Published in the November 2022 Issue of Memento Mori
By Amanda Eilis King, CFSP
Throw even the smallest stone into water and ripples emerge from where it descends. As the water rushes in to fill the void, these circling waves fan outward affecting the water around it as more ripples transpire. For those of us in deathcare, when we might often find ourselves detached from the constant grief surrounding our sacred work, sometimes ripples find their way to affect us as well. They may encourage us to embrace new perspectives and experiences as they undulate us along the way.
When I was first applying for my apprenticeship years ago, I will never forget when it came time for me to ask questions at the end of a particular interview on the East Coast. I asked if they had educated or served any families wanting alkaline hydrolysis. The gentleman seated to my right gripped the table with both hands and just stared at me like a deer in headlights. “We do not offer that here.” I did not expect an apprenticeship offer after that comment, nor did I receive one.
But fast forward to today, and we see aquamation slowly trickling across the United States in both legality and as a more accessible method of cremation. The ripples as a result of introducing aquamation as an acceptable means of disposition are now beginning to truly be felt across our industry, as knowledge spreads to the public of its gentler and more environmentally conscious nature.
And here I am now, back on the East Coast serving a family that desired this process for their loved one—and not just for anyone, but for a child.
When I first met with Dezaray after being introduced by hospice, I held her son, Eros, for about two hours while we began the extremely difficult discussion of what will happen after he dies. As he looked up at me and cooed in my arms, she expressed her desire to ultimately have cremation occur as his disposition. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to communicate what will happen to a dying 2-year old’s body while seeing him curled up and giggling in his funeral director’s arms.
I begin these tough conversations with families of dying children before they pass away and hopefully meet the child personally—I know, that sounds like a difficult feat within itself. But for each of these families, I do not want to be a stranger who they inevitably have to hand their child over to—I want to provide them with even the smallest amount of comfort as they envision death, being someone they already have trust in to care for them with loving hands. And if you’d like an exceptional children’s book to better explore this impression, I highly suggest La Visite de Petite Mort by Kitty Crowther—a story well worth spending the little bit of time to translate.
But going back to the moment Dezaray mentioned cremation, she paused, and I saw how difficult it was for her to verbalize what the future held. Hesitantly she muttered, “Actually … can we do water cremation?” She had researched and already had this decision weighing on her shoulders on top of wondering if it were even possible. However, her research had led her down a dead-end path, as she discovered there were no water cremation facilities in Connecticut or the surrounding states.
The First Ripple
At that moment I was grateful for two things; the first being that she knew what her heart desired for her child’s body when he inevitably passed, and two, perhaps most importantly, that she was able to communicate this to me—even in uncertainty.
She continued, “… the thought of burning my son’s beautiful flesh is not something I want for him … he’s already endured so much in his 20 months of living …” Without even hesitating, I told her that I would try my best to find a way for him to have a water cremation. I too, knew that there were no facilities within Connecticut, but that they existed in other states. In my mind it simply meant I had to coordinate a ship-out to one of them if they would accept the case.
Colleagues in Colorado immediately came to mind, and I reached out that night to Emily Nelson, founder and CEO of Be A Tree Cremation. Between Emily and me, it was a matter of discerning these uncharted logistics to give a mother some semblance of peace on her long road of grief and exhaustion. Isn’t that often our job as funeral directors? What’s a state line to stop us from doing our sacred duty? There surely had to be a legal way to accomplish this.
Emily and I stayed in constant communication for this imminent need, as I inquired what paperwork could be completed for her crematory by Eros’s mother prior to his passing. I wanted to make sure we had everything lined up properly to fulfill this family’s wishes.
Be A Tree Cremation, like so many other funeral homes across the country nowadays, has their authorization forms accessible for online signatures so they can easily be completed anywhere—even several states away.
Anticipating this ship-out, I pre-collected the vitals to complete his death certificate so that I could file it immediately after he passed as well as being able to obtain the transit permit to get him swiftly on his way to Colorado—a request of his mother so that his little body spent as little time laying in limbo before his water cremation.
