Holy Smoke – The Way of Life, and End of Life Choices

An essay on the cremation ceremony of Ed Rosenberg…

Our son Bothe told us about Ed Rosenberg’s death. The funeral was to be in two days, an open-air cremation at sunrise in Crestone. I felt hesitant about attending the funeral, yet felt deeply certain it was what I needed to do.

We were not close friends, had not been an intimate part of each other’s lives.

We had only met the Rosenbergs once, although I remember that we recognized each other without being introduced. Our paths had crossed via the community radio station, then more concretely because our sons, Bothe and Abe, were friends, for a time roommates. But, our recognition of one another was beyond these sorts of associations.

What I later came to understand was that in some otherworldly way, the Rosenbergs had agreed to help us embrace our humanity.

As is usually the case when going to Crestone, we hadn’t nailed down directions, always assuming it will be obvious where to go in such a small town. But, as small as Crestone is, it is a complicated place.  And at daybreak on a Sunday morning in February, there was no one wandering the streets in the diminutive down town, no one to ask for directions. No one to ask, “Excuse me. Can you tell me where the funeral pyre is?”

And not everyone knew about it, anyway. The site had only recently been dedicated. There had only been a few ceremonies.

After a quick call to Abe for directions, Brittney guided us. We made our way, walking a winding dirt road around a treeless, windblown rise.

The town of Crestone sits on the lap of some of the nation’s highest mountain peaks. It has been known for eons as a holy site, most notably Sipapu, a sacred portal to the Underworld through which mankind emerged and can return from time to time to revive their spirits. All manner of religious seekers are drawn to the area by an immutable sacred magnet. Crestone is known for its vast array of avenues to enlightenment.

Not everyone feels comfortable in Crestone, its essence too rich, its isolation too great, its size too small. Those who live there, a few hundred souls year-round, are there very intentionally.  As an occasional visitor, I feel I must step carefully, like walking on hallowed eggshells, lest I offend a host of ancient sensibilities.

Even though I had felt completely comfortable with Ed and Robin, I felt a twinge of ill-at-ease approaching Ed’s funeral, as I would with any ceremony with which I am unfamiliar and unschooled. But, the acolytes of this rite were so warm and welcoming, it was clear their intent was simply to celebrate Ed’s life and honor his death.

Robin and the children, all adults now, had gone up the mountain to gather juniper boughs hours after Ed’s death. It was one of the tasks of the ceremony of the celebration of life, and one they had done as a family. As we entered the path leading up a slight hill to the pyre, a woman gave each of us a sprig of the juniper and a smile.

People greeted one another warmly this frigid morning. There was a lot of hugging and quiet talk, some laughter. But, there was a hush of decorum about the discourse, and instead of gathering in chaotic groups as at a party, we formed a double phalanx along the path, facing one another, a rich smorgasbord dressed in parkas and capes, serapes and saris, fortified against the cold. Some shivered, an indication an extra layer would have been a good idea. A man in winter firefighting gear, including hardhat with neck and face protection joined the group.

The mountains above us were specially dressed for the occasion with a delicate coat of fresh snow that had fallen some time in the night.

The ceremony began when a young woman in white robes passed among us, blessing each celebrant with the smoke from a burning bundle of sage. People returned her beatific smile, some closed their eyes, some waved a hand at the smoke, wafting the blessing toward themselves. One man turned away.  A cancer survivor, perhaps. When the robed woman got to the firefighter, they hugged. She kissed his cheek, and anointed his fire suit with sage smoke.

At its ascendance as New Age Mecca, the town of Crestone appeared to be closer to the Underworld than to a hospital or emergency services. In time the Kundalini Volunteer Fire Department and EMT corps were created, and the residents heaved a sigh of relief. The path to righteousness, after all, is not necessarily a shield against a brushfire or a broken leg. So, for all its mysticism, Cretsone seems rooted as much in community potlucks as in religious practice. This amalgam enables the civilization of such a settlement in the Wild West. Thus the practical and the ascetic shepherd the Crestone Way.

And it is the Crestone Way that makes possible open-air cremation services and green burials. Many of the town’s residents have spent time in India and have witnessed funeral pyres. As it happens, Colorado law accommodates customs such as those practiced in India. In Colorado cremation and burial of human remains may take place on private property, provided local laws are observed and the location of the body is registered with the county.  In this way, dying may proceed without engaging the funeral business with its toxic chemicals, expensive services, coffins, urns, and pretense, profits derived from preying on the guilt and grief of the bereaved, counting on their feeling icky and unsettled about dead bodies.

The Crestone End of Life Project began when a group of people from various beliefs and backgrounds came together to address the disposition of the dead in their community. Through their volunteer efforts they made possible legal open-air cremations and green burials at the town cemetery. The group emphasizes the importance of making choices about the end of life experience well ahead of time to properly prepare for what they call the “mysterious certainty that is only a breath away.”  Within their framework, Ed Rosenberg, who had been terminally ill for some time, died at home, in the arms of his beloved, with friends and family nearby.

