Still life with nutria

The beetle-cleaned nutria skull that guards my mother's ashes.
The beetle-cleaned nutria skull that guards my mother’s ashes.

Behold the nutria skull. I bought it on ebay from a man who sells beetle-cleaned bones. That was shortly after my mother died. 2006. And yes, “seller of beetle-cleaned bones” is an actual job description.


The crematorium had packed my mother’s ashes inside a small, white cardboard box. Like an order of Kung Pao chicken. Prior to incineration, her still-hydrated remains had been packed inside yet another cardboard box per state law, so I’ll never know how much of the Kung Pao is my mother and how much is wood product. The little bits of bone mixed in with the ashes, though, are almost certainly her.

Here’s what I think: The carryout box was the crematorium’s way of non-verbalizing what a mistake it had been for me not to buy the $500 humidor they’d recommended as an economical but respectful alternative to the $1,500 urn. The $100 cardboard cremation coffin law was (and is?) the work of funeral industry lobbyists bent on thwarting stingy survivors like me.

Today, the ashes and the boney bits reside inside a beautiful handmade ceramic vase. Its mouth is stoppered with a natural cork plug and the plug is topped by the nutria skull you see here. Those things flaring out of the nutria’s nasal cavities are dried plant parts. Mom liked dried plants. So do I.