Balloon release

Balloons, gently floating up through the clouds with their ribbon tails softly swaying in the breeze. It’s a back and forth, soft bumping and swaying type of event. It used to be common for graveside services to have the crowd release balloons in homage to the deceased.  The practice is slowly fading and even banned in some areas, thankfully,  due to the damage they cause to the environment and wildlife. This experience is not a recent event, just a beautiful memory. With every balloon release I am mesmerized by watching them drift up and away, like it was the first time I had ever seen it. There is excitement in trying to keep track of a single balloon as it gets smaller and smaller while everyone around you secretly urges their own balloon on, hoping it will rise higher and faster than anyone else’s. Often, I will hand out Sharpie markers and watch as the crowd struggles to hold a balloon in the crook of their arm or between their legs as it fights for release. There is a hollow screeching concert of marker on rubber as people write out loving messages for someone, most believe, is up above us in the heavens. It is also inevitable that one or two balloons get away before the countdown is made to let them go. And almost every time, the Sharpies’ squawking stops and heads turn upwards to watch the rogue balloons float away with a background of murmurs stating the obvious faux pas of the individual who didn’t hold to their string tight enough. Sometimes it’s an adult who lost their battle of holding onto a balloon while writing their heartfelt note, sometimes it’s a child not understanding how helium works, and a lot of times there are tears at the lost opportunity to have this balloon sent on its way up, alongside the multitude.

One funeral in particular that I directed was for an infant, a baby boy. Before he was born, the family knew he was going to die shortly after birth, they just didn’t know when exactly. These are heartbreaking funerals and they must be handled in a very delicate way. The spot in the cemetery that the family had purchased pre-need (before a death occurs) was a garden still in construction and was not quite ready for burials at the time of the infant’s death. In this case, we planned a small ceremony at an above ground crypt where the infant would be placed until the new garden was open and we could have him buried in the previously planned spot.

I had everything ready at the crypt before the family and friends were to arrive. It was a drizzly day, not quite raining but wet, while grey skies threatened a downpour. It was a short walk from the road to an alcove walled on two sides with cream colored marble crypts reaching high above our heads and a large tiered concrete water fountain in the center happily splashing water over its  sides. The other two sides of the area looked out over the expanse of a cemetery lawn dotted with huge trees full of green leaves, heavy with moisture. I placed a small table for the tiny casket to rest upon during the service. The flower van was parked nearby against a curb and was full of light blue balloons awaiting their liberation. I parked the dark blue limousine near the curb of the walkway that led to alcove and just inside its back door, the seat held the small white casket cradling the precious baby boy’s body.

As people arrived, I busied myself with opening doors and umbrellas, assuring that everyone was as comfortable and as dry as possible. Once the family was ready and it was time to start the funeral, the father and brother of this tiny human lifted the casket from the back seat of the limousine and hand carried him with a slow, careful walk to the alcove and the awaiting crowd while the grieving mother paced close behind. Large black umbrellas jounced in the hands of the audience as they all tried to find enough space to watch and listen to those who were speaking.

After the ceremony, everyone gathered behind the flower van. The Sharpies were handed out and one by one the blue balloons were passed around and then, just as I handed out the last balloon, it started to rain! Not a downpour, but enough drops to make the task of releasing balloons a difficult one. As friends and family began writing their messages, the squeal of marker on rubber permeated the heavy air around us. Most everyone huddled under umbrellas in an attempt to keep the raindrops from ruining their valuable drawings and messages. Coat sleeves and long dresses were used to towel off the rubber spheres when drops found their way past the umbrella canopy. Then, with smeared marker messaged balloons, the crowd walked down the road of the cemetery to where the baby boy would ultimately be interred, leaving the casket behind for the cemetery crew to place the marble facing on the crypt’s open end, closing in the tiny casket in its temporary holding place. It was a somber, walking procession of family and friends along the empty road of the cemetery. As we reached our destination there was a last attempt at wiping the moisture off of the balloons and then they were released into the thick, soggy air. Some of the balloons lifted enough to rise but most just lazily wafted in the slight breeze, only to drop just a few feet away or hover over the newly-laid grass that was not to be stepped on. Children and adults alike would walk upon the recently seeded grass to grab a rebellious balloon, wipe off the offending drops and hurl it upwards as best they could. After every failed attempt was made, the crowd finally dispersed leaving behind a pasture of new grass dotted with blue sadly grounded balloons.

Some weeks later we got the go-ahead to open the new garden and we could finally put the baby boy in his final resting place, so we arranged a  graveside service. We planned to take the tiny casket from the crypt and walk down the cemetery road to the grave, say a few words and release a new bundle of balloons. This day was beautiful, no rain. It was blue skies, bright green trees and grass, everything was perfect! The family started gathering at the crypt and I was busy getting all of the things ready, including securing another collection of balloons. I set up a table with pictures, markers and handouts, then began securing the balloons to the table leg. I made a knot in the bundle of strings, making sure they were secure and then I let go, and then, so did the balloons! I froze for a second, confused, then launched myself up desperately grabbing at the strings  which quickly rose out of my reach In seeming slow motion I turned my head towards where the family was gathering and saw that every head was turned upwards to watch the balloons float up and away. I was certain that they would be crushed – first the balloons that wouldn’t fly and now this!  As I walked down the road to talk to the family, I made a call to the shop where I got the balloons and explained what had happened and that I needed more balloons delivered right away!

To my surprise and great relief, the family was laughing when I reached them! They all exclaimed at how much fun it was to see the balloons lift off in one big bundle and then watch my horrified face as I tackled the air attempting to get the balloons back to the ground.

In the end we did get more balloons, and everything else went as planned. The family had a surprise though. Remember the balloons that didn’t make it from the first service? Well, the family came back to the cemetery after everyone else had left and collected them all! We tied the deflated, smear-marked balloons to some of the new ones, allowing their journey to continue.  My lesson from that day was that even when everything from my perspective seemed to be going wrong; the grass not ready for burial, the need for two services for the infant, balloons that would not rise in the rain to the second set of balloons launched before the ceremony could start, even after all of that, this family made the best of it. They cherished the moments as part of the process and instead of things being a disaster, every step of it was made beautiful.   With the right attitude almost everything has significance, even long deflated, smear marked balloons.

4 thoughts on “Balloon release

  1. You beautifully captured the experience. In my minds eye, I imagined the scenes as they unfolded. I agree that it’s a great gift to find mirth in all phases of life, and in adjacent happenings that clutter what you thought would be pristine. Life is beautiful. Thank you for making the point so eloquently.

    1. Agreed. Sometimes it takes watching someone pull through tragedy with optimism to realize it’s only as bad as we make it. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Today wasn’t a great day but reading this placed my day into perspective. I have, thankfully, never had to bury an infant. But most important, it was comforting to think that even deflated and smeared balloons may soar given the proper circumstances.

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About Chelsea Tolman