With more Americans choosing cremation for their dearly departed, the options for memorializing cremains are getting downright bizarre.
Thursday, August 3, 2000
First off, we didn''t have adequate ash-scattering paraphernalia. Always have the right tools for the job, my father once told me. I had stopped at a supermarket and bought a sleeve of paper cups. Now we all stood around gripping them with sweaty palms, wondering who would be the first to open the C-ration box and scoop up his or her portion of cremains.
Our lack of familiarity with ritual, especially the rites and ceremonies connected with death, added to our unease, and it occurred to me later that this might be one reason why so many people skip the scattering and keep the box in the closet.
Awkward as the aftermath may be, the choice to cremate is becoming increasingly popular as our living reality shapes our dying habits. Families whose members were once laid to rest in the same patch of ground for generations have lost their attachments to the land, as well as to the past. Possibly somewhere in Romania, there is an abandoned Jewish graveyard that holds the ancestors of my father''s family. My father was born in Brooklyn. His mother is buried among strangers in Staten Island and his father''s grave is somewhere in Southern California. His sister''s ashes were scattered near San Francisco. America is our family burial plot.
In his book The Undertaking, poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch observes that "One of the obvious attractions of cremation is that it renders our dead somehow more portable, less ''stuck in their ways,'' more like us, you know, scattered."
I expected the ashes to sift ethereally away into fairy dust, but they just sat, lumpen and gray atop the leaves. It looked like someone had just cleaned out a Weber.
Cremains of the Day
Today, one in five Americans choose cremation for themselves or their loved ones. In California, Arizona and Florida, where most of the residents originally came from someplace else, people are cremated at twice the national rate, and among the nomadic population of the Bay Area, more than 65 percent of the deceased are cremated.
Until last year, California was the only state in which it was illegal to freely scatter ashes. State law allowed for cremated remains to be buried or scattered in cemeteries, brought home or scattered at sea at least three miles offshore. The relaxing of the law--ashes can now be scattered on land and at sea as long as they''re 500 yards away from the shoreline--has resulted in a sort of entrepreneurial free-for-all, with people thinking up increasingly creative things to do with human remains.
Karen Leonard was research assistant to Jessica Mitford, the funeral industry gadfly who wrote The American Way of Death. Now executive director of Redwood Funeral Society in Sonoma County, Leonard finds the cremation trend a positive one. Americans, she says, are under less pressure to abide by the manufactured rituals of a funeral home. "Now people have the freedom to do whatever they want," she muses. "The nice thing about cremated remains is, unlike a body, you can do a number of things. There''s only one thing you can do with a body. A lot of people divvy up the remains and everyone gets to create their own rituals, which makes it incredibly individualistic and personal.
"I''ve been to some really far-out memorials," Leonard continues. "Anything you can think of can be done. That''s all because we''ve been able to break the funeral industry''s stranglehold over cremation."
Formerly the most no-frills method of committing human remains to eternity, cremation has become the vehicle for some unique procedures from the beautiful to the bizarre, depending upon one''s taste. And as sometimes happens when people become unmoored from convention, their newly fashioned customs take on elements of the absurd. Our ancestors would be spinning in their urns if they knew what was being done with their cremated brethren.
In the past year alone, the U.S. Patent Office has granted 41 patents involving human cremains, among them inventor David Sturino''s football helmet-shaped crematory urn. In his patent application, Sturino argued that even in death, people want their individuality to show: "If given the opportunity, it is believed that many individuals would choose to identify their cremated remains as those of a football fan for eternity," he wrote.
UrnsMart, which designs and handcrafts urns from exotic hardwoods, is just one of dozens of companies that have profited from the booming market for "art urns." Their "alternative remembrance" urns double as jewelry boxes, picture frames and clocks. Other can be fashioned on a customer''s specifications; one customer, whose husband had been a bowling fanatic, asked for an urn that incorporated a bowling pin. Lynch wrote that one of his clients had him place her husband''s ashes put into an empty whiskey bottle, which she then had wired as a lamp. "He always said I really turned him on," she explained.
