A practice many might consider taboo is available in one western town — and it’s believed to be the only place in the U.S. to do so.
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, Brenda, 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.
While Belinda Ellis “did not have a religious bone in her body,” according to her husband, Randy Ellis, she had attended a Crestone funeral pyre and told her family it was what she wanted. Ellis, 48, died of a massive heart attack Jan. 9 and was cremated three days later.
Bob Biggins, spokesman and former president of the National Funeral Directors Association, applauded the practice.
“As a culture, we need to say goodbye,” Biggins said. “And I think watching some of the things that this organization is doing for their community, the word that comes to my mind is, ‘Hooray!’ Because they’re encouraging people to bear witness.”