Recently I found myself alone with a deceased person, in their house. The occasion was the loss of a close family member, someone I had grown up with. They passed away suddenly and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I ended up spending nearly 24 hours at their home with their cremated remains. It was somewhat surreal. First, I arrived at their house in the dead of night after a long transatlantic flight and had to almost break into their house when I found I only had one of the two keys needed for the front door. As luck would have it, the side door into the garage was unlocked and then the door into the house only had a single lock – the key I had.

So I spent the night alone and would remain so until nearly midnight of the following day – almost a full 24 hours with only memories and ashes for company.

I should explain that once upon a time, I also lived in that house, along with other family members, all of whom have now passed away. I was the sole survivor, even though I was not the youngest (the recently departed was). Every room, every drawer held a memory of a much happier time, when we were all together and looking towards the future. Now I stood in the middle of a building with no more tomorrows for anyone other than myself.

It was a difficult thing, and felt like I was invading their privacy by going through closets and opening bedroom drawers. I found many things that surprised me, and would have to remind myself that the owners were all dead and gone; I had every right, and indeed a need to go through their most intimate keepsakes. Other family members had been there before me and started to sort through paperwork, etc., so the house was disheveled. But a great many personal items were untouched and had been for some time – a watch on a nightstand, a razor still in place, a toothbrush, worn from use. Despite the untidiness, it felt like the former occupants could come back at any time and resume their lives, even though I knew that was never going to happen.

The experience left me sad, and tears were frequent. I miss them all terribly and always will. But it was also a transformative experience. I began to see this house as a place where time had stopped at the moment of the last death. In many ways, the person whose passing had brought me back to this place had refused to accept the loss of the rest of the family and tried to preserve the place as a shrine or a museum to their memory. Deep in my heart I felt the same way and understood the feeling. I too wished to keep it all as it was, as I remembered it from when I lived there. But the more I looked into drawers and cabinets, the more I examined the piles of receipts and small objects d’art, the more I came to realize I could not do that. I had no desire to be the custodian of dusty relics of days past. I was alive and had my own path to follow.

Many of the objects I found scattered on endtables and countertops were things like nail clippers or bottles of pills; remote controls or key fobs, etc. Items that all of us have in our own homes. And these are the things we use as we live our lives. But when we are gone, these items serve no further purpose, other than as remnants of our need to keep moving forward in time. Now they had no use, and no function other than as clutter. The entire house and all of its contents were static, unchanging and waiting for a future that had ceased to be.

I knew then that I could not keep things as they were. It was time to let it go, all of it. I would take some items as mementos, such as photo albums or small keepsakes, but the rest would have to be sold, donated or thrown away. It pains me to think that someone’s memories or personal treasures could wind up in the trash, but it will happen to almost everything all of us own someday. I can’t burden my descendants with the care of things that belonged to people they’ll never know. And that includes the house itself. For decades, it was a home, a happy place, a refuge for us from the trials of life. Somewhere to return to, someplace to entertain visitors or escape from the world. Now it was just a house, a structure falling into disrepair. It needs to go to a new family who will turn it into a home once again. My heart will always be there, but with the passing of the last inhabitant, it’s time to let it go, as it once came to us.

And then there were the cremains. I admit that my morbid curiosity got the better of me. If I didn’t look, I’d wonder for the rest of my life about it. The ashes were placed with no ceremony upon the TV stand, in a rather well-made cloth bag from the funeral home. I took it into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. Inside was a cardboard box with an identifying card naming the deceased. Taking the box out and opening it, I found a clear plastic bag closed with a golden tag. The remains were clearly visible through the thick plastic. Lifting it out, I was surprised at the heft. I had never seen cremated human bones in person before and marveled at the view. The ashes themselves were a light colour, slightly tan with a light pink appearance. No sign of burning or singeing anywhere, with sizes from grains of sand up to small rough-edged granules. It was hard to believe this was a person I had known nearly all my life and had spoken to only a few months previously. Now there they were, dead; burnt, crushed and ground into a near-powder, bagged and tagged, ready to be placed in the urn (which was in a box on the dining room table). I poked the bag and wondered what part of the body this or that large particle of bone once was.

Eventually I put the bag back into the box, the box back into the cloth bag and returned it to the TV stand as I had found it. I would take it out again later and look once more, as well as take a few photographs. But often as I would wander around the house, I would also lovingly pat the bag and speak to it. Several days later I would be back, possibly for the last time, and leave flowers next to the bag, in the deceased’s favourite colour (the same colour as the urn). I also visited the cemetery where the ashes would ultimately be interred, with the other former occupants of the house.

I don’t regret looking; it can’t be any more odd than seeing the body of a loved one at a viewing while they lie in repose in a casket. I mourned and will feel the pain of loss for some time to come. As everyone who has lost someone will know, the pain never really goes away; you just keep going on with it as a part of you. It’s all that can be done. You cannot live in the past. As I mentioned previously, you would become the curator of a museum of memories. The family I grew up with is gone; I have a new family now and share my life with them.

Relating my experiences to the people around me, the word “closure” came up over and over again. I don’t know if I really have a sense of it. A life interrupted feels unfinished; it’s hard to button that up and put it away in the mind. Although I can say I did make my peace with some aspects of it, such as coming to terms with giving up the house, and the cold reality of seeing a loved one as really and truly dead. I definitely turned a page (if not a chapter) in my life. But is that “closure”? It’s uncertain; perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be just that. But for now, I know I am still grieving over the loss of not only a close relative, but a huge part of my own life, also gone forever.

Since my return, I’ve thought a lot about that day, that entire trip. I can recall the smell of the house, the silence, the feeling of emptiness in rooms full of ‘things’. And the memories, everywhere. It was the busiest empty space I’ve ever known. I have deep existential dread about my own demise and leaving so much behind. It makes me look at my own collection of nail files or scribbled notes and wonder about the day when someone will have to decide what to keep and what to throw away. I wonder if they will also find closure, of a sort. I hope so. I hope I do, too.