In the southwestern Colorado town of Crestone, smoke doesn’t always signal a forest fire. There’s a good chance it’s emanating from an old-style funeral pyre. The Associated Press travels to the quirky town to attend Belinda Ellis’ farewell, observing as her husband puts a torch to the juniper branches surrounding her body, lighting the pyre. It’s a rare scene in the United States: Crestone may be the only place in the nation that allows open-air cremation regardless of religion (a Buddhist temple in Red Feather Lakes, northwest of Fort Collins, conducts pyres, but only for members).
To understand the ritual, the AP turns to Colorado College religion professor David Weddle, who mentions some people are put off by traditional funerals, which can be viewed as a denial of death. A funeral pyre, on the other hand, can honor nature by returning the body to ash and the elements of which it is composed. Bob Biggins, spokesman and former president of the National Funeral Directors Association, praises Crestone’s End of Life Project for allowing “people to bear witness” to death in such a fashion.