Open Air Cremation: Extraordinary Passing, New Beginning


by John Davidson

It is before sunrise in the San Luis Valley of south central Colorado.

The sky is clear in predawn light. There is no wind.

The cold is intense – just below freezing – on this Sunday morning in late March.

Fifteen or so people are gathered into a small circle on the valley floor about a mile west of the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains that rise to several pinnacles over 14,000 feet here.

In the center of the circle is a funeral pyre. Constructed of block, concrete, steel and stucco, the pyre is laid out with firewood, ready for the body that awaits in the back of a station wagon parked on the county road about 40 yards away. It is three days after the death.

As if on cue, a family of coyotes a few hundred meters south of the circle sings a refrain familiar in this valley.

On that plaintive note, the body – clothed and covered with a simple white shroud – is lifted from the car on a plain pine stretcher lovingly crafted for this moment. Led by a man playing a Native American flute that is the only sound cutting through the remarkable silence of this remote place, the stretcher bearers walk a sandy trail to the circle and place both body and stretcher on the steel frame in the center of the pyre.

Family members first, everyone present comes forward to place juniper and pinon boughs on top of the body. Firekeepers place more wood on top of the boughs.

A firekeeper has fashioned a torch from cotton cloth soaked in kerosene and tied with string to a stick. He invites a family member to light the bottom of the woodpile. A small amount of kerosene has already been poured onto the wood below the body to accelerate the fire, which ignites quickly  at the touch of the torch. Dense white smoke fragrant with juniper and pinon billows upward on a breeze so soft that only the smoke discloses its presence. In moments, the fire gains momentum, and the smoke disappears, giving way to intense heat and tall flame.

Few words are spoken in this particular ceremony. The family chooses its own way, its own ritual, to express love, honor, respect and farewells. The ring of experienced volunteers who have facilitated this process stand in mute support, simply and powerfully present to the family’s wishes in this most ancient of ceremonies.

Having said what needs to be said, the family departs. The firekeepers tend the fire until the fire’s work is done, carefully and respectfully removing bits of bone as those appear among cooling embers. The hot ashes are mounded so that a volunteer may return on the following day to recover the remaining ashes in a ten gallon bucket, which is made available to the family to do with as it wishes.


The Crestone End of Life Project (CEOLP) came into being about three years ago. Since that time, it has facilitated about fifteen “open air” cremations. CEOLP is a Colorado non-profit corporation. Families able to do so ordinarily make a contribution to CEOLP in recognition of this service, which is provided to residents of the Crestone community who have registered in advance. The service includes assisting the family in preparing the body for repose and assisting with planning for the cremation ceremony.

While CEOLP defers to the needs and desires of the family, its volunteer members have developed a base of experience that allows the family to elect a procedure that lies outside the conventional funeral home embalming or cremation approaches. Most often, this process consists of washing the body, keeping it cool, and sitting with it for the period of three days until the cremation occurs. Because this “sitting with” is no longer common in American culture, the volunteers gently help the family accommodate the process that the deceased person has requested.


CEOLP’s service is relatively unique within the United States. Because its vision is unfamiliar in modern times, it took considerable effort to obtain the approvals necessary from the agencies having local jurisdiction over burials, fires, and environmental concerns. Following tentative approval from these various agencies, CEOLP’s consistently professional service eventually won both respect and support from these local regulating agencies.

In a culture that has departed from being with the departed, CEOLP’s service is resonating with those who wish an alternative to the conventional process that – despite the professionalism of its practitioners – remains a distant and hands-off engagement with the event of death. Open air cremations clearly restore an intimate and personal engagement with the death of a loved one.

In addition to this personal service, CEOLP is developing a resource that provides information regarding advance directives – sometimes called “living wills” – and other estate planning tools that lay the groundwork for electing such a service long before the moment of death comes.

For myself – at an age when I find myself attending more and more funerals – I felt it a rare privilege to witness the rebirth of a practice that promises to become a movement. To stand beside the fire in the light of the rising sun, to witness the solemn and joyful rites of passage presided over by those whose hearts are most connected to the soul passing on, to experience the elemental engagement of the fire returning tissue and bone to the earth – such simple experiences filled me with the awe that arises alongside a knowing that we stand in direct relation to a vast history of human experience that is met once again in such a moment.

I find another theme woven into the fabric of this extraordinary experience. Standing with these “volunteers,” I’m aware that another name for them is simply “neighbors.” In Crestone, there is a conscious effort to form community within a larger culture that has lost the sense and experience of neighboring – of helping, of being with, of knowing and being known, of providing simple service. There is an effort to become aware of others in need and to reach out to them before the need reaches critical stage. This end of life project is simply one way in which a sense of community is also rebirthing.

For the future, CEOLP’s vision is to awaken others to the alternatives available and the rights – and responsibility – they have to choose their own path, including conventional approaches. CEOLP has a collaborative arrangement with the local mortuary, in the spirit of its central value of supporting community efforts that serve the broad range of services and choices – an approach that seeks to compliment and not compete with existing services.

CEOLP’s present fund raising is directed toward the cost of a permanent stucco and straw bale wall to surround the ceremonial area.

You can find out more about CEOLP and make contributions through its website:


Copyright John P. Davidson 2010






  1. Anonymous says

    What would need to go through in order to have open air cremations approved in Australia?

  2. Derek says

    Anon; don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.

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