The Associated Press beat me to the story about the open air cremations in Crestone, Colorado, probably the only place in the United States where you can be cremated on a funeral pyre. I interviewed Stephanie Gaines a few months ago, and hadn’t written it up yet.
Some of the story, as it appeared on WashingtonPost.com:
Funeral pyres an option in Colo. mountain town
By IVAN MORENO
The Associated Press
Monday, January 31, 2011; 11:42 AM
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 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 unaware 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 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, Weddle said.
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.
Heads up on a television special of interest: Frontline: Post Mortem. The show is airing this coming Tuesday, February 1 at 9:00 p.m. (check your local listings). A description from PBS:
Every day, nearly 7,000 people die in America. And when these deaths happen suddenly, or under suspicious circumstances, we assume there will be a thorough investigation, just like we see on CSI. But the reality is very different.
In over 1,300 counties across America, elected coroners, many with no medical or scientific background, are in charge of death investigations. Nationwide there is a severe shortage of competent forensic pathologists to do autopsies.
The rate of autopsies – the gold standard of death investigation – has plummeted over the decades. As a result, murderers go free and innocent people go to jail. FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman reports the results of a joint investigation with ProPublica, NPR, and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.
Here’s a link to a short preview:
Filed under: Book and Music Reviews | Tags: A Good Goodbye, funeral planning
Charles Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide, based in the U.K., just gave A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die a nice review on his blog.
He says the Brits have a lot to learn from U.S. funeral customs and Jewish funeral practices. In the U.K., cremation is widely used and their “crems” are so busy, it could take three weeks to process a body.
Cowling said, “Much of Gail’s book, sad to say, is not relevant to British funeral consumers because our funerary traditions are so dissimilar…. Sorry, we do things differently…. But I hope nonetheless that people over here will consider buying this book because it contains inspiring and instructive elements.”
“Gail is a very humane and companionable writer, she has a deceptively light touch, a gentle sense of humour, and she shares a lot of her own experience with us. For people who contemplate death from behind the sofa, she’s a great fear disperser,” says Cowling.
Thanks so much, Charles! Read the full review here.
I’ll be speaking and playing “The Newly-Dead Game” with folks at Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado on March 4 to 6, 2011, but I just read news about another frozen dead guy. Well, I can’t tell from the story if it’s a guy or a gal.
Today’s Albuquerque Journal has a story about human remains found in a chest freezer. A couple cleaning a vacant house in Eddy County (southern New Mexico) discovered the remains while clearing out the house’s contents for storage. The home, which had been vacant for several months, belonged to the mother of the woman cleaning out the house.
The couple looked in the freezer just before putting it into storage, and could not tell if the remains were human or those of an animal. They hauled the freezer to the Carlsbad Police Department, where two officers opened it and studied the remains long enough to determine they were human. The Eddy County Sheriff’s Office was contacted to handle the investigation, since the home with the freezer is in the county, not Carlsbad.
The daughter of the homeowner said that her mother had been married and told police she had not seen her stepfather in at least four years.
Capt. Kelly Lowe, Carlsbad assistant police chief, said, “As far as who it is, how it got there, how long it’s been there, I can’t answer any of that.”
The body was transported to the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque.
Who knows what they’ll discover!
January 27, 2011 update: Turns out the frozen dead guy was the husband of the woman who lived in the house. She died on hospice care at home at the age of 63. While the identity of the man has yet to be confirmed, the husband had been unaccounted for since 1997, when he would have been in his early 70s. The woman left a note to the effect that she could not afford to survive without her husband’s retirement income.
Before her death, she told a hospice worker that she had stored her late husband in the freezer, which was in her bedroom. The hospice worker dismissed the statement, believing it was the result of her grave condition.
Two thoughts: How sad that she was so strapped financially she resorted to hiding his death to keep collecting his retirement. And why didn’t someone ask her why she kept a chest freezer in her bedroom?
The sound of a constantly running freezer would drive me to distraction. At least he was close by.
Paul Hensby, author of the U.K.-based funeral advice website My Last Song has done a book review of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. Here’s the first few paragraphs:
It’s difficult not to like Gail Rubin, author of A Good Goodbye – Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan To Die.
She starts with a quote from Monty Python and ends by wanting to sell readers electronic contact forms for family and friends.
Between are headings that cover everything you need to know about planning a funeral including this classic: ‘It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To’.
Reassuringly virtually all Gail’s advice covers aspects of funeral planning which My Last Song includes, with even a chapter – Where’s Fido? – on pet funerals.
