Placing the dead is seldom arbitrary.
The Marquis de Sade’s grave in the forest at Malmaison
was planted with acorns so that he might be consumed by
trees, but my wife desires a shady plot in rural Texas,
where no one will claim her. In old Christian
graveyards the unclean were buried at the gospel side for
sinners. When her best friend died, she and his former lover
split a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and listened to Puccini.
The Nuer of Sudan place deformed dead babies by the river,
returning them to their true fathers, the hippos. After the fog
crushed Stevie Ray’s helicopter, I played Texas Flood on the juke
box and quit my job. In China, bones channel feng shui, becoming
part of the active landscape. Though she wanted her ashes to drift
in the Pacific, my mother’s body lies in a national cemetery in
San Antonio. On the northwest coast of Canada, the Kwakiutl
left their dead to the ravens, and my father has proposed
on numerous occasions that we shove a hambone up his ass
and let the dogs drag him off. I do not believe we’ll follow his
suggestion. In old England, suicides were often interred at
crossroads, impaled, to impede their restless wandering spirits.
The Torajans sometimes keep bodies wrapped in layers of absorbent
cloth in their homes for years. I’d like my incinerated, pulverized
remains released in the jet stream, if only to escape economy class for
once. Jellyroll Morton’s grave is in Section N, Lot 347, #4, in the northwest
quadrant of Calvary Cemetery, but some villagers bury stillborn
near a dwelling’s outer wall. Hugh Hefner is rumored to have acquired
the spot next to Marilyn Monroe. Placing the dead is never arbitrary.

Originally published in Middle Gray in 2013, “Ritual” has just been reprinted in the anthology Heron Clan III.

For those who might be interested, a glimpse at the genesis of the poem is included in this interview conducted by Dariel Suarez, the editor of Middle Gray: http://www.themiddlegray.com/mgblog/2013/12/19/robert-okaji


41 thoughts on “Ritual

  1. I’m definitely not going to share the hambone bit with my wife. She has waaaay too many ideas already concerning the disposition of my ashes or my carcass. My mother left her remains to medical science (the University of North Texas, I believe. When they had sliced and diced her to a fine slush, they returned “her” to Greenwood Cemetery where we directed that she be buried on top of Daddy.

    She would have liked that.

    As for me, an old joke comes to mind. “I’m going to leave my body to Science Fiction.”

    Seems consistent with what little I know about myself.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have times like that myself, I ‘ll just sit at my desk and words just start flowing on to the paper! It is quite amazing. Often times when I look back at what I have written, I don’t recognize my own words! An amazing process and not one I can call up at will… Fascinating! I really like your work and look forward to reading more of your blog when time allows! so much good stuff to read and so little time! Michelle

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, this was a “learning” poem for me! I’d like to have my ashes strewn across the Caribbean Sea, though none of my family members have taken me seriously so far. By the way, I can no longer find the link to purchase your chapbook. Can you send me the link? Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I definitely enjoyed this.
    My children know, in fact they often remind me, that my ashes are to be strewn in the Niagara River. I’ve been scuba diving in the Upper Niagara (between Buffalo and Niagara Falls) over a hundred times. I’ll finally get to go over the Falls.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like the matter of fact tone of this piece. My favorite (most comforting) death ritual is the Quaker memorial. Mourners meditate in silence and speak about the deceased when they feel inspired. It turns into a celebration that is strangely life affirming.


  6. My fiancé rarely moved, lived 16 years in his final house, but wanted his ashes dispersed in Puget Sound, which I did, with my own hands, in my open palms cupped together as I walked out into the water on a misty day, observed by a bald eagle. I know of a woman who felt more unsettled in life and changed houses every few years, but wanted her body buried whole, in a woodland burial, marked only by a freshly planted tree so that her body could be rooted and return to the earth, which her husband did to honor her wishes.
    Do we seek in death what we did not have in life, or is it a true expression of our inner life?
    Thank you for this poem. It speaks of death in a comfortable way that is uncommon in our culture. A way that is good and necessary.


  7. My favorite part is the hippos. I would love to leave my body to the Cordwainer Smith School of Science Fiction, but I will probably leave it to “science.” I once had a cadaver skin graft that miraculously eased my pain. So I think I should pay it forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That is a serious piece of poetry. But my guess is you weren’t entirely serious when you wrote it. At least I hope you weren’t. The variety of practices surely go on and on. They are illuminating, relieving, inspiring and totally ridiculous. Lightening up about death makes space to lighten up about life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I loved stumbling upon this! I haven’t found many people who write about death and its rituals so matter-of-factly, or really at all. Have you read Annie Dillard’s book For The Time Being? Your poem reminds me of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating post with a bang of a last line. I’m making a funeral urn for a relative’s ashes, but personally, I like the idea of being left for the ravens to pick over, although with my luck it might be the turkey vultures instead.

    Liked by 1 person

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