Tessa Bielecki

For her Father, Dr. Casimir Bielecki…

The first open-air cremation I ever witnessed was my own father’s. It was one of the most sacred and healing experiences of my life. Once my grieving period was over, I was eager to join the Crestone End-of-Life Project to help provide a similar humanized and consoling experience of death for others.

The cremation experience is deeply enhanced by gathering the “cremains” 24 hours later.

I went to the cremation site with my family, carrying several buckets and small trowels. My father’s ashes were no longer smoldering…

but still warm. We sifted through them carefully and pulled out every piece of bone fragment that did not burn up in the fire, marveling at the beautiful architecture of the human body, and communing with Dad. Some of the fragments we placed in a specially crafted urn to bury in our New England home town next to Mom’s grave, as we’d promised Dad we would. Some fragments I keep wrapped in a scarf in a blue and red lacquered box from Poland, purchased there with my family decades ago.

Remember how various cultures honor the “bones of the ancestors” and even carry them with them as they move from place to place? I’ve come to understand the deep meaning of this cherished connection.

I don’t find it at all macabre but a profound act of love, an essential part of grieving and healing, and a crucial meditation on “impermanence.” We are all made out of the very dust of the earth, as the Book of Genesis tells us. And to that dust we shall return.

As a Roman Catholic, I’ve been steeped all my life in “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Every Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I’ve had ashes pressed into my forehead with the words from the Book of Job in the Jewish Testament: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This wisdom became vividly real as I gathered up my beloved father’s ashes.

An unhealthy denial of death exists in many parts of our culture. Fashion, advertising, hospitals, and funeral homes all conspire to make the old look young and the deceased look “alive.” Open-air cremation provides an honest and radical confrontation with death, and therefore helps us grieve and heal our losses in a healthy, timely, and sacred manner.

The process culminates naturally in the gathering of the ashes and bones which we can honor in any number of ways: burial, saving and cherishing, or scattering to the four winds, releasing us from the confines of matter into the universal omni-present realm of Spirit.

~Tessa Bielecki