The book also gives excellent advice on saving funeral costs and the funeral traditions of major faiths.
I’m finding that people who get a copy of A Good Goodbye want to share it with their friends, so I’m now offering discounts through my site, www.AGoodGoodbye.com. If you buy three or more copies, they’re $15 each, plus shipping. That’s seven dollars off the full retail price (and less than Amazon’s price)!
Filed under: Funeral News Bits | Tags: A Good Goodbye, Frozen Dead Guy Days
It’s the hottest ticket in town: Frozen Dead Guy Days, a wild and wacky celebration of all things dead and frozen, gets underway in Nederland Colorado March 4-6, 2011. And if you attend, you can come play “The Newly-Dead Game” with me!
The event features coffin races, a parade of hearses, a Polar Plunge, the Brain Freeze Ball, frozen turkey bowling and salmon tossing, a frozen T-shirt contest, and new this year, “The Newly-Dead Game.”
“The Newly-Dead Game,” conducted by Gail Rubin, “The Doyenne of Death,” tests how well a couple knows each other, just like the popular TV game show “The Newlywed Game.” At Frozen Dead Guy Days, “The Newly-Dead Game” will test how well life partners know each other’s last wishes.
Frozen Dead Guy Days (FDGD) is based on the true story of Grandpa Bredo Morstoel from Norway. After his death due to a heart condition in 1989, his daughter Aud and grandson Trygve packed him in dry ice and shipped him to a U.S. cryonics facility for eventual reanimation. In 1993, Aud and Trygve, hoping to start their own cryonic facility, moved Grandpa to Colorado.
Then the story takes a number of interesting turns. Long story short – Grandpa Bredo has been kept in a Tuff Shed-sheltered, dry ice-fueled deep freeze in Nederland ever since. [Read the full story here.]
This will be the 10th annual FDGD festival coordinated by the Nederland Area Chamber of Commerce. Reader’s Digest named Frozen Dead Guy Days one of the top five winter festivals in the country, and won the Governor’s Award for Best Promotional Event in Colorado in 2010. This year’s slogan is Freeze The Day!
Gail Rubin authored A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and writes The Family Plot Blog. She welcomes volunteers to sign up in advance to play “The Newly-Dead Game” by contacting her through her website, www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
A big thanks to the nonprofit organization Engage With Grace for sponsoring “The Newly-Dead Game” and Gail’s talks. For the five questions that might save your life – or end it… www.EngageWithGrace.org.
How fast the changes have come these past few weeks regarding the Medicare provision to reimburse doctors who discuss the options for how patients want to be treated in their final days.
The New York Times story on December 26 announced a Medicare provision to encourage end-of-life conversations during annual physical exams being instituted by regulation January 1. Then a “death panel” hue-and-cry erupted, crying foul since the provision had been dropped from the 2010 Affordable Care Act legislation. By January 5, the White House pulled the provision, saying there hadn’t been enough chance for all sides to comment on the change.
I’d like to add my comment about having end-of-life planning discussions. Yes, they are a tough conversation to start. But, just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about end-of-life issues won’t make you dead – and the family will benefit from the conversation.
The conversation is not about “pulling the plug on Granny.” It’s about how you want to be treated when you are older (as we know, Medicare’s for those over 65) and health is failing. It’s an opportunity to speak your wishes and get it in writing, so everyone’s on the same page about your care.
When you are unconscious, or delirious, or just not able to make your own health care decisions, it allows your family to know and carry out your wishes. In the fluorescent glare of the ER, it’s hard to remember what those wishes are.
Our family’s experience is a lesson in the need for advance directives. My 82-year-old father-in-law had fallen and broken his hip, and he did have advance directives in place. The family was exhausted after his seven weeks of hospitalization, battling pneumonia and allergic reactions during rehabilitation after hip replacement surgery.
On his third ER admission with difficulty breathing, the doctors told us my father-in-law’s body was tired and broken beyond repair. They recommended he be admitted under palliative care, where he would be kept comfortable, but not “fixed,” and nature would be allowed to take its course.
Dad incoherently rambled, refusing a DNR order. Mom, the named decision-maker, was sad and torn. The monitors beeped, the oxygen hissed, the doctors waited for an answer. She looked to my husband and I to help make the decision. Based on Dad’s advance directives, we agreed to the palliative care.
Dad died peacefully in the hospital a week later with the family gathered around him. But even with the advance directives in place, there was family conflict over his care.
