Belinda Ellis got her wish, upon death her body was covered in red cloth and laid atop a rectangular steel grate inside a brick hearth. One by one family members placed in juniper boughs and logs, someone tossed on a bag of marijuana.
A woman produced chimes by playing a set of crystal bowls. With a torch, Belinda’s husband lit the fire. Smoke billowed into the steely dawn sky above Colorado’s picturesque Sangre De Christo Mountains. “What was a physical body will become one with the sky,” said a man with the Crestone End of Life Project, the group that organized the funeral pyre.
It took almost five hours for Ellis’s body to completely burn. Afterward, since separating human remains from charred wood is impossible her family received about five gallons of ashes. This was the 18th open-air cremation that the Crestone group has performed; their first was in January of 2008. They have gotten requests to host funeral pyres for people from as far away as New York and Florida but the group has chosen to limit their services to those inhabiting the tiny towns immediately surrounding them. As far as they know they are the only facility in the nation offering open-air cremations. The ceremonies are small, simple and discreet, a stark contrast to the cremation ceremonies half a world away in Bali, where Hindus believe open-air cremation is an essential part of returning one’s constituent elements to the world around them and freeing the soul.
“In Bali, the body is nothing more than an impure, temporary shell, having no significance at all, except as the container of the soul and its anchor to earth,” says Fred Eiseman Jr. in his 1996 book on Bali culture, Sekala & Niskala. “The body is just there to be disposed of, and that as quickly as possible.”
But the process is hardly quick; the lavish cremation ceremonies take months of meticulous planning. If the family is poor or middle-class the body may be buried in the ground during this time but for a priestly or royal family there are strict guidelines that must be followed. The body is placed in a pavilion in the family compound and guarded 24 hours a day. A high priest, or pedanda, visits regularly. Music and entertainment are commissioned and daily meals are provided for the deceased, plus snacks and tea or coffee for the family. A mirror, a comb and a toothbrush are laid nearby.
The ceremony cannot happen on just any day, for the Balinese have numerous superstitions associated with date. Certain days are good or bad for journeying, harvesting rice, building a house, burning trash, going to market, getting married, cutting down a tree and hosting a cremation. While waiting drives up cost, a cremation is not a time for thriftiness. “Skimping would constitute disrespect,” says Eiseman. “Since the soul will shortly become a deified ancestor, with great power to help or hurt, a cheap funeral is considered a very bad way to start off this relationship.”
Once the ceremony occurs though, it is nothing short of tremendous. Eiseman describes: “A huge crowd swarms the streets. A shouting, laughing horde of men shoulders gaudy platforms and life-size animal statues, weaving with their burdens in a crazy path. There are water fights, and boisterous horseplay. The animals spin around riotously and tilt precariously. A long, white cloth strung out over the heads of dozens of people leads a gigantic tower, borne by even more men… Crowds of onlookers gather around, a white bundle is practically torn from the tower and laid inside the hollow animal. Attendants pack the animal’s hollow torso with cloths and paraphernalia, and pour it full of liquid. A crackling noise, a few licks of flame, and the tower and wooden beast flare up in a great, blazing pyre.”
In 2008, the town of Ubud, in the center of Bali, hosted its first royal cremation ceremony in almost 30 years, five members of the royal family were cremated. Among the many international journalists there to document the event were Seattle visual and sound artist Jesse Paul Miller and his wife, a photographer. They watched as a procession two kilometers long, made up of 30,000 people marched with the giant bull and dragon meant to be burnt toward a wood tower constructed just for the event that was more than 100 meters high.
“The manifestation of energy was truly powerful,” said Miller.