“Beats checking him in our luggage,” she replied. “What if the airlines lost him?”
We hoisted the box containing our father’s ashes into the overhead bin, next to crumpled jackets and wheeled suitcases. His entire six-foot-tall, 300-pound personality now fit into a cardboard box the size of a flower vase.
Ten days after he died, somewhat suddenly at age 66 during a visit to his native Israel, we were transporting him back to the States.
I had sobbed the entire first leg of the journey: a 70-minute flight from Washington to Boston to meet my sister.
“It doesn’t get any better,” a flight attendant had said, offering unsolicited advice on losing a parent. “But it does get easier.”
Kind of like flying, I thought, except grief has no estimated time of departure. Instead, you’re cramped in a middle seat, honking into the last tissue before switching to stiff paper towels from the airplane bathroom, making fellow passengers uncomfortable with your tears.
The grief trip is inevitably tough, whether it’s a short car ride to the cemetery or a 5,500-mile flight. We journey for people we love. For me and my 24-year-old sister, that journey involved bringing Dad back in a box — according to his wishes and against those of his religion.
Judaism forbids cremation, but obviously, our Jew-ish father did not. He had made it clear that he wanted his ashes spread around his home in western Massachusetts. In the meantime, he wanted his remains stored in a blue glass container that used to hold flour. My mother reserved the smaller, matching jar she still uses for sugar.
There’s only one crematorium in Israel, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The day before our flight, we trudged up the steps to the top floor of a building that had the aesthetic appeal of a dentist’s office.
His ashes sat on a conference room table in the cardboard box, inside a purple gift bag, ready for transport. Ilana and I cried for a while, but a few hours later, we were joking that we were transporting chocolate Kinder eggs in that bag. Dad would have preferred the chocolate, anyway.
Unfortunately, the security guards at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport did not share our sense of humor. After all, we were two 20-something foreigners traveling alone with a box of off-white powder.
We repeatedly explained our “Dad-in-a-box” to passport control and luggage inspectors, appropriate paperwork in hand. I grimaced as bags collided with our package on the X-ray conveyor belt.
“Did you watch him get cremated? Please be honest,” a particularly stern security guard with a submachine gun strapped to his chest asked at the final checkpoint.
“Uh, no,” I replied. For a second, I thought he wouldn’t let us go because I hadn’t witnessed the all-consuming flames.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the guard said. “Next, please.”
By that flight back to the United States, all we could do was laugh at the situation. It was better than sobbing in the middle seat.