open air cremation stories
The following is a collection of writings and observations about open air cremation ceremonies from people who have attended and tended them. The generously and thoughtfully shared accounts below show the unique meanings and impact open air cremation has on everyone present for them. Without fail, this kind of disposition is experienced as powerful and meaningful.
The first open air cremation I ever attended was in 1987, when I was 7 years old. A well-known Tibetan Buddhist teacher had died and hundreds of his students had gathered in Vermont, where he was to be cremated. I was young, so I don’t recall much of the logistics or what people said. I do remember that many of the people were extraordinarily sad and that once the ceremony began, a deep relaxation came over the crowd. Everyone was focused together, everyone was experiencing his death together. The open fire was big and dramatic and beautiful. Fire is hypnotizing and soothing and terrifying all at once—and that is how the cremation and his death felt to me then. It was very different than the only other funeral I had attended at that point. At the cremation, you stare right at the death. No makeup, no box hiding the deceased. Decorations and devotional bits and pieces everywhere, to be sure, but no coverup. That was what I thought when I was 7. This is actually death, and it is big and it is right to have respect and pay attention to it, because it is scary. But it is also beautiful. And familiar. And peaceful.
A double rainbow appeared in the sky above the crematory and I remember thinking, Well, that makes sense!”
Another experience I had later in life...
Roy’s death was sudden and shocking. He was young and fit; a father of two young children, athletic and healthy. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and was dead within weeks. His family was devastated and when they brought his body to the cremation site, they were shy, fearful and even a little angry. I was on the “cremation team” that day and it was the first time I would light and tend the fire for an open air cremation. I was nervous and also a little excited. I shook hands with Roy’s wife and children and blinked back tears. Their grief was palpable and contagious. My mentor, Jon and I had spent the days before gathering and cutting a cord of wood, sweeping out the pyre, and precisely stacking the wood before laying the grate on top. We had brought 5 gallons of ghee to the site, in a big bucket with a giant ladle. We had trimmed boughs of juniper to be laid on Roy’s body as part of the buddhist funeral ceremony, and finally, we had doused the wood below the grate with kerosene. We put in a call to the local fire department so they wouldn’t be alarmed when the smoke rose above the treeline, and we had brought our own fire crew up to help tend the fire and keep the container safe.
Roy’s body was carried in to the clearing in a beautiful open pine box that had been built by a friend. When his closest friends and family lifted his body onto the grate, they asked me to step in to help. I had never put hands on a dead body other than my dog’s. It was startling, but it was also a relief to take the mystery out of it. Oh! This body is dead. It’s empty. No more wondering.
Once Roy’s body was laid on the pyre, the ceremony began. On cue, Jon and I lit the stacks of wood beneath the grate, and the flames shot up into the sky….”
I consider it good fortune that so many of the people I know who have died have been cremated in the open air. Having their bodies consumed by flame, witnessed by their family, friends and community, has, in each case, allowed us that lost them to really know that they are gone in this form. For me, it’s been a very helpful part of the mourning process to so viscerally see their bodies return to ash. Open air cremation makes the loss more tangible, more real, more workable. Having witnessed many such cremations, I am struck by the contrast to having lost friends and family who are then buried or cremated in a furnace, out of sight. When I’ve had to bury or conventionally cremate people I’ve loved, I’ve often had a sense of their deaths becoming abstract, even when I was with them when they breathed their last breath. The abstraction feels lonely, conceptual, and somehow dull. This is contrasted to when there’s been an open air cremation that allowed the grief to intensify and encompass all its component parts of anger, heartbreak and even joy. Open cremation has been a gift to me when I have grieved.”
My godmother Susan was the most important adult in my life, at once more stable, adventurous, and insightful than my parents. She died of breast cancer in late November of 2008. She was at home and had been unconscious for a few days when she died, with the assistance of a hospice nurse. Her longtime partner, a dear old friend, and I were with her as her labored death-rattle of a breath ceased. Also there was another friend and woman named Lindy, trained in taking care of bodies after death in our Buddhist tradition. Lindy helped us keep Susan’s body at her home for the next few days, bathing her and using some type of ice packs, I believe. Good friends came to visit and sit with her body. The morning after a ceremony at the local Buddhist center, Susan’s body was driven up to another Buddhist center up in the mountains to be cremated. I can’t recall the arrangements of how that happened, perhaps a sign of how Lindy and her husband helped to organize everything.
It was a misty mountain day, though someone photographed a rainbow on the drive up. The mist blanketed the area in quiet. A group of perhaps 30 sat on tarps and blankets on the earth as coals were prepared for Susan’s cremation. There was a group of people trained to do this, some of whom had known her for a long time, and watching their simple proficiency was comforting. There was little audible talking outside the chants. Looking at Susan’s body before and after her death, I had seen how much it had been ravaged by cancer. She had been in significant pain as a result. So, watching as her body slowly disintegrated on the coals offered relief of sorts. The cancer was gone, the pain was gone.
