published: March 2015

by Gussie Fauntleroy

On a bitterly cold morning as Michele Frazier Baldwin’s cremation was winding down, warmth still radiating from the pyre, Anna Louise Stewart noticed a friend of Michele’s young daughter shivering with cold. Gently, Anna Louise addressed the girl and other family members and friends in the circle at the community cremation site. “It’s okay to step close to the pyre to get warm,” she said. As if on cue, everyone moved closer, forming an intimate circle around the pyre. Michele’s mother pulled an iPod from her pocket. The Beatles’ Michelle began to play, and soon all those gathered were softly singing along with the familiar words, Michelle, ma belle . . .  “It was such a tender moment, and such a lovely expression of how this all takes on a life of its own. No one could have planned for it,” Anna Louise remembers.

Just as every life is different, so is every end of life. And just as life takes unexpected turns, volunteers with the Crestone End of Life Project (CEOLP) have learned that serving the community through facilitating home funerals and open-air cremations means carefully following well-established protocols while also allowing for the “flow of grace,” as CEOLP member Anna Louise puts it. That can involve anything from inclement weather and family members’ fears to the beloved horse of the deceased joining the procession into the cremation site. “Each death seems to reflect the personality of the person who died, so no matter how much framework we put down, each one is different, and there’s total beauty in that,” Anna Louise reflects.

Founded in 2007 by Stephanie Gaines and authorized by county and state authorities, CEOLP facilitates open-air cremations for Crestone/Moffat area residents (whether property owners or not) who are registered with the organization at the time of death. CEOLP also provides assistance with all aspects of home funerals, including care and transport of the body, repose at home for up to 72 hours, help with paperwork, and aid in planning memorial ceremonies. CEOLP supports other end-of-life choices as well, including green burial (no embalming, caskets or concrete vaults) at the Crestone town cemetery, and transport to a mortuary for a traditional burial or cremation.

Registration required

But the first and crucial step—ideally well before illness or old age—is to become registered. “I see people at the post office all the time who say, Oh! I need to send my paperwork in!” says CEOLP registrar Lorraine Cazier, currently serving in the role held for many years by longtime CEOLP member Rainbow Adler. Registration is a relatively simple process that includes documenting vital statistics required to complete a death certificate. A community registration party is set for March 14. (See sidebar). CEOLP volunteers also can assist with registration at any time.

When someone dies without completing registration, family members and friends can find frustration and disappointment added to their grief. Stephanie recalls receiving a half-dozen calls within two months this winter from residents requesting CEOLP’s services for loved ones who were not registered. In one case the caller mistakenly believed the deceased’s close friends could fill out the paperwork after the person’s passing. In fact, it must be completed and notarized before death. Making exceptions could jeopardize CEOLP’s legal standing and ability to provide services for all current and future registrants.

Serving with heart

For those who are registered, one of the vital roles performed by CEOLP volunteers is family liaison. Often taken on by a CEOLP member close to the family, the liaison makes sure loved ones are aware of disposition options and all of CEOLP’s services. The liaison remains available throughout the process to assist and advocate for the wishes of the deceased and family. Fulfilling this role requires “openness and sensitivity, active listening and having a gentle, informed ability to guide,” observes Michael Onewing, who has volunteered in almost every capacity with CEOLP. What’s rewarding, she says, is “to support people with love and care in a really powerfully sad time in their lives.”

Volunteers guiding the family through a home funeral and care of the body reflect similar qualities and describe equally meaningful experiences. As the body is prepared for resting in state, those offering assistance find themselves in an intimate, sacred space in which loved ones may be experiencing an intense mixture of grief, sometimes shock, and fear of the unknown. In many cases CEOLP volunteers knew the deceased, adding a layer of personal emotional complexity and challenge. Anna Louise, Michael, Malina Feder, Julia Voss and Avadhan Larson are among volunteers experienced in guiding families in care of the body. “We’re invited to step into a very private space at a really difficult time in people’s life,” Anna Louise says. “It’s satisfying to hold the space and see the grace of it, to know they feel supported and helped.”

Each role is essential

During the three or four days between death and cremation and on the morning of the event, other volunteer teams carry out such tasks as site management, parking, and serving as site hosts—guiding guests during the procession and acting as master of ceremony. Among longtime volunteers who have taken on these roles are Jeannie Krogh, Wayne Halstrom, Tessa Bielecki, Lynda Kucin, Bob Adler, Allison Wonderland, Matthew Crowley, Noah Baen and the late Robin Ross.

The most physically demanding CEOLP role is that of preparing and tending the cremation fire. It’s a procedure that has been steadily refined over the years. As Annette Standing puts it, “failure is not an option.” Annette was fire master Paul Kloppenburg’s first apprentice, followed by McGregor Gaines. Being responsible for the fire is a powerful reminder that as humans “we are part of the natural world,” Annette says. “This is where heaven meets earth. You’re passing the person on and this is our final gift, so we want to give 110%.”

Working together

Coordinating and overseeing all CEOLP teams is a facilitator, who serves as point person from the moment the organization receives notification of a registrant’s passing. This high-pressure task includes contacting CEOLP team leaders, handling legal paperwork, and communicating with County Coroner Tom Perrin, other county or state officials, team leaders, family members, and sometimes an attending physician. “It’s like being a choreographer—there are all these people you have to bring on board and make sure they’re on task,” notes Marta Shoman.

Marta served as facilitator for the first time last fall when other volunteers were unavailable. It was a sudden and unexpected task, but with a background that includes administrative management, she says, “I felt like I was in my groove.” Marta was aided by the experience of team leaders and CEOLP’s highly detailed 43-page manual, organized and edited by Kathleen Haas. Equally critical is an ability to work through unforeseen wrinkles, in this case as a result of the death occurring in another county.

Anna Louise, describing the combination of flexibility, teamwork and deep respect essential in every aspect of CEOLP’s service, remarks, “There’s so much discomfort around death. But our work is really about listening, being gentle and kind and open. It’s something we all have; it’s about awakening to something we inherently know.”