One afternoon in August I received the email I had been waiting for.
Laura, a very dear member of our community was found dead early this morning: she had a history of heart problems and had just entered her 75th year. Don’t know where you are, but you’re welcome to join us.
Laura’s death was unexpected. On Sunday night, she danced with abandon at a local music festival. On Monday morning, she lay dead on her kitchen floor. On Thursday morning, her family would gather to cremate her, and I would be there.
The cremation was scheduled to start promptly at 7 a.m., just as the sun broke through the blue light of dawn. The mourners began to stream in after 6:30. A truck pulled up, driven by Laura’s son, bearing her body wrapped in a coral-colored shroud. There had been a rumor that her
horse, Bebe, would be making an appearance, but at the last minute the family decided the crowd and the fire would be too much for Bebe’s constitution. The announcement came that the horse was “regretfully unable to attend.”
Laura’s family pulled her body from the pickup and carried her on a cloth stretcher through the field of black-eyed susans, up the slight incline toward the pyre. A gong rang through the air. As I walked from the parking area up the sandy path, a beaming volunteer handed me a freshly cut bough of juniper.
Laura was laid out on a metal grate atop two parallel slabs of smooth white concrete, under the expansive dome of Colorado sky. I had come to visit the empty pyre twice before, but its purpose became more sober and clear with the presence of a body. One by one, mourners stepped forward to lay a juniper bough on Laura’s body. As the only person present who hadn’t known her, I hesitated to deposit my juniper—call it funereal awkwardness. But I couldn’t very well hang on to my bough (too obvious) or stuff in into my backpack (tacky) so I walked forward and rested it on the shroud.
Laura’s family, including a young boy of eight or nine, circled her pyre stacking piñon pine and spruce logs, selected because they burn with heightened intensity. Laura’s partner and her adult son waited at the corners with lit torches. A signal was given, and they came together to set Laura aflame, just as the sun peered above the horizon.
As her body caught fire, white smoke swirled about in tiny cyclones, twisting upward and disappearing into morning sky. The smell called to mind a passage from Edward Abbey:
The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.
After a few minutes the whirlwinds dispersed, and glowing red flames danced in their place. The fire gathered strength, shooting up six feet high. The mourners, all 130 of them, ringed the pyre in silence. The only sound was the pop of flaming wood, as if one by one Laura’s memories were diffusing into the ether.
Cremation, in the form they practice it in the tiny town of Crestone, Colorado, has been around for tens of thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hindus were most famous for employing the modest alchemy of fire to consume the flesh and liberate the soul.
But cremation itself goes back even further. In the late 1960s, in the remote Australian Outback, a young geologist discovered the cremated bones of an adult woman. He estimated the bones might be up to 20,000 years old, but further study revealed that they were 42,000 years old, antedating the supposed arrival of the Aboriginal people in Australia by some 22,000 years. The woman would have lived in a verdant landscape filled with giant creatures (kangaroos, wombats, other rodents of unusual size). For food she collected fish, seeds, and the eggs of enormous emus. When she died, the woman, now known as Mungo Lady, was cremated by her community. After the cremation, her bones were crushed and then burned again in a second cremation. They were ritually covered with red ocher before being buried in the ground, where they lay resting for 42,000 years.
Speaking of Australia (this transition will pay off, I promise), ten minutes into Laura’s cremation, one of the fire-tenders picked up a didgeridoo and signaled a gentleman holding a wooden flute to join her.
I braced myself. The didgeridoo is a ludicrous instrument for an American funeral. But the combination of the didgeridoo’s all-encompassing drone and the flute’s lament was haunting, soothing the crowd as they stared deeper into the flames.
And so it goes: another American small town, another grieving community gathered around the pyre. Except, obviously, not. Crestone’s pyre is the only community open-air pyre in America and, in fact, in the Western world.
Cremations in Crestone didn’t always employ such stirring rituals. Before the processions at dawn and the didgeridoos and the well-organized juniper dispersers, there were Stephanie, Paul, and their Porta-Pyre.
