As anyone who knows her will tell you, my mother is opinionated. She knows exactly what she wants in life, and -- as I recently learned -- in death as well. She and I have been discussing her funerary wishes off and on since her own mother passed away a year ago. It was an event that triggered a spate of morbid self-reflection, including thoughts on what she wanted us to do with her mortal coil after it’s been shuffled off.
“I don’t like burial,” says my mom with certainty. “I don’t like the idea of being underground. It’s horrifying.” Traditional burial is cold and claustrophobic, she believes. Instead, she wants fire, fierce and true, to reduce her corpse to ashes. She is not alone in this opinion.
The percentage of U.S. deaths that result in cremation has steadily increased over the years; today, it hovers around 45 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America. This same group has discovered that cremation is particularly popular among Westerners: In 2010, for example, the Pacific and mountain regions had cremation rates of nearly 60 percent each, the highest in the nation.
Cremation is generally much cheaper than traditional burial. But Westerners tend to favor torrid flames over terra firma for more abstract reasons. Research shows that with the exception of Utahns, Westerners tend to be less religious than other Americans, and are thus uninfluenced by cremation-discouraging doctrines, for example. But the fact that we’re less religious doesn’t mean we’re less spiritual, I'd wager. From the cracked-earth deserts of the Southwest to the Great Plains' rolling prairies, the Western landscape is dramatic, powerful and mercurial. It's hard not to connect to it in ways that become intensely personal. Cremation, followed by a scattering of the ashes in some special place, allows people to remain linked to landscapes of more consequence than the local cemetery.
For my mother, a botanist with a weakness for alpine flora, this special place is a meadow in the Beartooth Mountains, a range that spans Montana's Custer National Forest. She wants my brother and me to scatter her ashes there, among the wildflowers.
"I just love the idea that I would be feeding the louseworts, the forget-me-nots," she says. However, not all public-land managers welcome ashes of the dead, though most do. I warned my mom about this possibility.
"You'll just have to sneak in. How the heck would they know?" she replied. "And make sure you put me in the sun, near a whitebark pine." She knows her mind, my mother.
I'm more than happy to skirt regulations if it means keeping my mom's spirit happy and restful, but for those less keen on funerary subterfuge, the West boasts a number of guaranteed ash-scattering options. For only $225, High Sierra Gardens will scatter your loved one's remains "in the beautiful high Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, among majestic peaks, serene forests and clear cascading creeks."
For just 50 bucks more, the San Francisco-based company Scatterings airdrops your ashes along the California coast. In Montana, you can hire the Ladies in White to trek "cremains" into the Big Sky state's backcountry, where they scatter them in particularly pretty spots. The Ladies even provide GPS coordinates and photos of the site they choose. If “Ladies in White” sounds too feminine for you -- and you happen to be a hunter -- you might consider outsourcing your ash scattering needs to Alabama, where Holy Smokes will pack your cremains into shotgun shells.
Even if you're not a hunter, you can still go out with a bang, by having your remains incorporated into a fireworks show. Angels Flight, a boutique ash scattering company from California, explodes cremains-filled fireworks over their offshore service site. I must admit, I'm seduced by the image of my ashes drifting toward the earth on a fiery curtain of blue and silver sparks. But being dumped in the ocean scares me. I find it empty and unsettling, its white-capped waves intimidating. My spirit would be restless there, I think.
When it comes to this very personal decision, I think my mother has the right of it. When I go, I also want my remains scattered in a place that was special to me in life, and that means it must be somewhere in Montana, near a trout stream, maybe. But definitely in the sun … near a whitebark pine.
Marian Lyman Kirst is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is currently a fellow of the magazine.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.