They say God comes to us disguised as our life.
We are allowed to develop our understanding of this concept over the course of our lives via the silent workings of the central organizing intelligence of our heart. Along with the heart’s neuromuscular pumping function, a more intangible aspect of the heart’s function makes our lives possible at the subtle dimensional, or spiritual, levels. In rare moments of experiential awareness we are drawn into ineffable states of knowing some felt inner awareness about aspects of Divinity, our true identity.
I sometimes refer to such refreshing and meaningful life experiences as The Bee’s Knees.
The Bee’s Knees, a term used to signify anything that is of the highest excellence, has been around since the 1920’s. One of my sons expounded further on the meaning of the term, “The Bee’s Knees actually refers to bee’s knees, which are the receptacle for pollen and the mode of transport for such. That is why it is used metaphorically to indicate something of excellence. Also, The Bee’s Knees is a cocktail, and a delicious one, in which fresh lavender and honey are mixed into syrup with hot water, which is then allowed to cool and subsequently is mixed with gin and fresh lemon juice over ice. It is delicious, and I often order it at establishments of the level of quality where one would expect such a fine drink.”
I had a Bee’s Knees kind of experience when I attended a funeral ceremony sponsored by The Crestone End-of-Life Project (CEOLP) for my friend and client Greg, who passed peacefully at his home a few days prior. One of Greg’s personal passions was assisting in a unique organizational service which is offered in our small community…open air cremation of the deceased.
CEOLP is a non denominational community based group of kind local people who promote informed end-of-life choices for individuals, their family members, and loved ones. CEOLP helps support the fulfillment of these choices. Crestone is the only community in America which offers open air cremation to its inhabitants as one option of compassionate care for the body of the deceased. One has to have lived here for at least 3 months in order to be illegible to receive this beautiful service upon passing on. CEOLP has been years in the making of many improvements, as well as obligatory county and EPA legal approvals.
A group of more than 30 had gathered beside a gravel pathway at 7 AM on a cold February morning. Snow clouds were gathering and a steady stiff wind blew in from the south. I wore a sheepskin hat, warm boots, and everything rip-stop and Carhartt in between. The fire and bone tender, a slender elder lady of elegance and stature, named Stephanie, wore camo pants stuffed into boots. It’s Crestone casual. No one here ever dresses to the nines.
We celebrants lined up along either side of a 5 foot wide gravel pathway, where each of us was handed a juniper bough. A small pick-up truck arrived bearing a group of men in the cargo bay flanking a simple handmade wooden stretcher bearing Greg’s washed and tightly shrouded body. These men were the pallbearers, and two of them were Greg’s sons. The litter was borne up the gravel walkway. We all fell in line behind with the wind at our backs.
The procession approached a circular enclosure, entering its gated north side. The enclosure was created by stretches of colored screen cloth mounted on tall wooden fence postings. This screening acted as a bit of a wind break, and allowed a sense of enclosure, closeness, and privacy.
The pyre is constructed of foam brick Aeroblock, lined on its inside with fire brick, and on its outside with a simple stucco coating. It is 4 feet wide by 8 feet in length, and stands 3-4 feet high. The firewood is fed in from both of the open long ends, as well as from 2 smaller feed ports located midway along each side of the pyre’s walls.
The grate which receives the litter is constructed of cross pieces of 2 inch cast iron, locally welded. The grate is made in 3 pieces which allows for easier removal owing to the weight factor of 260 pounds of metal. The metal cross pieces begin to bow enough after the heat of about 8 cremations that the whole grate assembly must be replaced anew. The grate stands about 2 feet off the ground. Beneath the grate, lengths of wood are carefully arranged.
The litter was slid onto the grate, and each of us placed our juniper boughs on top of Greg’s shrouded body. We then gathered pieces of pinon and lodgepole pine and covered his body with these logs.
We stepped back a distance of about 6 feet to the outer side of a rock circle which girdles the pyre, and inside of which are stacks of logs for the efficient fire tenders who constantly monitored the fire. The odors of sage and incense circle about through the group. The ceremony embraces all spiritual paths in its simple solemnity and practicality and tradition.
