CREMATION

In a written exerpt from a letter about the cremation of his mother, George
Bernard Shaw recalls her “passage” with humor and understanding. The dark humor
associated with the horrid details of disposing of his mother’s physical body are eventually
reconciled with an understanding that her spirit lives on. He imagines how she would find
humor in the bizarre event of her own cremation. The quality of humor unites Shaw and
his mother in a bond that transcends the event of death and helps Shaw understand that
her spirit will never die. The reader is also released from the horror of facing the
mechanics of the cremation process when “Mama’s” own comments lead us to understand
that her personality and spirit will live on.
Shaw’s diction is effective in conveying his mood and dramatizing the process of
cremation. The traditional words of a burial service “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” are not
altered for the cremation, the interior chamber “looked cool, clean, and sunny” as by a
graveside, and the coffin was presented “feet first” as in a ground burial. In selecting
aspects of a traditional burial service, Shaw’s mood is revealed as ambivalent toward
cremation by imposing recalled fragments of ground burial for contrast. Strangely
fascinated, he begins to wonder exactly what happens when one is cremated. This mood
of awe is dramatized as he encounters several doors to observe in his chronological
investigation. He sees “a door opened in the wall,” and follows the coffin as it “passed out
through it and vanished as it closed,” but this is not “the door of the furnace.” He finds
the coffin “opposite another door, a real unmistakable furnace door,” but as the coffin
became engulfed in flame, ”the door fell” and the mystery only continues an hour later as
he gazes “through an opening in the floor.” As he observes two “cooks” picking through
“Mama’s dainty little heap of ashes and samples of bone” the mood of dark humor is the
only way he can handle the horror of his mother’s death and cremated body. He has
remained an unemotional observer on a journey through the crematorium with humor as
the buffer between reporting the event and expressing raw emotion. Humor is the device
to release himself and the reader to a new level of understanding.
Plentiful details provide insight into the thoughts of the narrator as well as a time
schedule through the cremation. Shaw relates about cremations that “people are afraid to
see it, but it is wonderful” and he “saw the real thing.” The narrator is acknowledging a
general fear people share about facing the mechanics of cremation, and in doing so is
admitting his own personal fear. He is also focusing on the accurate reporting of his
mother’s disposal and the statement that he was able to observe it and face it, thereby
overcoming the fear. An order is provided for farewells from the initial “I went behind the
scenes at the end of the service” to later “when we returned” (from the hour and a half) to
“and that merry episode was the end except for ...scattering them (bone scraps) on a
flower bed.” All of these steps in the process of saying goodbye provide a loose
chronological structure to his process of release. These details also provide an emotional
way out for the reader who can share Mama’s sense of humor about her own cremation
thereby replacing personal fear about death with a feeling of the continuation of life and
ones spirit.
The first person narration of this letter hightens the focus and insight of the
principal subject. “I went behind the scenes,” and “I found the violet coffin” bring the
focus down to a personal experience, not just a documentary of a similar event. By
following the narrator’s personal journey, certain truths about death and eternity are
understood. The narrator goes on to recall certain truths about his mother:
“Mama....leaning over beside me shaking with laughter” and “mama said in my ear....”
The closeness of the relationship the narrator had with his mother is clarified by their
shared sense of humor. The reader also feels at this point that their relationship will
survive by humor in memory thereby overcoming the morbid aspects of death. The
narrator has relived the entire experience by retelling it, but he has also reached a new
level knowing his memories will survive and his mother’s spirit will live on in a new shared
understanding.
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