Library Corner: My double-wide Father’s Day |

Library Corner: My double-wide Father’s Day

Martin J. Smith
Library Corner
Martin J. Smith’s father and mother both died in the past few months. Their burial instructions were to be cremated and their ashes were to be lodged in a single urn, then buried on a family plot in Birmingham, Alabama.
Courtesy Martin J. Smith

I lost both my father and my mother in the past few months. Dad died a week shy of 102 on Feb. 25, and Mom, his wife of 78 years, on May 1. She was 98. Theirs was an absurdly long and happy run, and I’m grateful to have had them both for as long as I did.

Their burial instructions were straightforward: they were to be cremated and their ashes were to be lodged in a single urn, then buried on a family plot in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

But then things got complicated, mostly because the details of that arrangement somehow remained unspoken despite Dad’s obsessive preparation. (Hardly a visit went by during the past 30 years when he didn’t haul out what my siblings and I called the “briefcase of death” to go over, yet again, his post-mortem plans, including their wills, their insurance policy, even the deed to the cemetery plot his mother bought in 1941.) But exactly how was this double-wide urn arrangement supposed to work? We never got around to specifics.

I began shopping for what the funeral industry calls “companion urns.” I knew I needed 420 cubic inches of interior space. But wood, marble, metal? Box, cylinder, pyramid? Should the ashes be in separate compartments, or co-mingled? The choices were permanent, and felt weirdly consequential.

Most of the commercial offerings had Hallmarky sentiments embossed on them, gooey variations of “Together Forever.” One design showed interlocking wedding rings, and an artsy one looked like an exclamation point that had fallen and couldn’t get up. The one with the U.S. Army logo would have pleased the World War II Army captain but not so much my mom, who spent the early years of their marriage in ramshackle base housing.

Unimpressed, I decided to design their urn from scratch. My first decision was the easiest. The material had to be steel. Dad worked for 42 years for U.S. Steel, starting in a gritty Alabama wire mill and finishing as a marketing executive in the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters. He was a company man, and my childhood home was filled with the castoffs of American steel promotion—steel serving platters, steel cookware, even a prototype steel pool table whose warped playing surface required a topo map.

A friend in Granby, metal sculptor John Henley, agreed to help and talked me into acid treating the steel-plate exterior of my parents’ urn to a stunning gunmetal-blue finish. Dad would have appreciated the elevation of rough steel to industrial art.

The toughest decision involved the actual lodging arrangements. I consulted my brothers, who agreed that while the idea of co-mingling our parents’ ashes had a certain romance, respecting their individuality was important as well. Same urn separate chambers, we agreed. We also chose a simple box design, to keep costs down. We’d fill the two compartments with their ashes through a simple brass bung in the bottom of each chamber. Done!

But that night I couldn’t sleep. Something wasn’t quite right. My parents were so devoted to one another that no one was surprised when they died just two months apart. Plus, as my father’s eyesight failed during his final two decades, holding hands with my mother—when walking, talking, and sleeping—was how he knew where he was. Theirs was a nearly constant physical connection.

I contacted Henley the next day and asked him for one final change: Could he please cut a one-inch hole in the wall between the two chambers? “No problem,” he said, and for the first time everything felt right.

Martin J. Smith is one of the co-founders of the Grand County Library District’s Community of Writers. This group of writers meets monthly to critique submitted writing pieces focused on fiction, non-fiction and memoir. The next meeting is at 2 p.m. June 28. Check the calendar at for more.

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