We sent Bob Little on his last journey at the beginning of this month.
My friendship with Bob goes back more than a century, although I first met Bob in 1957, when he came to the University of B.C. But our fathers had been theology students together in Toronto, in the 1920s. And incredibly, we have an archival photo of our two grandfathers, friends during the late 1800s.
Bob died last winter. He wanted his ashes scattered in his home province of B.C. So his widow brought them to the town of Golden, where the Kicking Horse River joins the mighty Columbia.
We gathered at the confluence of the two rivers on a quiet Sunday afternoon. We all signed the cardboard box that contained his ashes. Bob’s son Doug waded into the Columbia and pushed the little box out into the current. We watched it drift downstream, out of sight…
It occurred to me that I had done something like this before. At the Indian city of Haridwar, where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayan mountains, my wife and I had joined in a traditional evening celebration. We lit candles in little floral floats and set them free in the river. A flotilla of flickering lights drifted downstream into the darkness.
Similar rituals take place in China and Japan. Perhaps everywhere in the world. Because every culture, every religion, seems to have some sense that a river makes an appropriate metaphor for death.
Every year, millions of devout Hindus come to Benares or Varanasi, India’s holiest city, to cremate their relatives’ bodies on the city’s burning ghats, then to scatter their ashes into the sacred Ganges to be carried away.
Greek mythology visualized the river Styx as the boundary between life and death. Some cultures still place a coin in a deceased person’s mouth, to cover the charges for ferrying that person across the river.
The Christian classic Pilgim’s Progress imagines a dying hero crossing a river, “and the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
I like to think that these customs intuitively recognize that all rivers ultimately flow to the sea from which all living things originally came. Thus we return to our universal home, our oceanic womb.
But that’s probably stretching credulity. Because many who float little boats down rivers have no idea where those rivers go. They have never seen the sea; they may not even know there is such a thing as an ocean. They just know that the river carries things away, and that those things are never seen again.
Like our friend Bob.
We didn’t talk about all this on the riverbank, of course. But that evening at the lodge where we were staying, we told stories. It was the right kind of wake. No sermons, no rituals, no formal eulogies. Gently lubricated by beer and wine, we told stories. About Bob. About our various relationships with him.
As his son Doug commented, death may end a life, but it does not end a relationship. As long as we talk about those relationships, Bob has not left us.
Even if the last of his physical body has drifted down the river.