“We were the Porta-Pyre people,” Stephanie Gaines explained matter-of-factly. She describes herself as a hyper-engaged Buddhist. “I’m a power Aries,” she added, “a triple Aries—my Sun, Moon, and ascendant.” At seventy-two, she rules Crestone’s pyre operation with logistics, charm, and a white-banged bob.
Stephanie and Paul Kloppenberg, an equally enchanting character with a thick Dutch accent, kept the pyre mobile, moving it from place to place, cremating on private property, swooping in and out before the county could stop them. They ran this portable operation for seven cremations. “We’d just come set it up at the end of your cul de sac,” Paul said.
The Porta-Pyre was a low-tech system, built from cinder blocks with a grate laid on top. The intense heat would cause the grate to warp and sag after every cremation. “We had to drive a truck over the top of it to get it flat again,” Stephanie said. “It seems crazy, looking back now,” she added, amused but not apologetic.
In 2006, the pair began searching for a more permanent location for the pyre. Crestone seemed like the perfect place, the very definition of rural, four hours south of Denver, population 137 people (1,400 in the surrounding areas). This gives Crestone a libertarian, “government outta my business” sort of edge. Weed is legal there, as are brothels. (Not that there are any brothels in operation, but there could be.)
The town attracts a mélange of spiritual seekers. People come from all over the world to meditate there, the Dalai Lama included. Flyers at the natural foods store advertise Qigong instructors, shadow wisdom teachers, retreats for children to “awaken their natural genius,” retreats for North African dance classes, and something called the “Enchanted Forest Sacred Space.” Crestone’s residents include hippies and trustafarians, but many who live here are serious lifelong practitioners: Buddhists, Sufis, and Carmelite nuns. Laura herself had spent decades as a devotee of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.
Paul and Stephanie’s first proposal for the permanent pyre location was squelched when landowners downwind of the site—“smokers, mind you,” Paul pointed out—developed a serious case of “not in my backyard.” They were “curmudgeons,” Stephanie said, uninterested in evidence showing no threat of wildfires, unpleasant smells, mercury poisoning, or particulate matter. The smokers wrote letters to the county board and the Environmental Protection Agency.
To fight them, the Porta-Pyre crew went legit. They created a nonprofit, the Crestone End of Life Project. They filed motion after motion, collected four hundred signatures (almost a third of the surrounding area), and amassed huge binders full of legal documents and scientific papers. They even visited the residents of Crestone one by one and listened to their concerns.
At first, they met strong resistance. One man in the anti-pyre camp termed the group “Neighbors Burning Neighbors.” When Paul and Stephanie suggested (as a joke) sponsoring a float in the local parade, a family came forward protesting that it was ”horribly disrespectful” to feature a float decorated with papier-mâché flames. “Folks in the town even worried the pyre would bring too much traffic,” Stephanie said. “Keep in mind that for Crestone, six cars is traffic.”
Paul explained, “There’s a lot of fear. ‘What about air pollution? Is it not morbid? Death stuff gives me the creeps.’ You have to stay patient, listen to what they’re asking for.”
Paul and Stephanie kept going, in spite of the overwhelming legal hurdles, because the idea of the pyre inspired the community. (Recall that the residents were so excited about the chance to be cremated on a pyre that they were summoning Paul and Stephanie to set up a cinder block grill in their driveways.) “How many people provide a service that actually resonates with other people?” Stephanie asked. “If it’s not resonating, forget it. It was that resonance that fed me.”
They at last found their pyre a stable home: outside of town, a few hundred yards off the main road. The land was donated by Dragon Mountain Temple, a Zen Buddhist group. They don’t keep the pyre hidden. As you drive into town there is a metal sign with a single flame reading “PYRE.” The sign was handmade by a local potato farmer (also the coroner), and stands as an obvious landmark. The pyre itself sits on a bed of sand, ringed with a bamboo wall that swoops and curves like calligraphy. Over fifty people have been cremated there, including (dramatic twist) the “Neighbors Burning Neighbors” guy, who had a change of heart prior to his death.
Excerpted from From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty. © 2017 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.