We circulated around her body chanting as a light snow fell. The image that remains with me is of the small flowers that we all sprinkled on her body as we moved. The flowers looked vibrant bright against the misty snowy air and Susan’s body as it turned to gray ash."
Open air cremations became very ordinary rather quickly. I think I attended/organized about twelve or fifteen. Relating to the body and preparing it and caring for it was impact-full. I remember the heavy weight of the bodies.
I attended my first open air cremation in '87 with my parents. It was for a well known teacher and author. There was immense ceremony, prayer, and music. Bagpipes played in the background. It began as a cloudy rainy day. When we arrived at the cremation site the clouds parted.
Everyone in attendance had a moment to say goodbye and offer respects. Conversely, as a kid remember going to open casket funerals and seeing friends or relatives all done up with makeup. It looked so strange and plastic. Their skin was overly powdered with makeup so they smelled like my moms makeup cabinet. My dead friends and relatives had been repackaged. They looked both dead and un-dead to me, like something out of zombie film. And there was another odd smell, a chemical smell, which I eventually learned was formaldehyde. It made my stomach turn. It smelled like a hospital, a perfumery, and my fathers paint cabinet all combined.
As some forests are known to burn naturally and then renew from the process the open air cremations felt akin to this process-notion. Very elemental. Very real. The body was always cared for well and with so much dignity. Relatives and close friends of the deceased where the pallbearers. After the body was placed in the open air crematory, close family and friends would gather around it. Some times holding hands, saying prayers, saying goodbye. It felt soulful and complete. We would stay until the body had finished burning which took about 4 to 5hrs.
At the time I oversaw the permits and safety standards for the cremations. Working closely with the County and local fire department. This all took place in northern rural Colorado near the Roosevelt National Forest. It was common to see: deer, linx, black bears and moose...sometimes we'd run into each other and startle one another. We'd end up just staring at each other waiting to see what the other was gonna do. Sometimes we'd only see the scat of the creatures. Sometimes we'd see dead deer, or links in the tall grass. The ants and insects slowly but steadily eating away at them bringing them into the earth bit by bit. Their living and dying next to our living and dying gave the feeling that we where some how enmeshed. Be it Providence and or some harmony with the cycles of other living creatures...it felt good to bare witness, feel the warmth of the flames, to pause, to look, to feel under the sky and stand on the earth."
I've witnessed a number of open air cremations, but the one most connected to my heart was in 2013 for my husband who passed at the age of 91. He was a master of Kyudo (the way of the bow) and had served as Bowmaker to the Emperor of Japan. His death was not tragic. It was very natural and, in many ways, profoundly good, just as his presence in life was. I was with him at the moment of his death and stayed with his body during the three days and nights it was laid out in the meditation hall where he had presided for over 20 years as the Kyudo master. His family had cared for his body in traditional Japanese fashion, bathing and then wrapping him in white cloth. Students and family came and went during that time to sit in meditation with his body. To be honest, I didn't quite experience him as "dead" at that point. There was still a strong sense of presence. But the morning of the cremation, I could feel a shift. The warmth and presence around him had expanded or shifted in some distinct way, less localized to the body. When his body was finally placed on the fire and the cremation ceremony was underway, it felt like a natural continuum of the whole process of his passing. Certainly he had no fear of dying, although he had lived with great fortitude. He had survived the Second World War and imprisonment in Siberia, late stage esophageal cancer that astounded the doctors, and twenty years following that with a frail but determined body. In the last few years, he had several bouts of pneumonia that, in the end, were what took his last breaths. Mostly, the entire process of his death and cremation were so smooth and natural that no particular point stood out to me, but there was one moment. As his wife, I was intimately aware of the various aches and pains that he had endured the last few years and the amount of fortitude it had taken for him to continue to teach and be present to the many students he had cared for as his own children. As the fire took hold and his body began to visibly be consumed and break apart, I felt this great wave of relief – for him. At last, he no longer has to deal with all that soreness! Feeling that relief for him in the dissolving of his form (that had endured so much) really helped me let go of my own emotion and attachment in that moment, replaced with a deep sense of gratitude for who he was and all that he gave us.
A young woman in our community had died quite suddenly and many people were very distressed. I was living on the land where the open air cremation site operated and they wanted someone who did not know the deceased to be able to tend the fire for her cremation. It was important to find someone who could do that in an attentive, clean and clear way unencumbered by the intense emotional attachment of someone who had known her. I was the only one on the land capable of tending the cremation fire who had not known her or anything about her, so I was asked to do it. The fire has to be kept very, very hot in order to burn the body, so it needs constant attention. It was started at 10 o'clock am and burned intensely for 3-4 hours. I tended the fire closely while friends and family gathered at a slight distance. (The actual funeral ceremony was held earlier that day in a meditation hall, so this was the final farewell.) To see the body of a young person consumed in flame affected me deeply. It makes the truth of impermanence of our bodies very, very real. At the same time, the fire itself is a cleansing medium and the whole process felt completely ecological, natural and purifying in a profound way. To be able to perform this task for the community and her family was an honor I won't forget. Everyone should have an opportunity to do this at some point in their lives.