Death, life and friendship in the rural West

Rural communities can find solace in one another.


Westerners, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremate our dead and scatter their ashes at higher rates than the rest of the country. Perhaps the public lands beckon us, with wide-open landscapes fit for eternal enjoyment and peace. It’s not surprising that we desire a return to such havens as we confront the wilderness of death. Cliff-sided, mountain-meadowed goodbyes can help us move on from those we’ve lost.

Connie Hanson holds a handful of what Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors told her were the cremated remains of her son, Frederick “Rick” Hanson. Connie Hanson believes it’s burnt trash, including wires and battery casings. The FBI is investigating.

But how might we react if a loved one’s remains met an unintended, even disturbing, fate? How might we process death then?

In Montrose, Colorado, a town of 19,000 on the Western Slope, the now-shuttered Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors allegedly sold, without consent, the bodies of hundreds of its clients’ loved ones to plastination companies and other unknown buyers. And it allegedly gave its clients ashes mixed with the remains of other human beings and various filler substances. An FBI investigation is ongoing, and no one has yet been charged.

But, as editorial fellow Elena Saavedra Buckley writes, the mere thought that this might have happened has had a dramatic impact on the rural people who trusted the funeral home. Saavedra Buckley follows Debbie Schum on her journey to accept the death of her best friend, providing an intimate look at the complexities of grief and what happens when the normal process of mourning is interrupted.

The story touches on universal topics — death, life and friendship — as well as a more specific aspect of rural life. The Sunset Mesa Funeral Home was one of the only mortuaries available to the people of Montrose and its orbit of widely dispersed communities. Isolation — and the lack of state regulation of the mortuary industry — made them particularly vulnerable to potential abuse. But, as Saavedra Buckley shows, it has also drawn them closer as a group; they have connected over social media to share information and emotional pain.

This edition offers another view of community strength in contributor Tay Wiles’ story of the families grappling with an oil and gas boom in Carlsbad, New Mexico. There, residents are also experiencing shared pain and disorientation as they cope with mysterious illnesses that they suspect are linked to the new realities of life in the Permian Basin.

Paige Blankenbuehler, assistant editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Rural Westerners struggling for justice and recognition might take heart from the small town of Cordova, Alaska, where locals are fighting for control over its waters as the U.S. military pushes to conduct Arctic training exercises. A majority of Cordova’s 2,000 residents rely on the salmon industry, which many say is threatened by the pollution that military expansion might bring to its waterways and marine life.

Through all these stories, a larger lesson emerges: In the West’s rural communities, there’s strength in the social fabric that we create together — despite the multitude of challenges that the region’s underdogs continually face.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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