Making a Living, Urning a Dying
Death is by nature untidy. It begins and ends with clutter, physical and psychological. The beauty of cremation is that it reduces people to a size positively Lilliputian and makes them eminently transportable. Still, practical problems do arise. This must have been what Douglas Casimir was thinking about when he dreamed up the dissolvable urn (U.S. Patent # 5,774,958), which negates the necessity for mourners to have any contact with the ashes during scattering. Relatives can simply heave the urn, ashes and all, into the deep and it will dissolve, relegating the remains to the water.
As Casimir commented--perhaps from personal experience?--"When the urn is opened and ashes are sprinkled upon the sea, the wind often causes the ashes to blow about and the ashes sometimes get blown upon the deceased''s relatives who are sprinkling the ashes, thereby causing an unpleasant experience for those involved."
A dissolvable urn would have been of great help to Dave Eggers, author of the recent memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The sad slapstick saga of what to do with his mother''s ashes is a motif that runs throughout Eggers'' book. He finally decides to throw the cremains into Lake Michigan, all the while torturing himself with the fear that he has made the wrong decision, that this last gesture to his mother--the scattering, the lake--is somehow not enough, is inadequate. Upon opening the cardboard box, he finds to his consternation that the ashes look like cat litter or "little rocks, pebbles, Grape-Nuts, in white and black and gray." Then he spills some of them on the ground and tries to kick them into the water with his foot, but, "Should I really be kicking my mother''s ashes?...I stand up quickly and throw, this time some of the cremains sticking to my palm, which is now sweaty...Should I throw them all in one place, or redirect the throws each time? Should I hold on to some for later, to deposit elsewhere?"
Desperately, he empties the last ashes from the bag into the lake, "like shaking a goldfish out of a baggie...This is what it''s come to--winging her remains into the lake."
Like many people who die suddenly, my father had left no instructions for what he wanted done with his remains. We decided to put his ashes under a eucalyptus tree along the Santa Monica path where he had often liked to walk. He would become part of the tree, its soil and roots, its limbs and leaves.
I was in charge of doling out the ashes. Everyone ended up with uneven shares and I noticed people sneaking furtive peeks at one another''s cups. I confess, I was glad of the chance to see my father''s ashes, even to touch and smell them (they''re odorless). They were undeniably his--the box was stamped indelibly with his name--and in the feeling of unreality that followed his death, they provided a much-needed focal point. Sure, I recognized the painful absurdity of the whole procedure. It even got tiresome to keep alluding to how entertained my dad would have been by the bumbling farewell we gave him. One would think our little ceremony was watched over by a grinning Cheshire father, his face etched with a permanent expression of mirth.
One by one we emptied our Dixie cups under the tree. Everyone had a different system. My brother shook the ashes energetically out of his cup; I turned mine upside down and let the ashes fall in a blurred stream onto the ground. I expected them to sift ethereally away into fairy dust, but they just sat, lumpen and gray atop the leaves. It looked like someone had just cleaned out a Weber. The next day, and the next, the cremains sat there. Finally, a week later it rained, and they began to disperse into the soil.
''If given the opportunity, it is believed that many individuals would choose to identify their cremated remains as those of a football fan for eternity.''
David Sturino, inventor of the football helmet-shaped urn
Eternal Reefs Inc. mixes cremains into concrete to make memorial reef balls that become part of a living coral reef.
My son passed away four years ago last week and his body was cremated. He asked me before his death to put his cremains into a volcano. This sounds strange but his reasoning was sound. He said he did not want to be put in the soil because worms and insects would eat him and he did not want to be put into water to be fishfood. He wanted a volcano so he could become part of a rock and stay on the earth for centuries. Do you know of any active volcano where this is possible?
The question comes as no surprise to the discussion list moderator of the Web site VolcanoWorld, who has himself "had similar thoughts about becoming part of a volcanic rock." He directs the bereaved father to Kilauea in Hawaii, where he believes it would be possible to pour ashes directly onto molten lava, where they could harden with the rock.