My husband’s brother who lived out of town insisted steps be taken to make Dad better. Nebulizer treatments were ordered, but they could not help a man who literally inhaled everything he ate or drank. A feeding tube was inserted, against written wishes.
We had Dad’s statement that he wanted comfort care, not heroic measures, to guide us during his last days. He had made up these advance directives under the advisement of his doctor, after Dad barely came through his third open-heart surgery twelve years earlier.
Would Dad have made up these guiding documents on his own if his doctor had not told him to do so? It’s hard to say. I’m glad we had his advance directives, but real life is messy.
Just because something is written, if it’s not discussed within the family, conflict can erupt when the end is near. The one thing Congress or the president can’t legislate or regulate is families talking to each other.
As if funeral planning on the fly wasn’t stressful enough, here’s a story about bad winter weather postponing burials in New Jersey. From The Record newspaper:
WOODLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) — Funeral professionals say the weeks after Christmas are the busiest of the year.
There are theories: The elderly and infirm muster the will to hang on through the holidays. Some people are depressed after the holidays. Winter brings colds and flu, which can lead to bigger health problems.
Toss in three snowstorms in little more than two weeks and a busy period is even more challenging.
At George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, the six burials scheduled for Dec. 27 — when the Blizzard of 2010 left two feet of snow — were postponed until Dec. 28 and Dec. 29, said Debbie Santangelo, the memorial park’s president.
The two burials scheduled there for Wednesday, the day of the season’s third snowstorm, went off as planned. The same was true at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Totowa.
At Cedar Park and Beth El cemeteries in Paramus, there were no burials on Wednesday, but there were six on Tuesday. The families knew snow was coming and moved up their funeral plans, said office secretary Cathy Love.
Thanks to jackhammers, cemeteries are equipped to dig graves in frozen ground.
Snow creates an additional complication at George Washington Memorial Park, where 130,000 people are interred on a 110-acre site. All grave markers are flush with the ground and locating them is difficult under snow cover.
“People come out and try to find their grandmother’s grave in two feet of snow,” Santangelo said. “We clear the snow from markers in the area of a funeral, but for other markers, people have to wait until the snow melts.”
Some families, she added, defeat the snow by placing easily identifiable objects, such as potted trees, next to their loved ones’ markers.
Information from: The Record, http://www.northjersey.com
Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl killed in the Tucson shootings last Saturday, was mourned at her funeral yesterday. An Associated Press story detailed many of the event’s elements that moved the thousands in attendance. Here are details from that article:
TUCSON – The casket for Christina Taylor Green seemed too small to hold the grief and despair of the 2,000 mourners who packed into St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church on Thursday to say goodbye to the 9-year-old girl whose life began and ended with two of the nation’s most soul-searching moments.
Reminders of the innocence of the bubbly girl born on Sept. 11, 2001, were everywhere: A group of little girls dressed in frilly dresses and white tights craned to see as their friend’s casket rolled into the church and Christina’s best friend sneaked them a wave from her place in the processional line.
Outside the church, more little girls – and hundreds of other people – wearing white and waving American flags lined both sides of the street for more than a quarter-mile to show their support. Hundreds of motorcycle riders from all over stood guard and more than a dozen residents were dressed as angels.
Before the service, Christina’s family and closest friends gathered under the enormous American flag recovered from Ground Zero and paused for a moment of silence, holding hands and crying. White-gloved state troopers escorted family and dignitaries into the church as a choir sang hymns.
“She would want to say to us today, ‘Enjoy life,’” said Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who presided over the funeral. “She would want to say to us today, ‘God has loved me so much. He has put his hand on me and prepared a place for me.’”
“Here time to be born was Sept. 11, 2001,” he said. “Her time to die was the tragic day, Jan.8, 2011, just nine years old she was. But she has found her dwelling place in God’s mansion. She went home.”
At the church, the focus was on the little girl who was an avid swimmer and dancer, a budding politician and the only girl on her Little League team. Mounds of flowers – pink roses and wreaths – surrounded the closed casket and a large photo of Christina and her older brother, 11-year-old Dallas, stood at the entrance to the church.
Her father, John Green, recalled in an emotional eulogy how his daughter used to pick blueberries, loved snorkeling and played for hours with her cousins and brother behind the house.
“Christina Taylor Green, I can’t tell you how much we all miss you,” her father said. “I think you have affected the whole country.”
With this funeral service for Christina Taylor Green, may her family, friends, and our nation move our mourning and grief toward loving and healing.