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December 07, 2016
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A secular ceremony

When you’re short on religion, as is my family, you have to make your own ceremonies for important occasions. It helps if you have good planning skills. We don’t. In spite of all our shortcomings and recent obstacles, like my aunt’s stroke, we wanted to have a family memorial for my uncle at the place he loved best, on Fire Island. His cremains had been languishing since May on a marble mantelpiece in the townhouse he shared with his wife for the last 40 years of his life.

As we made plans for my aunt to move into assisted living uptown, it became clear it was also time to honor her husband with an appropriate dispatch. Assembling my family is like herding cats—cats without smartphones. But assemble we did at a borrowed house on the ocean in Seaview, the community in which my cousins spent their childhood, where they learned to ride bikes and windsurf, to swim and sail and seine for sea life. They spent their summers in a big old cedar-shake house anchored between the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

When they were young, their mother stayed there with them and my uncle came out on the ferry every Friday. He crammed a week’s worth of activity into every weekend, taking them sailing in a tiny Styrofoam craft called a Snark, body-surfing at the ocean or swimming in the bay and going into town for ice-cream every Saturday night. There were no cars on the island, only bicycles, and they were not allowed in the town proper. Walking was the dominant mode of transport. It was a good way to spend a childhood.

The ceremony my cousins envisioned for their father’s Fire Island send-off included a parade of family members on foot, flanking their mother’s wheelchair. It started at the beach house with a review of a selection of a life’s worth of photographs that called up spontaneous recollections, and proceeded to the bay beach where we each scooped a clamshell of ashes into the bay. We remembered my uncle spending hours there readying the windsurf-boards for any of us who might want to go out in good weather.

The parade continued to the ferry dock where he would go every weekend, rain or shine, often inventively attired. He always wore UV-blocking clothing, broad-brimmed hats and if a rope would do for a belt, so be it.

At the dock, my cousins had hired a water taxi as an afterthought. The captain had agreed to ignore our nefarious activity—the dumping of human remains is oddly forbidden—and he slowly transported us to a lonely little island in the bay, where my cousins remembered going with their parents to clam in the sandy shallows on the Snark. As the captain cut the engine, my cousin Michael read a poem titled “Farewell” that ends “When you live in the hearts/ Of those you love/ Remember then/ You never die.”

Just then, we noticed a small white sailboat pass by with a red and white sail and four passengers leaning against the steady wind. It was the Snark. I turned to my cousin Jennifer, disbelieving my eyes. “It’s you,” I said, “It’s your family.” We just stared as the Snark tacked away into the bay.

The last stop on our ceremonial parade was the ocean, where my aunt got up from her wheelchair and walked with us to the edge of the sea. As she flung one last scoop of ashes into the surf, a gust of wind blew it back onto the beach and her. We all gasped, but she began to laugh as her son-in-law dusted the ashes of her husband from her shoes, and finally we were all laughing and crying at once.

And that is how you celebrate a life well-lived with or without religion.