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
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