First Person

Notes on becoming dust.


Mihály Munkácsy, Dusty Country Road II, 1883.

Since he applied paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimeters thick at the center and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavors and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. —W. G. Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse), The Emigrants

Before my godfather and great-uncle Julio became dust, he was a troublemaking, cheating, charming man. When he was a teenager, he stole a closetful of my grandmother’s summer clothes, sold them, and spent the money on prostitutes. When I was three, he got into a gorilla suit and popped out at me, making me cry. Not long before he died, during our final game of Scrabble, he played the word enzapment and maintained that it was real. It’s like entrapment, he said, but with a zap. I acquiesced and tallied his fifty-plus points. When he died, his wife, Maria Cristina, had his body cremated and put into a basketball-size, biodegradable clamshell urn.

I’d be lying if I said casting his ashes was traumatic. The truth is, it was one of the most cathartic and satisfying experiences of my life.

Even though it was illegal to cast ashes into Florida’s Sarasota Bay, the captain of a small charter boat agreed to take us out to drop in the shell. Once we were out and away from other boats, we watched Maria Cristina drop the shell in the water, and we threw in red roses and said goodbye. We circled for a moment and watched the shell, waiting for it to saturate and sink. The roses drifted away. We stood in silence and waited.

But the shell stayed afloat. The captain, eager to leave the scene of the crime, became anxious, and then we all did.

According to the company that sells it, the Shell Urn is “engineered to float briefly before gracefully sinking.” It’s possible that if we had waited a bit longer, “gracefully” might have been how it went. But given the circumstances, we decided to speed up the process. I, as the youngest male aboard, was nominated to dunk the shell.

As we got close, I lay down with my shoulders through the boat’s now-open gate. My father held onto my ankles as I reached out for the shell. I pushed it downward, imagining it would finally sink with that small effort. Instead, it bobbed back up, now out of reach. We circled in again, and I reached out and felt the shell’s wet surface beneath my palms and held on tight with both hands. I thrust the shell down into the water. Its ceiling cracked and what seemed to be ashes flew out onto my arms and into my face, and I stared down into the shell and the water bubbling in through the hole I’d made, and I thought, I’m drowning him, I’m holding him under, till the shell was filled and I let go.

I dunked my arms in the water to wash off any ashes and stood up. I imagine the look on Maria Cristina and the rest of my family’s faces reflected a combination of mortification and relief, but I don’t really remember. I do seem to remember my father patting me on the back and saying some kind of “thank you” or “good job that showed he was proud of me.

The pride I felt wasn’t just for having fixed a problem, or for having helped usher Julio along toward his metaphysical destiny. It was that I knew the act was a grim one, and because I did it without complaint, I felt I was strong, even honorable. Of course, there was something exploitative in this, too. It was like Žižek’s comment on James Cameron’s Titanic: the wealthy Rose (Kate Winslet), suffocated by the culture of the stuffy transatlantic aristocracy, revitalizes herself through love and sex with the proletarian Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and, soon thereafter, tells his frozen body that she’ll “never let go” as she drops it into the icy water. For me, contact with the ashes, the substance of death, and the effort to cast them off, seemed to inject me with outsized life. I was death’s negative image. I was also what Žižek would call “vampiric.”

It must be even worse to insinuate, with the epigraph above, that I’m somehow like W. G. Sebald’s character Max Ferber. Ferber’s parents had sent him from Germany to England before they were killed in the Holocaust. He would later spend decades, until his own death, working seven days a week in the same studio, in decaying Manchester, routinely scratching a day’s work off of his canvas to start anew, scattering dust across the otherwise changeless place, unable to heal from the loss of his family and country. It seems he came to love dust through toil and, perhaps, as a remedy for the guilt of survival. Dissolution, for his portraits and for him, is freedom from the burden of existence.

This freedom may mean more to some than others. But the freedom itself must be, like the speed of light, absolute, impossible to increase or decrease. Your countless cells cease the struggle to stay together, and you dissolve. It’s as if you’ve been swimming all your life and are finally allowed to get out of the water and lie down on the beach.

The late Eduardo Galeano, explaining why he fled political persecution in Argentina, said, “I didn’t want to lay in a cemetery, because, as I told you before, death is very boring.” But considering the total freedom of dissolution makes death less boring—and less fearsome, too. The corpse, repellent on a prehuman level, becomes merely a step toward that freedom. The loss of consciousness becomes no more upsetting than dreamless sleep. The scattering of atoms becomes enlivening. And the living become free, or at least a bit freer, from fear.

P.J. Podesta is a writer and editor based in New York.