After Ed’s death, two of Robin’s friends helped her tend his body in the way women in Crestone would have done a hundred years ago – tended, anointed, made ready for cremation or burial, all at home, a loving and respectful sacrament that would make possible a sense of closure and completion.

As they had time together, knowing death was near, Ed and Robin often shared their thoughts on death and the afterlife. During the funeral, Robin spoke of her husband’s beliefs. “He wasn’t too sure about this ‘God thing’”, she said. “He wasn’t sure there was such thing as an afterlife. I told him I was pretty sure of it, but I asked him to give me a sign when he got to the other side.”

“Like what?” he said.

“I don’t know. Just give me a sign. I’ll know it.”

When death came, and Robin was involved in preparing her husband’s body, “His mouth kept falling open,” she said, in the very human, often humorous tone of Ed’s funeral.

“I took my prayer shawl and wrapped it around his head and under his jaw to keep his mouth closed. When I came in the next morning he had a big smile on his face. And that was my sign.”

Ed’s body arrived at the funeral in a friend’s van. He was wrapped in a butter-colored silk shroud, laid on a wooden bier, and carried by eight pallbearers up the hill to the pyre. The assembled filed in behind, the procession accompanied by the beating of a single drum, in the rhythm of a human heartbeat, up the hill around the curve of a beautifully crafted bamboo fence that echoed the shape of a human heart. Everything about the ceremony celebrated natural beauty. As we moved around the fence and into the ceremonial space we formed a spiral, the ultimate shape of Nature.

Ed’s shrouded body was laid on the pyre under which was a pile of split logs stuffed liberally with copies of “The Crestone Eagle”, the town’s beloved newspaper. On all four sides of the pyre were neatly stacked piles of similarly cut wood. The procession spiraled around the pyre, so that each of us could lay the juniper sprigs over Ed’s body, and as we spiraled there came soft notes from a wooden flute. There were many flowers laid over him, and his son Abe triumphantly offered the pint-sized guitar with which Ed had introduced him to music as a small child. The family finished the preparation by laying wood on top, then set the pyre alight with flame from torches from all four directions.

The ceremony continued, a sacrament with earthy intimacy, like the combination of a hearty wedding and a well-behaved bon fire. There were earth resounding tones from a didgeridoo while the fire took hold. Then there was silence until the smoke cleared, long, patient, unfettered silence. The heat of Ed’s flames was welcome, and as it reached us, Ed’s children played Tibetan bells and crystal bowls laid out on blankets on the ground. These were healing sounds that no one broke out into song with, but it was nice, like a gentle breeze in an aspen grove, or waves breaking on the beach.

There were some prayers in Hebrew, phlegmatic ancient chants. There were poems and songs. Then there was storytelling, the part of the ceremony so warmly officiated over by Robin, as if inviting us into her home, her heart. Many stories were told by old friends. Some came from people who had met Ed only briefly, as we had, but felt they had known him forever. One of his ex-wives spoke, and in tribute to him, spoke with a humor that bespoke great love and admiration.  Several talked about Ed’s sense of community and his humanizing influence on the town.

And then Abe sang, first a song Ed had written about love, then a song Abe had written about his love for his father. Abe’s friend Morgan joined him, and together they orchestrated our tears.  As sparks flew and ashes drifted, we weren’t always sure if our tears were because of Ed or Doug Fir cinders. And really it made no difference. We are all of the same carbon, every life form of this Earth.
The blaze was tended by a man named Paul who stoked it with many more logs and kept it within bounds with a long handled hand-smithed rake. He worked steadily, unobtrusively for a couple of hours throughout the ceremony.

As the sun broke above the mountains, we stopped to acknowledge the dawning of the day and the embrace of the sky. It was then particularly that I felt the spirit of Naomi, my mother who had died a week before Ed.  In that week I had often sensed her in the sky, felt her presence in celestial events.

Naomi was ninety years old when her body simply gave out. She was not ailing or in pain. She had lived well and died as well as she lived. Naomi’s wishes were to be cremated and to host one last party to celebrate her life.  Everyone knew this was what she wanted. But, because she had not communicated her wishes in a way the State of Texas recognized, and because of unbelievable incompetence at the funeral home, our mother’s corporeal being was kept in a state of limbo. While we were laying sprigs of juniper over Ed’s shroud, Naomi’s body lay on a slab in the morgue, waiting for paperwork.

We learned on Monday that Naomi’s body had been cremated on Saturday, with none of us present, none of us aware, which felt cold and lonely, especially after seeing that the process of cremation, when performed as part of a loving ceremony can provide such warmth, light, and closure.

One of Ed’s oldest friends announced, “Often when someone dies I can hear the strains of angelic music. But, what I’m hearing today is Blue Grass! Can anyone else hear it?” Blue Grass was one of Ed’s favorite things in life. I thought I could hear it. And as I looked for Naomi in the sky, I thought she heard it, too.

Ed’s cremation was one of the most deeply moving gifts I have ever received. It was the encapsulation of the whole spectrum of being a human being. It allowed me to rejoice in my mother’s life and her conviction that the state of Joy is a choice.