west. Along with a lifetime of possessions, she brought the box of Jess’s cremains.

(Source: amazon.com)

When Helen moved in with us, she made it clear that she wanted her ashes mixed with his when she died, so she didn’t purchase an urn.

The ashes were sealed in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box that was about the same size and weight as a 4-pound bag of sugar.

Not long after Helen moved in with us, we took a trip to visit family in St. Louis. At the airport, Helen asked me to hold her purse. It was so heavy, I nearly dropped it.

“What do you have in this thing?” I asked.

She looked at me sheepishly and said, “Jess.”

Apparently, Helen had a morbid fear that if anyone broke into our house while we were away, they might desecrate his remains. Only she could have come up with that one. Did I mention she was paranoid?

A complicated relationship

Since my husband’s job required long hours and I was at home, Helen spent most of her time with me. She’d sit at the kitchen table day after day, smoking and reminiscing about her childhood and her life with Jess and their two boys. She absolutely adored our son and their relationship was one of the best things to come out of our decision to welcome her into our home.

After Helen and Jess were married, Helen’s father, Rex, arranged for Ethel to have the lobotomy her doctor suggested. The hope was that it would quell her anger and abusive tendencies. According to Helen, it didn’t make her mother any less mean; it just made her stupid. Rex divorced Ethel, moved to Michigan, and remarried. Long estranged from Helen, Ethel eventually died alone.

Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash

Helen did not escape the mental illness that had plagued her mother, but she struggled hard against it. She was prone to periods of depression and spitefulness, but she didn’t abuse her children. She did everything she could to make their home life happy and secure.

My relationship with Helen was complicated. At times she was incredibly generous and complimentary of me. At other times, she gave the Wicked Witch of the West a run for her money. Knowing her history, I tried my best to be forgiving. It wasn’t always easy. I was prone to depression myself.

About five years after she came to live with us, Helen died at home in bed surrounded by family. In her last days, we discussed various options for where to scatter the soon to be comingled cremains. Helen decided on the Pacific Ocean because, she said, it was warm.

Does anybody have a boat?

Photo by Eliobed Suarez on Unsplash

Helen had been clear that she didn’t want us to hire a service to scatter the ashes, she couldn’t trust them. She wanted us to do it ourselves to make sure it was done how she wanted.

It turned out that Helen had asked our dentist, who was also a friend if we could use his boat when the time came. He readily agreed, as he always had a fondness for Helen. We are forever grateful to him and his brother, who came with us.

I now had two “sacks of sugar” that were burning a hole in my conscience. I wanted to fulfill this obligation as soon as possible, but Rick, the dentist, told me that we had to wait until the tides were right to take his boat out beyond the Golden Gate. It was a couple of months before we were able to do it.

The great scattering

There is an astonishing number of governmental rules and regulations surrounding the disposal of human remains. The State of California provides this handy guide in case you’d like to read some of them, although rules vary from state to state. When the situation is a burial at sea, the EPA is involved. The most important point is that you may not scatter cremated remains into the ocean unless you are at least three nautical miles from shore.

I don’t remember how long it took to get from Alameda, where Rick docked the boat, to our destination, but it took a long time. He didn’t raise the sails until we were on the way back, so we made our way toward the Golden Gate just using the motor.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

When we were out to sea, at last, the time came to open the boxes and commingle away. At this point, we realized that we hadn’t brought a container big enough to do the job. Rick went inside the galley and returned with a large wooden salad bowl which proved to be sufficient.

There was a tense moment when my husband found pieces of metal in my father-in-law's ashes and wondered if they weren’t ashes at all. He thought they might be construction waste or something. Suddenly I remembered that doctors had put a pin in Jess’s leg following a motorcycle accident. We all agreed that the metal must have been from the operation.

So, my husband, our now eight-year-old son, and I mixed up what was left of grandma and grandpa as best we could and did our best to fling them into the water. The wind was an issue, as it so often is at times like these. Luckily, we didn’t end up with the cremains blowing back on us, but later on, Rick had to hose a bit of stuff off the side of the boat. (He said he did it as respectfully as he could.)

Our duty done, Rick and his brother turned the boat around for home. One or more of us passengers threw up at some point, and then, emotionally exhausted, all fell into a deep sleep until we got back to the dock in Alameda.

One last consideration

As we prepared to disembark, I held out the salad bowl to Rick. It still had some residue clinging to the inside. He said I could keep it.

We brought it home. How could I just throw it away? Finally, I made it into a planter and put it in the garden. I don’t think Helen would mind a bit.

*California Code, Health and Safety Code — HSC § 7054.7, does allow the comingling of cremains under certain conditions.


About the Creator

Denise Shelton

Denise Shelton writes on a variety of topics and in several different genres. Frequent subjects include history, politics, and opinion. She gleefully writes poetry The New Yorker wouldn't dare publish.

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