An ambiance of dignity, power, awe and respect unfolds, and is embraced by the wind. Greg’s sons step forward holding torches ablaze. With tender courage they place the torches into the logs beneath the body of their father. The pyre is kindled, the logs begin to combust, and the flame and smoke are announced to the persistent wind which carries the smoky ethereal signature to the north.
The body of the deceased is completely covered with logs, and cannot be discerned beneath the wood which discretely covers all. I stand at the open end of the pyre where the head is resting, watching the darkened smoke of carbonaceous particulate matter rise up. It has no time to linger with us, as the wind hurries it along up the valley in a billowing stream.
People who knew Greg begin to speak about his life, and offer readings. I am expanded out of thoughts as my eyes fill with tears, awestruck as my heart opens into the field of life around me. The skull of Greg’s body becomes visible through some parted logs, glowing white in an orange blaze. The fire tenders gently cover this with more logs. Vertebrae and other bony elements appear and fall through the grates, liberated in the fire’s power, unrestrained by their former fleshly connections which are transformed into the gaseous counterpart which moves along up the valley in a steady stream.
I scan my inner psychic and physical terrain, witnessing my feelings and thoughts, breathing in and out to the ongoing sound of the breath of my life. I am immersed.
A friend named Guy, who also assists with the CEOLP project, steps forward to speak with me. Guy simply begins talking about cremations in India where wood is a relatively scarce item, resulting in expensive cremations which often are not completed since money and firewood only go so far. I am reduced out of my meditation, registering the commentary of my friend with the thought of how fortunate we Crestonians are in so many simple ways.
It takes about a third of a cord of wood to complete a cremation at 8000 feet above sea level. A cord of wood is a tight packed pile measuring 8 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet, or, 128 cubic feet of wood; a useful bit of knowledge when contemplating one’s winter home heat requirements, or a 3-4 hour completion of an open air cremation.
I look about at those who have gathered to offer respect and love. People begin to congregate in small groups, talking to each other in low tones, gazing into the fire which is lovingly tended. While being aware of the context of the present event, they speak simply about ordinary things. Pieces of bones are pulled through the metal grates into the growing bed of coals, falling piece by piece through the grates under gravity’s pull.
It is another gathering and opportunity to have an organic Crestone conversation about anything on one’s mind. Greg was like that. In times past he had cried with me, opening his Grief Box in his final days, as his regrets arose to be released.
People move closer inward towards the warmth of the fire. The snow clouds are poised to release; the wind is biting. I cinch up my scarf and hat. Our group draws in towards the warmth of the fire, and we celebrate a liberated life.
As loved ones offer their words and readings, I ponder a recent quandary in my own life, while silently witnessing fire, bones, cold, warmth, spoken words, my feet in my boots, my warm head covering, and the flow of tears coming from my eyes. The sky is about to release white flakes of snow downward. The pyre is about to release white flakes of ash upward.
Another friend comes forward. Philip and I stand close to the fire. He is a local physician, a very kind and sensitive gentleman who wears thick eyeglasses. His perspicuity is all the more enhanced by an important observation of something which is occurring with the skeletal remains of the deceased.
In the place where some of the long bones of the left arm are exposed, one of the bones makes its way through the grates. Philip urgently announces, “Oh, it looks like a long bone!” With this remarkable pronouncement from one physician to another, I arise from my reverie into full mundane waking consciousness.
His comment carries the feeling of an “Ah Ha!” moment of knowing which is commingled with a sense of morbid curiosity. The comment felt neither insensitive, nor out of place or context. This is Crestone, after all, and we are outside cremating a body. Philip’s spontaneous release seems to embellish the organic wholeness of the moment.
He and I had journeyed through medical schools to learn how to observe and offer educated opinions about anatomical technicalities. For physicians there is a time and a place for the definition of all matters of the flesh. I laugh inwardly at myself. I am thinking too much in a past paradigm.
I walk to the other end of the pyre where Greg’s feet once lay. Stephanie is stooping down to collect some foot and ankle fragments from the hot ash pile with a miniature garden rake. She rakes bone fragments into a pile, and then collects this pile with an ordinary dustpan. The crumbly pieces are then taken aside and added to a growing pile of similar remains to be given to the family the next day.
