Light My Fire
May 8, 2013 9:08 PM   Subscribe

I want to be cremated by bonfire. Public bonfire. I assume it's not permitted. Are there any exceptions?

I live in the US and have always imagined my demise (still decades away, hopefully) to be more of a celebration. It seems so lonely and sad to be cremated in an oven. Would there be any legal way to accomplish this? Or maybe you have good reasons why this is a bad idea?
posted by shew to Law & Government (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Norway. A friend of mine's husband was bonfired in Norway.He was Norwegian though. But it was on a boat. And took ages. And they all got really cold waiting for it to finish.
posted by taff at 9:14 PM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't actually have to burn the body to have a funereal bonfire.
posted by empath at 9:20 PM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

It seems like a line of investigation could be whether Parsi or Tibetan excarnation practices are permitted anywhere in the U.S.; logically, if a locality permits that they shouldn't object to an open funeral pyre on public health grounds if the same precautions are taken.

Not that the ordinances governing it are necessarily going to be logical, but maybe it's something you could work on during the coming decades.
posted by XMLicious at 9:25 PM on May 8, 2013

I don't know about your family, but "what they smell like barbequed" is pretty low on my list of things I want to know about my loved ones. Seriously, I think it would be a pretty disturbing thing to put your grieving family through. Asking them to hold a wake around a lovely bonfire would be great, but I think the logistics of actually burning your body in it would be a real trial for most people.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:39 PM on May 8, 2013 [48 favorites]

It seems so lonely and sad to be cremated in an oven.

Please keep in mind the fact that you won't be there.

I agree with the above that your idea might be a real trial for your survivors.
posted by she's not there at 10:00 PM on May 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Being burned doesn't actually reduce bones to ashy dust. This doesn't even happen in the super-high temps of a cremation oven; when the process is complete, the staff takes the cremains and puts them through a pulverizer.

So even if your body were to burn, baby, burn, you would almost certainly have large enough pieces of your remains that the process would be very unpleasant for anyone who does not have experience with that sort of thing. And I highly doubt that a handmade natural bonfire/pyre would burn as hot, or as quickly, or as safely, as a cremation oven.
posted by Madamina at 10:11 PM on May 8, 2013

I think your goal would be to be cremated by funeral pyre in India, where this sort of thing is still relatively common. I don't know that cremations are typically "public", but they are attended by the same sorts of people who would attend one's funeral or memorial service in Western culture*. And cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi are "public" by virtue of happening on the banks of the Ganges, in front of whoever happens by.

I have no idea if this type of cremation is open to non-Hindus.

*Note: 90% of my understanding of Hindu cremation ritual comes from pop culture. I mean, Bollywood movies and stuff, but I'm not Hindu and have never attended a Hindu funeral. Though I have been to Varanasi and stayed quite close to the "burning ghat". Which I declined to visit.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 PM on May 8, 2013

pollution is a problem in India, CNN story. Up in Northern California, funeral directors have adjusted to the requests of the Indian community there. The body has to be burned in wood, thus plain wooden coffin.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:42 PM on May 8, 2013

Yes, you can do it in the US. Here is a good starting point for you. This is in Colorado.
posted by cairdeas at 11:09 PM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I saw a famous poet and warrior publically cremated in Myanmar. The pyre took most of the day to build - skilled Hindu pyre builders were bought in for the job. A LOT OF TIMBER was used. The burning took hours and hours and even then the body was going to be burned more the following day.

For a variety of reasons, it is not a very public-friendly way to go out.
posted by Kerasia at 2:21 AM on May 9, 2013

The body of an uncle of mine was burned in a full Hindu ceremony in Tanzania (it's a long weird story); my aunt said the pyre took a full day to build, and a day and a half to burn..... and even then the results weren't as, um, REDUCED as a crematorium would have done. Plus, even with mounds of flowers and perfumes, she described the smell as "awful".

She said she'd have vastly preferred if there had been ANY other way there & then to get him cremated, and this was from a woman who is famed in the family for her strong stomach.
posted by easily confused at 2:41 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's something else to think about: death is hard enough for the folks you leave behind. The paperwork, decision making and financing of even the most standard burial or cremation is mind boggling and hard enough to deal with for a partner or child/ren crumbled by grief. It is nothing but a burden of service for a friend outside the family who has enough compassion to take it on in the family's stead. And even the most simple arrangements completely in accord with the deceased's wishes can cause fighting at a time nobody is comforted by discord.

The more complex - the more paperwork, permitting, labour hiring, expense, time commitment - the greater the burden and the greater the scope for disagreement. It is potentially a really bad legacy to leave behind as your Last Big Thing.

Were this part of the cultural tradition of you, your family or even your friends it would be different, but that isn't the case. So, I'd encourage you to belay this decision until you have family of your own, or have gone through the death of someone for whom you need to take responsibility, so that you can really consider if this is what you want to ask in the aftermath of your demise. Either may change your perspective.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:26 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with 5_13_23_42_69_666. I do not want to know what a loved one smells like burning, nor would I ever want to have to watch that. It sounds cool for you but potentially absolutely horrible for your friends and family.

