An interesting phenomenon takes place at an open-air cremation, one that has been noticed time and again by Crestone End of Life Project volunteers who facilitate this choice for area residents. When family members or friends of the deceased first light the fire, a deep quiet pervades the mood of the gathering, filled only with the roaring of flames. The hour is early, just at dawn. The rising mountains and spreading valley are silent and still, awaiting the sun. The gathering mirrors this stillness, each person deep in reflection, remembering a life that has passed and contemplating the certain passage awaiting us all.
Then, as the fire begins to burn down, something shifts. The stories start. Memories are shared. Sometimes there is singing, often laughter, always hugging and cleansing tears. The sacredness of the event is no less palpable than it was, but solemnity gives way to a greater sense of lightness, observes Stephanie Gaines, longtime Crestone/Baca resident and founder/director of CEOLP. “As the body is dissolved by fire, the mood shifts and there’s an incredible opening. It goes from concentration to expansion, just like what’s happening to the body.”
The opportunity to experience and share in such a transformation is a rare gift to the Crestone/Baca and Moffat community, which benefits from the only completely legal non-denominational, non-profit open-air cremation service in the country. Since 2008, the group hasfacilitated 20 cremations at the permanent community cremation site just west of Crestone on property owned and generously made available by Steve Allen and Angelique Farrow of Dragon Mountain Temple. Those who participate in this way of saying good-bye to a loved one universally comment on how moving, meaningful and beautiful the experience is.
Yet while a fiery funeral pyre may be the most dramatic aspect of CEOLP’s work, it is far from the only way this dedicated group serves the community at a sacred, often difficult juncture of life. CEOLP volunteers are trained—and new volunteers, always welcome, receive training—in every detail that must be attended to after someone passes. This assurance of compassionate, mindful, practical support is an enormous comfort for family members and friends of the deceased, as well as for those who register with CEOLP for their own end-of-life choices.
Because of CEOLP’s limited number of volunteers and the intensive logistics and work required each time the organization is called on, its services are available only to Crestone/Baca and Moffat residents who have lived here more than three months and who are registered with CEOLP. A donation is requested to cover costs such as firewood and transportation. The organization stresses the importance of end-of-life planning and of registering with CEOLP in order to have one’s choices reverently honored after death.
Along with open-air cremations, CEOLP provides care and transport of the body, assistance with all aspects of a home funeral, including repose at home for up to 72 hours, assistance with paperwork and help in planning a memorial ceremony. The organization also supports other end-of-life choices, including green burial (requiring no embalming, caskets or concrete vaults) or transport to a mortuary for a traditional burial or cremation. At the core of its mission is education—volunteers educating themselves about end-of-life choices in order to provide accurate information, and assistance in educating groups and individuals elsewhere with questions about end-of-life choices in their own communities.
In many ways, the Crestone/Baca community itself manifested the End of Life Project, although a few determined residents painstakingly maneuvered through a maze of red tape and legal hurdles to make it happen. “I feel like there was already a wish present in the community, and I just focused the energy to bring it into form,” notes Stephanie, who spearheaded the multi-year effort to gain legal footing for CEOLP.
That community aspiration began to reveal itself in 1998 after the passing of an area resident and practicing Tibetan Buddhist who had expressed a desire for an open-air cremation. Her wish was filled on her own property, under the radar screen of county or state authority. Several others followed over the next few years, with volunteers laboriously moving and setting up a “porta-pyre,” as Stephanie jokingly calls it, on private land. But it soon became clear that a highly trained group of volunteers following specific procedures at a permanent community cremation site—under the law—was needed.
CEOLP’s first meeting took place in 2006. Area residents Barbara and William Howell, Rainbow Adler, Guy Standing, Vince and Mary Palermo, Anna Louise Stewart, Vinnie and Daniel Terres, Kathleen Willow, Paul Kloppenburg and many others were instrumental in getting the project off the ground. Documenting the existence of broad community support for the idea was relatively easy, Stephanie relates. More time-consuming and challenging was garnering approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Saguache County Commission, Baca Grande Property Owners Association and a handful of concerned neighbors.
Each hurdle eventually was crossed, although not without the threat (which continues) of lobbyists for the funeral industry pushing for restrictions to the ease or legality of open-air cremations in the state. “This can happen when people aren’t aware because we’re a culture so in denial of death,” Stephanie points out. The organization that emerged from all this effort is one that, while small, works together like an experienced triage team when a call is received saying a CEOLP-registered resident has passed.
Regardless of the deceased or family’s religious or spiritual affiliation, regardless of background, race, economics, lifestyle or any other factor, every individual receives the same degree of mindful, compassionate, impeccable care, Stephanie affirms. “In the end, there is only love, as Rainbow always says. In the end, everything gets stripped away and we are human beings together, here to serve each other. Everything else is just covering.”
Family members and friends on the receiving end of such care express deep gratitude for CEOLP and the opportunity to celebrate a loved one’s life in such a personal, meaningful and supported way. Tessa Bielecki, whose father Casimir Bielecki’s cremation was among the first at the permanent site, conveys a sentiment reflecting one of CEOLP’s primary goals: “The End of Life Project helps make the experience of death natural, human, reverent and above all, sacred,” she says.
“For us, having the open-air cremation site is frosting on the cake,” Stephanie reflects. “The real gift is waking up to the awareness that we are going to die and we don’t know when, and we need to be there for ourselves and each other.”
For more information, visit crestone-end-of-life.org or call Stephanie at (719) 588-7415. To register with CEOLP, contact Rainbow at (719) 256-4640 or firstname.lastname@example.org. CEOLP volunteers meet monthly; this month’s meeting is Nov. 8 at 7pm at 33 Sunset Overlook. Volunteers, guest visitors and donations are always welcome.