For many, co-mingling one''s remains with the natural world brings a sense of symbolic immortality. Volcanoes would probably be more popular among the dead if they were as accessible as, say, the ocean. A majority of people request that their cremains be put in the sea, scattered from private planes like the one owned by Scott Dixon of Ashes by the Bay in Monterey. "It''s an increasingly popular trend," he says. But for ocean lovers who want their cremains permanently entombed in a lasting monument, there are other options.
A Reno, Nev. company called LegaSEA makes an oceanic time capsule that doubles as a memorial urn. The LegaSEA memorial, fashioned of bronze and glass, is deployed from a boat into international waters. There it descends to the sea floor and rests for eternity, or until it''s discovered by future generations, "making one''s life the subject of archaeological interest possibly thousands of years into the future."
Another ocean option comes from Georgia-based Eternal Reefs Inc., which will "turn your loved one''s ashes into a living coral reef." Eternal Reefs mixes cremains into concrete to create artificial reef modules, made to last 500 years or more, which are placed in locations around the world where the reef could use a little help. Loved ones can be on hand when the reef balls are deployed and can also charter a dive boat and visit the memorial reef later. Once the modules are put in place they''re there to stay, creating new habitats for sea life.
Options like this make the dead not only more interesting, but useful. In some cases they can even be decorative. An outfit called The Ancestral Tree causes the dead to practically rise from their ashes: Its "Eternal Bonsai" are planted in a mix of soil and human cremains. The process raises thorny questions, however; what if the tree/person gets sick? Imagine the attendant emotional trauma if the bonsai succumbed to some miniaturized arboreous affliction.
Without tombs or headstones, thosemute reminders of mortality, how do we remember our absent, ashen dead? Human beings like dates. They serve to frame a life, the way a picture frame encloses a photograph of a beloved. Undertaker Thomas Lynch recalls how a friend''s widow asked him to scatter her husband''s ashes in a favorite fishing spot. But when Lynch paddles downstream, ashes by his side in a Stanley thermos (less conspicuous than an urn, the widow thought), he finds he can''t fulfill the request. Instead he buries the cremains, thermos and all, under a tree on the riverbank. "I piled stones there and wrote his name and dates on a paper, which I put in a flybox and hid among the stones. I wanted a place that stood still to remember him at," he writes.
The need to create something to help the living remember the dead inspired Mill Valley architect William E. Cullen. Cullen, president of Relict Memorials, Inc., invented and patented a process that turns cremated human remains into granitelike tablets. To the tablets he affixes bronze plaques inscribed with names and dates. The tablets contain the integrated remains for hundreds of years, and since they weigh only 20 pounds or so, can be moved easily from one location to another.
Cullen perfected his technique on roadkill, and eventually made his first Relict for--and from--his son''s cremains. "I needed some sense of my son''s presence," he explained. "To scatter his ashes would be as though he had never existed." The younger Cullen''s Relict is in the memorial garden of the family''s church.
Recently the media reported that a Kentucky bookbinder and printer was mixing cremains with pulp to produce the pages of bound volumes called "bibliocadavers." But when I called Timothy Hawley Books in Louisville, the eponymous proprietor laughed sheepishly and explained that it was a jest that got out of hand. "I''m a bookseller," Hawley said. "I just put some stupid joke in the front of each of my catalogues."
Nonetheless, Hawley''s hoax generated enough serious interest to indicate that there''s a real market out there for bibliocadavers. The process was reported in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly and Harpers. Hawley was also contacted by a woman in Wisconsin who is starting a business doing different types of memorializations and wanted to use him as an independent contractor. She already had several customers lined up who were interested in becoming bibliocadavers. Hawley had to turn her down.
"It wouldn''t even work," he said, "because of the paper chemistry--the ashes would not bond with the paper pulp."
Maybe not, but what about another element of a book? Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel comic book writer, came up with an artistic use for his earthly remains. As per his request, he was cremated and his ashes were combined with ink and used to print a special edition of his comic book series Squadron Supreme. "He remained true to his passion for comics, as he has truly become one with the story," his widow wrote in the book''s foreword.
