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Funeral pyres an option in Colorado mountain town
Cremation in the open air with loved ones attending
Question of the Day
CRESTONE, Colo. | Belinda Ellis‘ farewell went as she wanted. One by one, her family placed juniper boughs and logs about her body, covered in red cloth atop a rectangular steel grate inside a brick-lined hearth. With a torch, her husband lit the fire that consumed her, sending billows of smoke into the blue-gray sky of dawn.
When the smoke subsided, a triangle-shaped flame flickered inside the circle of mourners, heavily dressed and huddling against zero-degree weather.
“Mommy, you mean the world to me, and it’s hard to live without you,” called out Mrs. Ellis‘ weeping daughter, Brandi, 18. “It’s hard to breathe, it’s hard to see, and it’s hard to think about anything but you.”
The outdoor funeral pyre in this southern Colorado mountain town is unique. Funeral and cremation industry officials say they are not aware of any other place in the nation that conducts open-air cremations for people regardless of religion. A Buddhist temple in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., conducts a few cremations on funeral pyres, but only for its members.
Ancient vikings lit funeral pyres to honor their dead, and it is accepted practice among Buddhist and Hindu religions, but the practice is largely taboo in the U.S.
The pyre harkens to references in the Christian and Hebrew Bibles equating rising smoke with the ascent of the soul, said David Weddle, a religion professor at Colorado College. It can be seen as honoring a natural cycle, reducing the body to ash and the elements of which it is composed. It also can be a protest against traditional funerals, which some view as a denial of death, Mr. Weddle said.
Mrs. Ellis‘ ceremony and others seem somehow fitting for Crestone, home to an eclectic mix of spiritual and religious groups that include Zen and Tibetan Buddhists and Carmelites, said Stephanie Gaines, director of the nondenominational Crestone End of Life Project, the volunteer group that performs the cremations.
While Mrs. Ellis “did not have a religious bone in her body,” said her husband, Randy Ellis, she had attended a Crestone pyre funeral and had told her family it was what she wanted. Mrs. Ellis, 48, died of a massive heart attack Jan. 9 and was cremated three days later.
“As a culture, we need to say goodbye,” he said. “And I think watching some of the things that this organization is doing for their community, the word that comes to my mind is, ‘Hooray!’ Because they’re encouraging people to bear witness.”
The Crestone End of Life Project conducted its first open-air cremation in January 2008 and has performed 18 since. Each pending cremation sets in motion phone calls to the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office, the fire department and the coroner. State and local agencies have given permits to the group to conduct the cremations.
Some residents initially opposed the idea, worried about pollution, smells and heavy traffic. The group addressed every worry, said Miss Gaines, project director.
The project asks $425 per cremation, though families can give more. Volunteers counsel grieving family, help arrange the deceased to repose at home before a cremation, and prepare the hearth with kindling the day before the ceremony.
The service is offered only to the small number of people who live in the area. Crestone has about 100 residents, but about 1,000 others who live in the adjacent development of Baca Grande also qualify for the service, as do residents of the nearby town of Moffat, population 112.
The decision to limit who can be cremated was made to honor the wishes of the community, which did not want out-of-towners coming to Crestone. The project isn’t big enough to handle more ceremonies.
By Tom Harris and Madhav Khandekar
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