From The Flame To Eternity
Author Caitlin Doughty recounts the spiritual and “transformative” ceremony of a funeral pyre in a Colorado town.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
Laura had lived in Crestone for years, and it seemed as if the whole town had come to the pyre that morning. Her son, Jason, spoke the first words, his gaze focused on the flames. “Mom, thank you for the love,” he said, his voice cracking. “Don’t worry about us now, fly and be free.”
As the fire continued to burn, a woman came forward to describe her own arrival in Crestone eleven years prior. When she moved to town, she had been suffering from years of chronic illness. “I moved to Crestone to find joy. I thought it was the clouds and the open sky that healed me, but I think it really was Laura.”
“We’re all just human beings,” another of her friends added. “We all have faults. But Laura, I didn’t see no faults about her.”
The flames had made quick work of Laura’s coral shroud. As mourners spoke, the flames jumped to her exposed flesh and the layers of soft tissue. The fire dehydrated the tissue, the majority of which was water, which shriveled and withered away. This exposed her internal organs, next to succumb to the flames.
This would be a macabre spectacle for the uninitiated, but the nonprofit volunteers were vigilant in concealing the pyre’s inner workings from the crowd. They moved with grace and expertise, ensuring there was no odor, no threat of a rogue head or charred arm popping into view. “We’re not trying to hide the body from people,” Stephanie explained, “but the cremations are often open to the entire community, and you never know who is going to be there, and how they are going to respond to the intensity of feeling the pyre can provoke. People imagine themselves lying on that pyre one day.”
As the ceremony proceeded, the volunteers crept imperceptibly around the pyre, adding wood. Over the course of the cremation, the nonprofit burned one-third of a cord of wood: 42.6 cubic feet.
As the flames burned on, they reached Laura’s bones. The knees, heels, and facial bones were first. It took longer for the fire to reach her pelvis and arm and leg bones. The water evaporated from her skeleton, followed by the organic material. The color of her bones transformed from white, to grey, to black, and then back to white once more. The weight of the logs pressed Laura’s bones through the metal grate to the ground below.
One of the fire-tenders pulled out a long metal pole, sending it into the fire. The pole pushed through the space where Laura’s head had been, but the skull had vanished.
I had been told that each cremation at Crestone was unique. Some were straightforward, of the “light me up and go” variety. Others lasted hours, as mourners performed elaborate religious and spiritual ceremonies. Some were more casual, like the cremation of the young man who wanted a half gallon of tequila and a joint placed on his pyre. “Well, I can tell you everyone downwind enjoyed it,” one volunteer told me.
What remains consistent is that the pyre experience, for those present, is transformative. The youngest person they have cremated was Travis, just twenty-two years old, who died in a car crash. According to the police report, he and his friends were drunk and high, speeding too fast down a dark rural road. The car flipped, and Travis was ejected and declared dead at the scene. All of the young people from Crestone and the surrounding towns came to take part in his cremation. As Travis’s body was laid on the pyre, his mother pulled down his shroud to kiss his forehead. Travis’s father grabbed the driver by his face and, in front of the community, said, “Look at me, I forgive you.” Then the pyre was lit.
About an hour into Laura’s cremation, the pall of grief had lifted from the circle.
The last speaker came forward to address the crowd in a way that would have been inappropriate just ninety minutes earlier. “Everything you all said about how Laura was a wonderful person, that’s true. But in my mind, she’ll always be one of the wild crones. A partier. I’d like to give her a howl.”
“Oooooooooooooooooooooo,” she bellowed, with the crowd joining in around her. Even I, who had just recently been too timid to drop my juniper bough on the pyre, let out a tentative howl.
The morning after the funeral in Crestone, I entered the cremation circle and was greeted by two adorable dogs bounding around the pyre. McGregor, Stephanie’s brother and volunteer ash gatherer, had arrived early that morning to sift through Laura’s remains, four and a half gallons of bone and cinders. From the ash pile he pulled out the largest bone fragments—chunks of femur, rib, and skull— which some families like to take home and keep as relics.
There were significantly more ashes in this pile than after a typical commercial cremation, which leaves only as much remains as can fit in a Folgers coffee can. In California, we are required to grind the bones in a silver machine called a Cremulator until they are “unrecognizable bone fragments.” The state frowns on distributing the larger, recognizable bones to the family. Several of Laura’s friends wanted a portion of the ashes, and any excess would be scattered in the hills around the pyre or further into the mountains. “She would have loved that,” Jason said. “She’s everywhere now.”
I asked Jason if anything had changed for him since the cremation yesterday. “My mom brought me up to see the pyre the last time I visited. I was confused, I thought that I was going to have to sit on that bench there and cremate my mom alone, all by myself. It seemed so morbid. Three days ago I was horrified at what I was coming to Crestone to do. But Mom had told me, ‘This is what I’ve chosen for my body, you can come or not.’”
When Jason arrived for his mother’s wake in her home, things began to shift. By the time of the cremation, he had realized that he had a whole community by his side. There were talks and songs, and he allowed himself to be supported by everyone who loved his mother. “That was moving to me. It changed things.”
Crouched down over the ashes, McGregor explained to Laura’s son Jason what they were looking at. He demonstrated how brittle the bones were after being subjected to the heat, crumbling a small fragment into ash with his hand.
“What’s this?” Jason asked, pulling out a small piece of metal from the pile. It was the iridescent face of a Swatch watch that Laura had been wearing when she was brought to the pyre. Warped into rainbow colors by the heat of the re, it was stopped forever at 7:16 a.m.—the moment the flames took hold.
Excerpted from From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty. Copyright © 2017 by Caitlin Doughty. Reprinted by permission from W.W. Norton & Company. All Rights Reserved.