Jun 3, 2015

Salt of the Sea

Mother's ashes had been sitting in a hat box next to my sister's desk since she died. It was now time to sprinkle them.

She had been a Wren (WRNS - Women's Royal Naval Service) during World War II, and her wish was for a military burial at sea.

After much research, we found a small Royal Naval detachment that performs sea burials from Nelson's Dockyard in Portsmouth, England.

On the morning of May 13th, my sister and I had taken the ashes to the Royal Navy Chapel of Saint Ann's in the Portsmouth naval yards. Here, all the ashes for the day's voyage were assembled. Five ceremonies were going to be performed this day, one of which was our mother's. We paid the clerk for the carved pink salt urn and the ashes were gently placed inside. The urn itself looked like it was carved from pink Himalayan rock salt, but it was actually mined in England. It was beautifully shaped into a simple, yet elegant, pink urn. The reason for the salt urn was for a quick dissolve as it entered the salt waters, allowing the ashes to quickly dissipate into the sea and the undercurrents to  spread them far and wide. For our benefit, the urn was placed on a small table beside the chapel's main altar so we could inspect it, take pictures and pay our respects. As my sister and I left the chapel, the urn was still sitting on the table.

Our family of mourners consisted of sisters, cousins, aunts, wives and husbands, and we assembled in the lobby of our nearby hotel at the local seaside town of Southsea. Southsea is a lovely spot over-looking the Solent, the body of water that separates the mainland of England from the Isle of Wight, just a couple of miles from Portsmouth. We had a most spectacular view overlooking the water with the old Southsea Pier across the street from our hotel.

Our family left the hotel and soon arrived at the naval dockyard and awaited the chaplain, the last remains and the motor launch to take us to sea. When all the families had arrived, we followed the chaplain (Chaplain Ned Kelly) down to the dock to await the vessel.

The families' urns and packages of ashes had arrived with a Navy honour-guard of three sailors and all were draped with the Union Jack: Very Royal Navy. However, upon closer inspection of the draped ashes, my sister noted that mother's urn could not have been included as the urn was much larger and it would have protruded above the rest. She asked the chaplain to have the flag removed so she could see if the urn was there. He told her that this could not be done as it was a sacred ceremony. Somehow, he found a way for her to peek under the flag without removing it.

"She's not there!" my sister exclaimed. "She must still be on the table beside the altar in the chapel."

The chaplain immediately despatched the sergeant from the honour-guard to quickly go to the chapel and retrieve the urn as we waited for the boat and for Mum's ashes.

Talk about being late for your own funeral! Mum would have liked that. She could always be counted on, when at a solemn occasion, to spread a giggle or two.

My problem was that as we waited for the sergeant to return with the delicate urn, I had images dancing in my head of him tripping over the gang plank on the way back, dropping the urn, and having the ashes fly into the air in a puff of cloud, and spread over the waiting crowd. Fortunately, that didn't happen and we boarded the boat with the ashes intact in her pink urn.

Our motor launch sailed out of Nelson's Dockyard en route to the open waters of the Solent. It was a beautiful day. The sky blue, the sea calm and along the way we hugged the shoreline of Portsmouth and Southsea; the same stretch we had driven from our hotel. As we approached the Southsea Pier, the launch slowed the engines, turned and drifted toward the afternoon sun for the funerals and dedications to take place. Here, we drifted in the water very near to our hotel. Unknowingly, we had picked the right hotel.

Each family was called, one at a time, to the aft of the vessel for their particular ceremony and each took about ten minutes for the burial at sea of their loved ones. Then it was our turn. We were called and we gathered at the stern. Out in the sun were two Royal Navy sailors holding Mum's urn on a wooden plank to be tipped into the sea when the time came. As we arrived we saw the pink urn, glistening in the sun for the last time, then it was draped in the Union Jack. The Chaplain said a prayer for the souls of the Women's Royal Naval Service and then held out his hand to bless Mum's ashes. The sailors were then given the order and they tipped the plank. Mum's urn slipped out from under the flag and dropped into the ocean. It was a heavy urn and it made a good splash in the green-blue waters. The salt urn quickly started to dissolve and spread the ashes as it sank to the ocean depths to be carried far and wide with the prevailing currents.

Farewell Mother. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


"And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
Hamlet - William Shakespeare

"I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over."
Sea Fever - John Masefield