My father, Dirk Jan Moll, died on February 17, 2011 in Guelph, Ontario of complications from a sepsis infection. Diagnosed on the Tuesday, dead on Thursday. My sister Sorouja had called me Tuesday. It was looking bad. I gathered what resources I had and made my way in by Wednesday. My sister and I had taken a short break from visiting him. The nursing station called us to say he died just as we were served at a restaurant. We finished the meal (he wasn’t going to get any worse) and went back to the hospital room where he was kept. Paid our respects, contacted the family and waited.
The next day we went to the funeral home to make arrangements. That was when the fun started.
You see, my father, compelling old curmudgeon that he was, had some specific instructions as to the disposal of his remains:
- ashes to be put into a boat;
- said boat to be set aflame and afloat on Lake Erie in front of his cottage/residence;
- accompanying music to be played: “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones;
- over the years he had painted copies of old masters - this group of about 45 paintings was to be put on auction and the funds raised from that were to go to the Sick Kids Hospital.
- invite family and friends.
There is not a drop of Viking blood in him. He was Dutch. So I guess close enough.
When we told the funeral director about the instructions, he didn’t bat an eye.
“We get lots of requests like this. We had one family put their dear departed’s ashes in shotgun shells and fire them into the woods by their hunting camp. By the way, did your father have a pacemaker?”
“Pacemakers have nuclear material in them. When subjected to the heat of cremation, they explode.”
“Oh. We didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. It really makes a mess. One time it happened on my watch and the crematorium had to replace the firebricks inside the furnace. The detonation wrecked the entire interior. That’s why we always ask. We just remove it while we prepare the remains.”
“No, he didn’t have a pacemaker.”
He ticks off a box on the form.
So what to do? We set a date for the memorial service for July 2nd of that year. We delegated various jobs, venue prep, invitations, food, sound system, and so on. I volunteered to make the boat and prepare the service. I used to make mountain dulcimers and I had been a clergyperson. So close enough on two counts.
And to put some icing on the funerary cake, another project recently had me in the CBC Toronto studios with Steve Wadhams, a renowned producer for various CBC programs and others. He overheard me talking about my father’s memorial and his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Do you think I could make a story out of this for Living Out Loud?”
I said I’d have to consult with the family and get back to him, but I was excited that he considered this program worthy.
Long story short, relatives approved, and that was a go for the day.
Putting together the service was easier than the boat. The latter took a bit of research: downloading the lofting plans for a Viking longship, finding construction material, and a workspace.
Plans were easy to find. Construction material was a bit more challenging – it had to be lightweight, easily workable, and flammable. Thin plywood for the keel, and picture matting for the ribs and hull planking. Sealant, paint. Rigging as close to plan as possible.
Of course, it had to float and carry at least seven pounds of ash with enough freeboard to clear waves on Lake Erie. My father became considerably overweight before he died. His ashes came to just over four kilos. The devil is in the details.
I managed to temporarily use my friend’s workspace to put the framing up, and finished the rest in the apartment.
I have pics:
I gave the ship a test run – it floated, carried the weight, and the rigging worked. She sailed into Lake Kempenfelt for her maiden voyage. Tethered to shore, of course. I needed her back.
So with the ship carefully ensconced in the car, on Canada Day we all met at the cottage just west of Port Bruce, myself, my brother Richard and his spouse, Susan, both of whom travelled all the way from Los Angeles, and my sister Sorouja, (her daughter Baritte, my two sons, Simon and Stan, arrived the next day). We got well lubricated on single malt, told stories and memories, played and sang, and made merry.
A storm, a good old barn-buster of a thing, rose up later in the evening, lightning and thunder flashing up the lake’s horizon. My brother and sister scurried away inside. I, however, was drunk and foolish, and stood with arms defiantly raised to the heavens below the trees between the poles where my father practiced his slack-wire walking, the steel cable buried beneath the trees. I was ripe for striking. It did not happen.
The swells on the lake the following day were up a metre high and unpredictable. The roar of the surf pervaded the conversations of the family and friends gradually drifting in for the day. We were going to start the proceedings at about one-thirty, as I remember it. Had to make a quick trip to the Aylmer version of Canadian Tire to get a cassette player that could produce enough volume to play the tracks. The wind and the waves were going to be a challenge.
We had six of my father’s brothers and sisters there. Friends and irritating neighbours. My boys and Baritte, who I mentioned earlier, came that day, ready to do their part. My father was not a believer. So no mention of the deity. But lots of poetry, Dylan Thomas et al. Memories and reflections from some and sundry.
The time had come to load the ship. Sorouja, Richard, and I, loaded the ashes in. Put in the keys to the cottage, a small airline-sized bottle of scotch, and soaked the ashes thoroughly with barbeque fluid.
Conscious that the neighbours might not have appreciated having a model boatload of burning cremains landing on their shore, we secured anchors and line to the fore and aft of the ship. Richard had a lighter sealed in a small baggie.
To the faint-sounding recording of the Ride of the Valkyries he and I carried the boat out into the waves of Lake Erie, twenty, thirty, feet out, where the troughs of the swells reached our chests, and the crests over our heads.
We had to bounce on the lake bottom to keep our heads above water. Secured the anchors. Then Richard took out the lighter, and tried once, twice, three times to set the ashes alight. Timing was critical here, and the waves and wind conspired to extinguish the flame of expectation. Fourth time was good – the lighter fluid caught and we had a good flame going by the time we waded back to the rocks on the shore and the concrete breakwater. George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Steve Wadhams was recording everything, but we hardly noticed him.
Sorouja had bought a toy bow and arrow and some sparklers, and tape to tie the sparklers to the arrow for us to fire at the burning boat.
We all watched as the flames consumed the rigging, the sail, and gradually the aft of the model, and then, after about twenty, thirty minutes it seemed like she would stay forever afloat, the longboat took on water from the burning stern and she sank in seconds. Gone.
An episode of CBC’s Living Out Loud featured Steve’s production. It aired a couple of times about a decade ago. It has been consigned to the archives and to date I have been unable to retrieve it. I do, however, have a CD recording of the show, and understandable copyright issues prevent me from bringing it to you on this blog. Maybe it will be available in the future. As for this account, any errors are due to my faulty memory. If any family and kin have corrections or additions, feel free to let me know.
Like a sand mandala, the ship and its cargo have disappeared into the silty bottom of Lake Erie. For now, I have memories in picture and story, that are now yours.
Dirk Jan Moll, Slack wire dancer.