Cremains have even joined the ranks of interactive multimedia. Ohio-based Leif Technologies makes a "Viewology cremation urn" that not only holds the ashes of the deceased but is equipped with a flat screen monitor with a video slide show and biographical narrative about the departed.
Celestis launches ashes into orbit aboard a Taurus rocket.
To Infinity and Beyond
The Eternal Ascent Society is one of many companies that has flourished advertising its services on the Web. Eternal Ascent claims to hold the only patent in the world "for cremated remains put inside a very large balloon and airlifted to the heavens," says Joanie West, 62, president and owner.
Three years ago, West and her husband, who own a balloon and gift shop in Crystal River, Fla., began marketing the process she describes as "a beautiful way to enclose a memory." Cremains, or a portion of them, are deposited inside a biodegradable balloon which is inflated in a specially designed acrylic chamber. Balloon and chamber are transported to the release site, where the mourners have gathered. When the balloon is released, West explains that it ascends five miles into the atmosphere, freezes (it''s 40 degrees below zero up there), and fractures into millions of pieces.
"You look up and you see a rainbow or a sunrise or a sunset or a cloud and you think of that person," says West. The Eternal Ascent Society has been so popular, inundated with requests for services from people all over the country, that West and her husband are preparing to sell franchises in other states, with California first on the list. "California should be a wonderful place," says West. "They''re ready for it."
For many people, even the sky isn''t the limit. In fact, some of the spectacles one can purchase seem to be an attempt to bypass the unpleasant business of bereavement. Death doesn''t have to be a sorrowful event, they imply; it can be entertaining--a Deathstravaganza!
Celebrate Life!, in Lakeside, Calif., makes specially modified fireworks shells (patent pending) for cremains dispersal over the ocean, accompanied by a musical theme. You can almost hear a note of pleading desperation in the text of the company''s brochure: "What if instead of a hole in the ground there was fire in the sky?"
Celebrate Life! has all sorts of pre-packaged pyrotechnic celebrations that are customized for deceased individuals, veterans, children and couples. There are even special "ethnic" celebrations. "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" comes with a display of green fireworks and a rendition of the Irish ballad.
The ultimate send-off comes from the Houston, Tex. firm Celestis, Inc., "the world''s leading provider of post cremation memorial spaceflight services." It costs about $5,000 to have Celestis put your loved one''s cremains--or a vial containing a symbolic portion of them--into orbit around the Earth. After several years, the Celestis memorial satellite re-enters Earth''s atmosphere and vaporizes, "blazing like a shooting star in final tribute."
In 1997, Celestis made headlines when it successfully launched a portion of the cremated remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and counterculture icon Timothy Leary into low earth orbit aboard a Pegasus rocket.
But shooting stars, fireworks and gigantic balloons bring only temporary respite from the emptiness of loss. As the writer Richard Brautigan said, death can''t really be camouflaged: Always at the end of the words, someone is dead.
Later the day of the scattering, I heard myself utter this melodramatic sentence: "I buried my father today." The inadequacies of language--after all, I hadn''t buried him. We had left him, or what was left of him in his reduced circumstances, somewhere outside in the gathering dusk in Santa Monica. In fact, we had unwittingly violated the part of California law that stipulates scattered ashes should not be distinguishable to the public. I conjured a scene: A jogger kneels to tie her shoe and sprints off with some of my father''s ashes in the tread of her Nikes.
For a long while I toyed with the idea of getting a plaque on a park bench for him, someplace I could visit, something solid and immutable, with writing on it. A "Beloved Father," a favorite quotation, some dates. A chunk of real estate. In the end, I settled for a sort of renewable relic: a scrap of the eucalyptus tree. I went back and plucked a leaf, and when time reduces it to dust, I will go back and get another one.
I conjured a scene: A jogger kneels to tie her shoe and sprints off with some of my father''s ashes in the tread of her Nikes.