You can always do what my mom wishes to do when she dies, and that is to be cremated and then have her ashes packed in to fireworks which she wants us to set off on the beach my father named for her. She loves fireworks, always has, and it is her beach so... yeah.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:27 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Missouri this could be possible, if you were in a rural, unregulated area (MO has plenty of this).
Example: (My grandfather was a mortician) In town funerals require that the grave be dug 6-8ft, there MUST be a crypt/vault over the coffin to keep the casket in the ground when the water table rises, or you end up with this. The bodies have to be embalmed/autopsied. But if you were buried in some county where there isn't any building regulations/burial jurisdictions the vault is not needed, you don't have to be embalmed/autopsied, etc.

I could think of a few places in my state where something like this would be possible, legally, but I honestly believe that getting a pastor, family, church congregation to do such things would be hard, only on the fact that Americans tend not to be pagans.

If you were thinking of having a very very private funeral on land that your family/you owned, and only family/friends that knew already what to expect was the majority of your funeral procession, than yeah. Totally possible. As for the smell of burning flesh....well I'd ask a fireman, but I would think under these conditions-from movies I've seen- that the fire would be far far away form people. Preferably on a boat, in a lake.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 6:39 AM on May 9, 2013

I agree with Madamina that even a large bonfire is going to leave your friends with a heavily charred lump of flesh to deal with. Get your body cremated at a funeral home, have the ashes put in a bag and put it in the middle of a big bonfire. Everyone is happy and you are ashes at the end.
posted by JJ86 at 7:08 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Being burned doesn't actually reduce bones to ashy dust. This doesn't even happen in the super-high temps of a cremation oven; when the process is complete, the staff takes the cremains and puts them through a pulverizer.

Yes. In Japan, bodies are generally cremated but the bones are not pulverized. The family picks through the bones using chopsticks after it is done, which is why passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks is a dining taboo. My kids have handled their great-grandmother's bones. I do not know how your guests are going to deal with disposing of your charred remains, assuming they stick around until the end. "You pick him up" "What? I hadn't seen him for years. This is all you." "Hell no - my word, what is that smell?"

And yes, the smell will be awful. Think of how much you weigh. Then, imagine the smell if that many pounds of hair, leather, and lard were burned. That may give you an approximate idea of the festive atmosphere for your celebration.

I think this is one of those things that makes for a better screenplay than a serious idea.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:53 AM on May 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

How about an effigy you build or for which you provide instructions for building, or some other symbolic collection. Some cultures burn items to be gifts for the dead in the afterlife, and to satisfy a perhaps more gratuitous extreme of the custom, one can buy paper/cardboard iPads and the like for that purpose.

Burning a human body reeks of burning meat, and people get disgusted by the both the smell, and well as the fact that they could be involuntarily salivating at the cooked aroma of your corpse. That's something you don't want to inflict on people.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:18 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a medical school, and on the days the cadavers were cremated several floors below us, I (and some other coworkers) lost my appetite for a day or two. The stench, it is quite uniquely terrible.

If you want a celebration, why not have your ashes scattered from a plane or a boat? Set aside a few bottles of something nice for people to drink, and all the well-meaning folks who make casseroles can just bring them to the party....
posted by lily_bart at 8:32 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Read the "go out in style" article here. A guy wants a funeral pyre and tries a dry-run with a whitetail doe. It's somewhat gruesome, as others have pointed out above, but hey, that may be your thing:

Meanwhile, flames had completely engulfed the doe and vaporized the bedsheet. Her blackened skull and abdomen had ruptured, and her jaw had dropped away from her face, giving her an antic mile-wide rictus, as if the moment of death had been hilarious. Her brain was frying, her juices sizzling, her bones popping. Although this was a grisly sight, it had a certain morbid appeal, like something mutant in a bottle of formaldehyde that the eye registers but the mind resists. The images of my own denouement would be even more gruesome—people recoil from the human form on fire because it shows us how fragile is our flesh, how fleeting the physical life. As we shudder with revulsion, our thoughts race anxiously to witches, and Joan of Arc, and flaming monks in the streets of Saigon.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:18 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you might especially enjoy Rocket Gibraltar, a terrific movie.
posted by theora55 at 4:03 PM on May 9, 2013

Just a small data point. I live out in the country and gave a funeral pyre to my dog when he died (I don't own the house here so burial was out). I was kind of surprised to read all the answers about the gruesome experiences people have had, because when I did it it was just about the opposite of gruesome. There was absolutely no bad smell whatsoever, just normal burning wood smell. I had pretty much just ashes and small bone fragments left at the end. I just did it with my boyfriend and our roommates, none of us are phenomenally brave or hardcore people, and I personally am pretty squeamish, but it was just fine for all of us.

I used about 1/3 of a cord of wood, and the fire burned for about 6 hours. We sat about 10 yards off and I didn't see anything disturbing from that vantage point (and I was pretty worried about that, actually). In fact I couldn't see much of anything really. (The guy craven_morhead quoted sounds like he was kind of purposely looking for morbidness to revel in. You don't need to be up close and personal staring right in there the whole time).

Maybe it's different for a human vs. an animal, but I don't know. My dog was 70 lbs, so I would be surprised if it were worlds and worlds different.
posted by cairdeas at 4:17 PM on May 9, 2013

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