Another CEOLP assistant comes forward. His name is Paul, a transplanted northern European. He is a giant-like man wrapped in a shawl. I welcome Paul because he is a giant wrapped in a shawl, and moreover, he speaks openly from his heart. A giant wrapped in a shawl who speaks from its heart seems to be a necessary comfort at a cremation on a very cold day.
He speaks with Greg’s sons and me about the pyre’s construction, the Aeroblock, the grates, and the ongoing upkeep process. It was Paul who studied how to perform open air cremations some 12 years ago in distant global places, and it is he who brought this knowledge and experience into the Crestone End of Life Project.
The growing pile of coals is tended and pushed into the center of the pyre. Only a few long bones remain on the grate. More logs are added on to help the process along. Having lost touch with anatomical nomenclature, a mode of my past, I now feel unencumbered by the types of fabricated shackles we create in our life journey. In the simple dignity of this fiery release, I am inwardly refreshed.
The wind has completely stilled. Snow is falling straight down. White ash from the fire has accumulated, and is rising straight up. The white ash flakes and the snowflakes are up to a full centimeter in diameter; large and obvious. About 4 feet above the final resting place where Greg’s intact body once lay, the ash and snowflakes merge into each other. Snowflake and ash vanish into a visual portal of nothingness above the pyre, at a height right at my eye level.
The fire’s heat is melting the snow onto the ash, and the fine ash is then being dissolved by the snowflakes’ watery counterpart. This visual effect at this moment in my life is like a rapture; like being transported by a great symphony. I am immersed in a knowing of the inseparable and diaphanous nature of everything around me.
In the background are the strong 14,000 foot Sangre de Cristo peaks. I am grounded. All is quiet as cosmic tumblers click. My prior question drifts. I sense an approaching awareness beyond ordinary waking consciousness; presciently, immanently. My heart is fully open as I gaze into the zone of air space where ash and snowflake disappear into one another. This band of space seems to be unusually washed and clear and accentuated. A Bee’s Knees moment arrives in my consciousness as an ineffable silent eternity of a moment of truth.
We experience these moments in our journey, but we consciously know little of their full mystery, born as they are inside of the chambers of our Heart. Definitions, judgments, a scintillation of meaning, left brain rationalized responses, the limitations of words, our life efforts, are all offered up from the fire of our lives like the ash floating upward to Father Sky.
Down comes the bestowal of snowflakes from Father Sky, and where the two meet is born a dissolution into the empty essence of a moment of creative eternity; the Mother. She constantly recreates Herself to know Herself through Her own Creation. At the level of our purest inner core, we humans are all channels of Spirit and the Divinity which gives Spirit into all of life. This kind of realization often arrives in a silence which carries beyond word abstractions. God is not so difficult to find…God is difficult to ignore.
I had not traveled to ashram, temple, or mosque; nor had I climbed a mountain seeking the Master in his cave where all is known. I had not retreated into the wilderness, nor had I fasted and cleansed myself. These unscripted moments of knowing only required unconditional presence at a special ceremony and openness at a moment of knowing. Moments become eternity. It is like what my Buddhist friend says to me in a koan like statement of process, “short moments, many times.”
The observation of ash and snowflake merging into one served to stop my brain mind thinking long enough for the Heart to deliver its wisdom, which is possibly summarized in a familiar Sanskrit teaching from my past, Patangali’s Yoga Sutras, number 2: “Yoga chitti vritti nirodha.”
The purpose of Yoga is to still the thought waves of the Mind.
We channel Divine creative consciousness through the Heart. This Consciousness, from which all things arise, goes by many names. The mysteries of Source are known in the chambers of our Heart, where breath merges into our flesh. In those moments when what seems to appear as separate entities merge into one, then we can know our essence.
The ash and snow, merging into one, is how God showed up, disguised as my life…what I refer to as a Bee’s Knees kind of life experience.
As is stated by the Crestone End-of-Life Project, “The Art of Living Well, and the Art of Dying Well, are One.”
Signing off from Crestone and Beyond.
Wishing you the best that Life and Love have to offer.
- Consider the Seed…a Zen Buddhist practitioner offers fresh perspective on all of the above in beautiful words, allegory, and story.