Crestone End-of-Life Project

Charles 5 Comments

Crestone Colorado is a bit like Totnes on steroids. It is home to all manner of nice folk and all sorts of religious communities. Alternative. (To capitalism on steroids).

Crestone is home to one of only two legal open-air cremation sites in the US. That’s two better than the UK, where open-air cremation was declared legal on 10 Feb 2010 – but that doesn’t mean to say it’s going to be easily legalisable. There are very few campaigners for it. Chief of them are Carl Marlow (who actually performed an outdoor cremation in 2007), and Rupert and Claire Callender.

The Crestone site could well be instructive to those who would like to create an open-air cremation site in the UK.

If you’ve ever wondered how you’d feel if someone you were close to was cremated in this way, hear this from Tessa Bielecki:

My father, Dr. Casimir Bielecki, was cremated on July 19, 2008 at the Crestone End-of-Life Project’s open-air site. This was my first open-air cremation, and I was so profoundly moved, I’m already working on the documents that will enable me to choose this kind of cremation for myself.

CEOLP supports simple, natural and humanizing end-of-life choices. We were able to bring Dad’s body directly home for the hospital in our own car only two hours after he died and put him back in his own bed, giving us ample time to complete our farewells.  He wasn’t whisked away from us to some gloomy funeral “parlor” and polluted with smelly embalming chemicals.  He wasn’t confined, as poet Emily Dickinson pur it, “Safe in [his] Alabaster Chamber – Untouched by Morning – And untouched by Noon [under] – Rafter of Satin – And Roof of Stone.”  Instead, he was consumed cleanly  and purley out in the open air by what Carmelite mystic John of the Cross called the “Living Flame of Love.”

Everyone present laid green boughs of pinon pine and bright red and yellow carnations of over Dad’s body on the pyre, and as an afterthought, we added his old straw golf hat.  Thick dark smoke billowed out to the west towards the full moon setting over the San Juan Mountains, then cleared, whitened, and rose heavenward, a symbol of Dad’s rising from the dead, as we Christian’s believe.

The cremation was no abstract theology or philosophy about death, but a profound existential experience of it:  a falling away of the flesh and soaring of the spirit in roaring flames and sparks spinning into the sky.  Gathering the ashes and bits of bone 24 hours later continued our family’s deep meditation on passing from this world to the next.  As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Behold, I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye.”  The fire took more than the blinking of an eye to burn, and that was part of its beauty and healing.

All the Abrahamic traditions were represented, and Buddhism as well.  My sister Connie sang the splendid Exsultet from the Roman Catholic liturgy for Easter Sunday.  We said traditional Christian prayers for the dead.  Shahna Lax prayed the Jewish Kaddish.  Roshi Steve Allen and his wife Angelique chanted the Buddhis Heart Sutra.  And then William Howell faced east and cried out the Muslim Call to Prayer as the sun rose of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  There were long reverent periods of silence and, quiet loving exchanges between family and friends.  The fire tenders went about their tasks unobtrusively.  Fireman Steve Anderson stood by, tall and stalwart, in case the surrounded desert might beckon an unwanted spark.  All our senses engaged.  And all the elements were there:  earth, air, fire and water.

Everything about the cremation was personal, intimate and meaningful.  We took care of Dad’s body ourselves.  We cut the evergreen boughs from our own land.  We created our own altar to express the uniqueness of Dad’s life and included his black medical bag and stethoscope, his wedding portrait, and the last photo taken of him four weeks earlier with the nephews (and lobsters!) he loved.  We chose his shroud, one I’d brought for him a year ago from the ancient city of Jerusalem.  (It’s traditional for Orthodox Christians to bring their own shrouds home after making pilgrimage to the Holy Land.)

This whole experience was a gift for our family and friends, for the earth, which is left undisturbed, and for Dad himself, who knew we were going to do this and liked the idea.  We are blessed to have open-air cremation here in Crestone.  Many thanks to the Crestone End-of-Life Project for helping to make the experience of death so natural, human, reverent and, above all, sacred.

There are some superb photos of open-air cremations at Crestone here.

Washington Post article here.

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Kathryn Edwards
Kathryn Edwards
11 years ago

Very exciting post!

And note the mention of a shrine/altar.

Maria, One Life Ceremonies

Perhaps strangely for someone who creates funeral ceremonies I’ve never thought I was bothered about how my body will be disposed of – until I saw the incredible moving photos from CEOLP – this is the way to go…let’s get working to make this a reality in the uk


[…] cover the body with evergreens, as they do at Crestone – is that euphemistic? Do we need to see the flames dissolve the […]


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