Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Open Air Cremation

Open Air Cremation

A number of years ago, I read an account of an open air cremation that someone shared with me. The images from that beautiful story have stayed with me over the years...the body carefully wrapped in fabric layered with herbs and essential oils...a large bowl of rock salt mixed with lavender blossoms and oils of lavender and rosemary, handfuls of which were scattered over the fire, releasing colors and scent....and most strikingly, the son, standing on a rise above the pyre, in clan kilt and colors, both hands on the hilt of a claymore, point down in the earth. (A claymore is a large double-edged broadsword formerly used by Scottish Highlanders). As the pyre was lit, he raised the sword over his head and swept it through the air, cutting earthly ties and freeing the soul.
I've held this story dear and shared it with others, wishing I could learn more about how or where it happened. So imagine my delighted surprise when last fall, at a conference on Green Burials in Boulder, CO I listened to a woman who gave a presentation on Open Air Cremation!
I listened, rapt, as Anna Louise Stewart shared the story of the community based, non denominational group that she is part of- and their inspiration to honor their dead in this ancient sacred way. It began with one family choosing to do this on their own property, doing a bit of research to procure the correct permits and going ahead. It was unique, and moving, and it sparked (!) the interest of others.
As you may imagine, there was no standard operating procedure to refer to for this and as people began to exercise this option, it became clear that sharing information and support would be beneficial to all concerned. I spoke with Stephanie Gaines, a friend and colleague of Anna Louise, about what happened next. She saw a need for people to have clear, accurate information on both the practical and emotional sides, to make the experience of open air cremation a positive one for all concerned. She says: “We wanted to bring mindfulness to cremations so that people were trained and had consciousness and intentionality about what was done. Very much like the work of hospice, we wanted to be teaching and supporting people to do this in a skillful way.”
So she founded the Crestone End of Life Project, a non profit educational organization, to do just that. What a gift to her community!
It is important to Stephanie that people have a grounded understanding of the process and reasons for open air cremation. She wanted to address family concerns, communication, preparations, advice about documents needed, etc. It’s an extension of the home funeral processes I’ve spoken about here before.

“We want people to be aware that it is possible...but we want them to be mindful of what is involved. And we want them to know about the incredible community base that is needed to accomplish this. It takes an enormous amount of work to do this and we strive for impeccability as we do it. ” She stresses that the cremation itself is the final part of a much longer and community oriented process… But I know you want to know about that bit so I’ll share what these two women told me about it.
At Crestone, they have selected a spot on the top of a hill. All cremations are done at 7:00 a.m. (winds are calm at that hour). A body wrapped in cloth is carried in a procession up the hill. It is placed on the pyre and as a lovely touch, juniper branches are arranged over it. Mourners may also add flowers or other items. The fire is lit and flames rise high. People stay together for the several hours it takes the body to complete its ‘transformation’. Anna Louise tells me that there is often a lot of heavy or intense grieving when someone lights the fire. But that as time goes on, other emotions release. People sing, cry, chant, pray, talk and even laugh. This seems just right to me…and another example of the power of giving people enough time to fully receive the death. There’s time enough for people to be present with one another in their grief, uncomfortable as it may be. It becomes a community supported event. Everyone shares in the pain and the deep abiding comfort of being part of a community experiencing this together.

Stephanie says they are now writing a manual to offer clear information and training for people who want this option. And she tells me that they have “absolute support from the coroners in Colorado”. This is in part because of their great efforts at connecting to their community and providing such a knowledgeable and comforting service to citizens of the two small towns they serve. For more information you may contact the folks at Crestone http://www.crestoneendoflifeproject.org
Until next time... Marian

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to subscribe here.
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cemetery Shopping Trip

Cemetery Shopping Trip
Laura at her chosen burial spot
I love my work. How many of you have ever gotten an email in your inbox with "Cemetery Shopping Trip" in the subject line?
I received this from Laura Taylor, a client of mine who is really facing her ‘future demise’ with class, humor, whimsy and an artistic practicality. Laura is my ideal…she’s actually got more pieces of her ‘exit plan’ together than I do. (Should I really admit that?!). She’s my new heroine.
About 2 months ago, I met Laura. She was
referred to me by a local funeral service provider who knows that I make burial shrouds. Laura wanted a natural burial and was looking for sustainable alternatives to a casket. Since she is local, I invited her to my studio. We had a lovely first meeting. I showed her a shroud and she was able to look over all the fabrics and ribbons I use, and to try out different color combinations etc. She asked lots of great questions, and as we talked I got a sense of her life, her values and her true desire to plan her exit in a personal, whimsical, beautiful way. And here’s the thing about Laura….she’s in perfectly fine health! Her death isn’t any more imminent than anyone else's (well, strictly speaking we could all say …but we don’t, and yes, some people are actively engaged in the dying process…which my friend Therese calls ‘intensified living’….but that’s another article!)
Anyway, my point is that Laura has literally taken the bull by the horns and stepped up to fully face death instead of running on ahead and pretending it should never catch up with her! It seems to me that this gives her a kind of effervescent power. Each time we’ve met, planning designs for the quilting, consulting on color changes, and brainstorming about ideas, we inevitably get to giggling about something. I’ve said ‘you know you can try this on beforehand’ and though I was being perfectly serious, after a few seconds we both cracked up! She said ‘yes, and take a picture of me in it! So I can see how I look!’. I offered to do this with her family so that when the time comes, they’ll have some familiarity with how the shroud works, and also the memory of laughter in the midst of their grief.
Laura has chosen symbols of water, fish and a setting sun which I worked into a drawing that serves as the design to be quilted into a panel that will rest on top of her body. This is a design change suggested by her and one which I will likely adopt in the future. I love this cooperative approach, creating as we go along, incorporating personal touches. Laura likes to crochet and we will be weaving some of her handwork into the design as well.
You know what all of this does? It invites “Death” right into the room with us…not as a monstrous fearful event but as a simple inevitability. We poke fun, we create beauty, and we re-integrate death into the course of a life. We interact with the concept of death. We scale it down to the truly ordinary occurrence that it is, in order to make ourselves available to the teachings it will bring. This is happening not just for Laura, but for me as well. And I am grateful for it.
In today’s email, Laura says “I found the perfect place to put my body after I'm done with it!” and she goes on to talk about the Historic Cemetery she found in Eugene, which is at present the only Green Burial cemetery in Oregon. She sent the photos I’ve displayed here, saying “I especially like the photo where I'm spreading my arms to show that this, indeed, is the place, for me on one side and for Tom on the other. Here shall we rest our weary bones!"
Laura has danced right up to a cultural ‘edge’ here… and anyone who comes into contact with her affable, humorous and matter-of-fact approach can’t help but come away changed by it. Just listen to her last line; “How exciting! I can hardly wait! ....... No, wait a minute, I think I can wait a bit longer!” Can’t you just see that twinkle in her eye?

"Here we Lay Our Weary Bones"

So dear readers, here’s a challenge for you; Share this article with someone and instigate a conversation about what you each might want to
happen with your body ‘after you’re done with it’.
~Thank you, Laura, for letting me share your story!
Until next time...
This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog. I invite you to subscribe here.
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010