I am trying to pry deeper into the life of this community and ask Kizzen about a local cemetery. She says; ah yes! and drives me across a lovely sage and juniper valley. We turn into a small gravel road and here it is: the only outdoor human cremation facility in the United States which—I learn—will perform an open-air cremation, regardless of their religion, with families able to participate. The funeral pyre is a simple concrete and brick-hearth with a steel grate, and a body is usually wrapped in a simple cloth, and then surrounded by logs and covered with juniper branches. Then anything may happen—music? words? tears?—and the pyre goes ablaze. Kizzen says that during the dead of winter—with deep Colorado frost and cold cold winds blowing from the icy ridges—many mourners may come close to the fire and turn their backs to warm their living bodies.
I learn that Kizzen’s close friends were cremated here, too. Some recently, and her eyes tear up. I feel my own tears coming up, too: a companionable grief, a shared sadness. But this, to her and to me, is a great place to bid farewell to people we loved, away from everything but the mountain range now wrapped in fog and the desert breathing in and out. Small copper plaques are the only markers measuring the passage of time, and Kizzen touches them one by one. I see a Polish name, and below a Danish one.
They are world travelers even now, in this great Colorado valley.
— Yva Momatiuk
For her Father, Dr. Casimir Bielecki…
The first open-air cremation I ever witnessed was my own father’s. It was one of the most sacred and healing experiences of my life. Once my grieving period was over, I was eager to join the Crestone End-of-Life Project to help provide a similar humanized and consoling experience of death for others.
The cremation experience is deeply enhanced by gathering the “cremains” 24 hours later.
I went to the cremation site with my family, carrying several buckets and small trowels. My father’s ashes were no longer smoldering…
but still warm. We sifted through them carefully and pulled out every piece of bone fragment that did not burn up in the fire, marveling at the beautiful architecture of the human body, and communing with Dad. Some of the fragments we placed in a specially crafted urn to bury in our New England home town next to Mom’s grave, as we’d promised Dad we would. Some fragments I keep wrapped in a scarf in a blue and red lacquered box from Poland, purchased there with my family decades ago.
Remember how various cultures honor the “bones of the ancestors” and even carry them with them as they move from place to place? I’ve come to understand the deep meaning of this cherished connection.
I don’t find it at all macabre but a profound act of love, an essential part of grieving and healing, and a crucial meditation on “impermanence.” We are all made out of the very dust of the earth, as the Book of Genesis tells us. And to that dust we shall return.
As a Roman Catholic, I’ve been steeped all my life in “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Every Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I’ve had ashes pressed into my forehead with the words from the Book of Job in the Jewish Testament: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This wisdom became vividly real as I gathered up my beloved father’s ashes.
An unhealthy denial of death exists in many parts of our culture. Fashion, advertising, hospitals, and funeral homes all conspire to make the old look young and the deceased look “alive.” Open-air cremation provides an honest and radical confrontation with death, and therefore helps us grieve and heal our losses in a healthy, timely, and sacred manner.
The process culminates naturally in the gathering of the ashes and bones which we can honor in any number of ways: burial, saving and cherishing, or scattering to the four winds, releasing us from the confines of matter into the universal omni-present realm of Spirit.
For his brother, Tony Ross
Born November 19, 1957
Died July 6, 2009
Cremation ceremony held on July 8, 2009
Coming from a strong Catholic background I wasn’t too keen on the idea of Tony wanting to be cremated, let alone in the open air, on a wood pyre with juniper branches and ponderosa wood, on the side of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains, at 7 am in the morning, after 3 days of lying in state at his home in Alamosa on dry ice. However I was an older brother and had already learned that Tony did things “his way” and usually things turned out nicer than I would have expected. What a beautiful way to go, on an altar, in the open air, on the side of a mountain, surrounded by about 90 people, who you knew made an extra effort to be there to witness his passing, and knowing he was going to a better place, and feeling their love.
Even the mosquitos came out in full force. I never would have participated in this if it wasn’t for my brother and now I wish that others consider this as another way, the old traditional Indian way, of passing.
The love and care that was shown by the Crestone end-of-life project (CEOLP) people was amazing. Tony died at 8:11 pm on July 6th, 2009 with his brother Eddie and myself at his side. Four end-of-life people drove down from Crestone (about 1 hour away) and arrived about 10:40 pm to wash and dress the body. They invited Eddie and I to partake in the washing and putting on the precious oils of frankincense and myrrh, just like what Jesus received as gifts from the Wise Men. This process was very methodical and ritualistic, always concerned with his care and dignity. They lit candles and carefully packed him in dry ice to keep his body from deteriorating too quickly. Eddie made sure that he or I would be present during the three days he was to lie in state. Other CEOLP members came the next day and brought dry ice and a cooling blanket, gathered junipers for the burning, built the wooden stretcher he would be carried and burned on. And other CEOLP members came Thursday night and Friday morning to help prepare him for the trip to Crestone. In addition there were a few calls from the Howells (Barbara and William) during Tony’s time lying in state. On July 10th the day of the cremation, the CEOLP people were out in full force, preparing the site, tending to the fire, taking pictures, taking care of the paperwork, cleaning up afterwards and putting his ashes in his urn.
The ceremony was very reverent and plenty of time was allowed for the people present to speak as the fire burned. About 20 people spoke and shared how Tony impacted their lives and they shared their love for Tony. Again the overall experience was beautiful. It was a very moving experience that I was glad to be a part of and won’t easily forget. I want to thank the CEOLP for the gracious handling of Tony’s body after his death and during his cremation.
On participating in the green burial of her friend, John O’Donnell
Born: July 6, 1939
Died: November 1, 2013
Cremation ceremony: November 2, 2013
I was sharing with a friend this past week my befuddlement around the fact that we are required to learn a myriad of things in school that we never use again, but we don’t learn the most basic aspects of living . . . like how to prepare a body after death. To finally have that experience makes it feel like the most natural thing in the world.
It was such a blessing and a privilege to work with people in Crestone CO from hospice and the End of Life Project to support the transition of a friend. It healed so much of my own trauma around death to be a part of something so natural and organic. I felt as if my Soul remembered this from a long time ago and I feel very strongly that organizations like these that facilitate such beautiful and peaceful passings help not only the Soul who is leaving the body, but also all those blessed to be present for the sacred event.
It was also such a blessing to be part of the first green burial in the Crestone Cemetery…
Again I experienced a great healing to be surrounded by such a wonderful group of people who all recognized and honored the natural process of a Soul transitioning out of a body and who treated it as a “send off” celebration rather than a loss to be grieved. We were surrounded by nature and the process itself was so simple and able to honor the desires of our friend who simply wanted to let his body go back to the earth from whence it came.
This experience has changed my life and the way I now view “death”. I hope that more people and places around the country can open to this natural, peaceful and joyful way of honoring a life and what comes after it.
With Deep Gratitude,
John O’Donnel green burial
Thanks for all that you do. That was the most amazing, loving and spiritual gathering/ceremony/send-off for Joh. A wonderful person honored by wonderful people in a wonderful, heart-centered ceremony in an awesome space!
-Edie Cooper, fall 2016
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