On Independence Day, about 200 people gathered at a remote lake in north-central Florida to see an old friend explode. They ate barbeque and corn on the cob, some took canoe rides. As dusk settled, they sat on the grass and watched the sky.
But their firework display was far from the typical small town American July Fourth event. Packed inside the casing of several dozen fireworks were the cremated remains of local man Tom Moore, who had died days before, at the age of 70. “For those who knew him, this is most appropriate,” said his wife Ann. “Don’t all men love something that goes bang?”
Heavens Above Fireworks is a British company that offers a variety of ways to send your loved ones off with a bang. Clients can pay to have the company arrange the displays for them, or they can order their own rockets for self firing kits, which come with instructions on how to incorporate ashes into the rockets. Pointers are provided for how to create interesting displays and there are special instructions for pets. “On the night it is advisable to wear gloves, ear, head and eye protection. Avoid loose or unbuttoned clothing,” reads the company’s website. “When unpacking any fireworks keep away from naked flames and inflammable material. Never smoke when handling or lighting fireworks. Always light fireworks at arms’ length, and under no circumstances lean over a firework. Never go back to a firework if it fails to ignite.”
One of the most publicized firework sendoffs in history occurred just several years ago, with the death of Hunter S. Thompson, author of the shocking novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and inventor of his own brash breed of Gonzo journalism. Thompson grew up in a well-to-do Louisville, Kentucky neighborhood, served in the Air Force, and worked for a series of small newspapers and magazines before writing his breakthrough book on the motorcycle gang The Hell’s Angels. He covered the 1968 election riots, the 1972 election of Richard Nixon and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway. Thompson adored firearms, alcohol and psychedelic drugs and spent the majority of his adult life in a home near Aspen, Colorado that he referred to as Owl Farm. At 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, he shot himself in the head. He was 67.
His final wish, well known by his family and close friends, was to have his ashes fired from a cannon set atop a 153-foot tower that he had designed himself decades earlier with longtime friend Ralph Steadman. The tower was to be in the shape of a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, all rising from the hilt of a dagger. Six months after Thompson killed himself his wish was carried out. As the cannon fired, Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky and Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man played. Red, white, blue and green fireworks were launched along with the ashes. The funeral was financed by actor Johnny Depp, who played a version of Thompson in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and was also a close friend. “I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out,” Depp told a reporter at the time. Also in attendance was U.S. Senator John Kerry, Charlie Rose and actors Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro and Sean Penn.
Only a few hundred listed guests were allowed into the event. Security guards kept reporters and the rest of the public away but numerous fans showed up anyway, camping out on surrounding hillsides to watch the show. “We just threw a gallon of Wild Turkey in the back and headed west,” said a young man from West Virginia, who made the 1,500 mile road trip with a friend.
When Thompson first moved to town Aspen was scruffy, now it is filled with chic folk and glamorous homes. The city only allowed Thompson’s cannon to remain up for one month. Afterward, it was dismantled and put into storage, where it remains today.