After the Fire

The man at the crematorium
brings us the tray, all that is left
after the gas jets. All that you were,
our lives in you. I wonder how much
of the ash is coffin, how much
you, how a life can be pulverised
and reduced to an urnful.
But the gravity of the man
assures me. He pieces you
together, his post-mortem
reconstructing your life.
A broken man, he says, picking
the slivers, the bits that sum up
the whole man. He wants us
to go through the pieces
to make sure you are all there.
He has a responsibility
to the living and the dead, he says,
to get it right. He starts from the base,
an anatomy lesson in Hokkien,
showing us what we didn’t see
in life, where it went wrong, the rot
attacking the tibia, the fatal flaw
in the scaffolding. A smoker
and drinker, and a fracture
that never healed, he adds.
The cranium piece completes
you and the ash is poured
into the urn. He says we have to rig you up
in sequence, from the feet,
so that in afterlife, you will be upright,
standing on even feet and ground.
He knows, he is a Buddhist shaman,
a messenger between men and gods.

I take his word like sacrament,
take the jade-green stone urn,
and cradle its surprising weight.
Broken vessel when alive,
whose edges didn’t fit, whose pieces
wouldn’t stay, that wanted to be broken
again and again, you are now
collected in this urn that seems heavier
than the sum of its sifted contents.

I can see you in heaven
materialising from the urn,
the scraps and dust
assembled into a ladder
of bone and flesh, up
on your feet, the limp gone,
dusting the ash off,
and ready to walk
back into our lives.

FROM After the Fire
(Time Books International, 2006)

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