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The Longship Farewell  


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:

- cremation;

- 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?”

“No. Why?”

“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.


The Curse 

I wrote this back in 2020, Hallowe'en/Samhain. Every bit true, save for some details of plot for dramatic effect.

Back in the mid-oughts of this century, I was freshly quit of the ministry, marriage, and faith. Nevertheless, I remained in a more or less formal affiliation with a local congregation as what was then known as a Voluntary Associate Minister.. My role was to act as a supply clergy for weddings, funerals, and the occasional Sunday Service. After prior interviews regarding my suitability the congregation welcomed me in an official recognition ceremony.

In my various sermons/talks/homilies I made no secret of my journey away from the household of faith. It was more like a wander out the backyard, through the gate, and down the road to the left side of the mountain range.

Goodbye, Christ. See ya later Jesus. I discovered that a lot of the good folks in that congregation felt the same way. Some, of course, didn’t, and being good Canadian United Church folk, they said nothing, but looked at me strangely and shook my hand afterward with noticeably less enthusiasm.

In the meantime, for two years I heard nothing, good or bad from the governing board regarding my position, performance, or expectations. It was a tidy arrangement: because of this affiliation, I was able to keep my license to officiate weddings in the province of Ontario. It provided a significant summer supplement to my income during the summer when music lessons decreased.

So imagine my surprise when I received a call one evening from a representative of the board informing me they had decided to terminate my position. Reason? Disappointment in my lack of congregational involvement.

The poor bastard who called me was obviously an uncomfortable bearer of bad tidings.

I was dumbfounded, speechless. I sputtered out some indignant phrases, but apparently, the board’s decision was final, pending ratification from the next level of the judicatory, the Presbytery. After a few minutes, we rang off.

I was angry. Furious at this display of arbitrary injustice. Not even the three strikes you’re out recommended by no less an authority than the writer of Matthew’s Gospel. The board had indicated nothing in those two years of any kind of dissatisfaction with what I was or was not doing.

So I wrote the first letter. I described what happened, how I felt about it, and why. I requested a reply and a reconsideration of their decision. Kept a copy, and hand-delivered the original to the church office. I would have described my tone as reasonable, and polite, with a hint of sarcasm.

I waited for the reply.

One week. Two. Three.

Three months passed. Five.


News from the Presbytery filtered down. They did not contact me directly – I heard from a friend in ministry. They had ratified the congregational board’s decision.

Time for letter number two.

I was less polite this time. I used words like ignorant, incompetent, and unjustifiable. And chickenshit. Especially chickenshit.

I was not in any way hindered by Christian concepts of forgiveness and understanding or any desire whatsoever for reconciliation. So, half in jest, the other half in irony, I pronounced a curse on that church.

“May whatever God you believe in lay a stinking, steaming three-coiler in the middle of one of your worship services.”

Now personally I don’t believe in any kind of that juju, but it felt good to express it.

This was a letter that required several overnights, like a good stew, to let its flavours mellow, mature, ferment, brew, whatever. I sent copies of it to friends of mine for review and editing. None was needed.

I wound up not sending it. I suppose better judgment prevailed. Unfortunately, I lost the only copy.

Now, if this was a case of yet another story of the triumph of wisdom over folly, the story would end here. Friends would pat me on the back congratulating me on the good choice I made.

The story, however, does not end there. Oh, no, dear reader. It continued out of my hands.

A few months later, the sweet scent of karma arrived over that part of the city block in the form of the sewers backing up. A bit of municipal geology is helpful here. The church property was located at the bottom of a fairly steep hill populated with mostly older residential properties supplied with mostly older supply, waste, and drain infrastructure. A sewage break in the line farther up the hill would not have affected the church. The effluent would have stopped at the unfortunate’s house in the middle of the hill. As it turned out the break occurred at the bottom of the hill, thereby directing the downhill course of the entire street’s poojuice into the church. Hilarity did not ensue.

In addition to that area of the street being rendered inaccessible, the church grounds and building needed immediate and thorough assessment, evacuation, decontamination, repair, and restoration. The excremental by-product not only hit the fan, but O.M.G., it destroyed the kiddies' Sunday School macaroni art.

Shit like that costs money. And I don’t have to tell you the financial status of these kinds of religious institutions is fragile at the best of times.

They did not survive. A few painful years later, the same ratifying judicatories that deemed me no longer viable, declared the same for the congregation and closed it. The building was decommissioned, abandoned, and demolished.

All that remains is a weedy parking lot.

Apparently, the deity’s version of the steaming three-coiler did its work.

Now I am fully aware of the dictum that correlation does not equal causation.

Nevertheless, I am quite satisfied the correlation occurred.

I did not have to send the second letter after all.

My curse worked.