It was a four-hour drive from Denver, Colorado to my destination. In all the years I have been in death care, I never imagined that this type of thing was possible, a funeral pyre! Out in the open air! Family and friends witnessing the burning of a body, legally! I turned onto the small dirt road in the middle of nowhere, marked only by a small white sign with the single word “Pyre” in red. Waiting for me at the beginning of this dirt road, in her gunmetal colored Volvo, was Stephanie Gaines.
Stephanie has agreed to show me around and explain how this whole thing came together. After greeting each other with a hug, we got back in our cars and I followed her about half a mile up the road to the pyre site. It was all open land with dry sagebrush and weeds choking the desert from all sides. This made me question initially how an open fire would be safe out here. We parked and got out of our cars.
Two pillars marked the start of a dirt trail lined on both sides with multicolored native rocks, the trail ending at a ring of expertly crafted, dark brown bamboo fencing. To the side of the pillars stood a small structure that held a large silver bell that is rung when the body arrives for the cremation, a lovingly handcrafted copper tree of life image adorned one wall and on the biggest wall was a sign explaining the sacredness of this place. I felt peace here, I felt that this place was one of healing, I have no other way to describe it.
Stephanie continued our journey by explaining that on the morning of a cremation, friends and neighbors of the deceased would gather here at the pillars and then line the dirt walkway all the way up to the circled fencing. When the body arrived, usually transported by family members, the bell was rung three times to signify the arrival of the body. The bell had a sound like no other and reverberated through the desert. It was not a deep gong and not a tinny ring but somewhere in between. She walked me through how the pall bearers would carry the body (which was wrapped in a shroud) on a handmade wooden stretcher, up the center of the dirt road lined with family and friends. The wooden stretcher was made just for the deceased and designed to fit perfectly inside the concrete pyre.
I imagined this process as we walked and talked, people gathered in silence and lined up on the sides of the path in honor of the deceased. The stretcher being lovingly hand carried through the center of people lining the road. I had seen pictures on the internet of this place, but being here, feeling a breeze surround me and imagining this gentle and natural process took it to a whole other level, it felt so normal.
So, I am going to back track just a little bit. The beginning of the funeral doesn’t start here at the pyre site, it starts at the home. When someone has died, a family liaison (volunteer) from the End of Life Project goes to the home and walks the family through everything that is going to happen. The body stays at home for up to three days where family and friends can come and visit. They sit with the body, talk to the body and each other, an entirely different experience than the current American funeral culture experiences. The body is washed by the family and then shrouded by the family. No funeral home, no embalming, just the deceased in their own environment, surrounded by those who love them. It is a fantastic concept and runs back to our natural roots of caring for our own dead. This may feel scary or gross to some people but that is only because we have been trained to fear the natural dead body. Of course, there are circumstance where this may not be possible (surgeries, accidents, etc.) but if it is possible, what better way to care for the body of a loved one than to care for them at home, with family.
Back to the pyre sight. I imagined this beautiful procession and placing the body in the cement structure. As Stephanie and I walked through an opening of the bamboo fencing, the sight was one of splendor. There, in the center of the fencing was a cement pyre, some cracks and flaking from use and black burn marks from the cremations that had already taken place here. It was beautiful. Around the cement pyre was a circle of sand, about six feet from the center in all directions. The sand was raked in a Zen-like fashion encircling the pyre. Around the sand were more stones, hugging the entirety, lending it a loving visual. Around the stone ringed sand was bare earth, no brush or weeds in danger of catching a spark but benches and chairs for the patrons of this place to sit in reverie or mourning or both. On one side against the fencing was a shrine-like structure that would hold mementos and pictures of the deceased, not unlike bringing personal belongings and pictures to a mortuary or church. As I am taking this all in, Stephanie continues talking about the details of what happens here and I continue to imagine the process.
Family and friends are given juniper boughs and one by one they place these boughs on top of the body, some people will place notes or other mementos on top to burn with the body as well, similar to what we do in the funeral home or church of placing things in the casket before burial. There is a Master of Ceremonies, usually a family member or friend, who officiates everything that is to happen. What ceremony takes place here is completely up to the family and how they want to honor their deceased loved one. Once all of these things have taken place, more wood is placed around the body and the fire is lit through small openings on both sides of the pyre, usually by family members. Once the pyre is lit, the flames slowly overtake the body with everyone present. Stephanie explains that during this part, everyone is naturally silent, it is a somber, spiritual experience and all watch in reverence as their loved one’s body is engulfed in flame. At some point there reaches a time when there is a release in the crowd, the tension of getting to this point is over and there is a palpable weight lifted from the air. Usually people will start speaking, telling stories or laughing or crying together. What an honor for the deceased and what a relief for the family to be able to experience this incredible journey!
Around the circular fencing are more pillars with handmade clay finials, some are topped with crystals that shine differently at certain angles depending on the time of day and where you are standing. On these pillars are copper plaques with the names of those who were memorialized here, each one is designed by the family and handmade by a local artisan. I can imagine those family members being able to come back to this place and sit on a bench around the pyre, next to their plaque, and remember that day when their loved one was here and set to flame.
Pictures taken by Chelsea Tolman