As part of pre-planning this endeavor, I had to research the parameters of what needed to be adhered to with the process of aquamation. I suspected there may be restrictions that set it apart from traditional cremation. I learned that the body can be embalmed; however, it is best to refrain from using any sort of plastic during restorative work. And if the person is to be dressed, it must be in silk so that it too can dissolve in the alkaline solution.
The ceremony of parents and caregivers dressing a child after the child dies can be immensely powerful and therapeutic, so I wanted to make sure Eros’s family was given the same opportunity. I voiced this desire to give the dressing experience to Eros’s family with Emily and she was kind enough to not only send us silk for the shrouding, but to also have a silk gown made for Eros to be dressed in underneath.
It was beautifully tailored as a gift for Eros by an extended family of the owner of Half Moon Farm, which is where the “tree tea” (Be A Tree’s terminology for the liquid by-product of the aquamation process) is sent to nourish the earth and flowers that grow there. Little did they know how much this woman’s handsewn gift also nourished Eros’s mother’s soul by making this experience possible for her.
Little Eros departed this world on the evening of August 2, 2022, wrapped tightly in his mother’s arms at home and surrounded by people that loved him dearly. In an embrace, Dezaray transferred his swaddled body into my arms—a moment I always imagined to be one of the toughest things a mother could ever do.
When Dezaray came in the next morning to spend time with his body and to prepare him for his journey, there was a defeated tone to her voice as she told me she had changed her mind and decided to do traditional cremation instead. Grounded in the reality of her situation, she said that her dream of his water cremation felt too out of reach for her to accomplish and that she could not afford to send him to Colorado. I know many funeral directors have been in this same position—hearing a family’s wishes only to be thwarted by finances.
So far, I have had great success utilizing Treasured Memories Community Funding to assist families with the financial burden of death, so I suggested this route to Dezaray knowing what she truly desired in her heart for her son.
“I was so sad because deep in my heart, [traditional cremation] was not what I wanted for him,” Dezaray told me, as her decision to change her mind was based purely on perceived financial constraints. With aquamation costing the equivalent of traditional cremation, the additional airfare for Eros would not be an unobtainable amount, so we completed the paperwork for TMC Funding and the community quickly rallied support for Eros to have his water cremation.
The Final Destination
After the exhale of deciding to stay on track with our plan, I assisted Dezaray with dressing her son in his silk gown, and then handed his swaddled body back to her, again in mid-embrace. When it came time for his shrouding, I could see her need to have the finality in caring for his body as she meticulously tied each strap into a perfect bow around him. She had been doing so since the day he was born. Only a mother’s touch could prepare him to physically leave this earth, just as her hand once ushered him in. She was the first one to say hello to him, and the last one to say goodbye to his beautiful, little body.
I wanted Dezaray to feel her son was safe in her decision to send his body to Colorado for the water cremation, so I asked her how in tune she wanted to be with each step of the process. She was grateful to have an open line of communication to know exactly where her child was at every step of his journey. Thankfully, Emily and her staff at Be A Tree were also on board to not only send me notifications that I could pass on to his mother for assurance, but photos as well.
The morning I brought Eros in his special air-tray to air cargo, I noticed an extra amount of reverence from the cargo workers as they began their process of getting him to his outbound plane. Emily also alerted the woman that was picking him up at the air cargo in Colorado of the delicate nature of this ship-in. She too, was a mother, and her own child assisted in this feat—picking out sunflowers and a stuffed puppy dog that would guard and keep Eros safe out in Colorado.
With careful coordination, candles were lit simultaneously in Colorado and Connecticut when Eros’s water cremation was taking place. “I was truly beyond grateful. It was everything I would have done and more for him—from how they greeted my son with the sunflowers and puppy, to the way they handled his care,” said Dezaray. The meticulous amount of communication with the other crematory also allowed for this transit to go smoothly both in logistics and emotion. I asked Emily how it felt caring for someone whom they weren’t directly serving, and she told me, “Due to the relationship you developed with the family and the details you shared, we felt extremely comfortable with you managing the communication, and it did not diminish how connected we felt with the family.” Their mindful photos throughout his journey gave Dezaray stepping stones of relief until his remains were safely back in her arms.
A small pouch of Eros’s remains and two tiny cobalt blue vials of his “tree tea” arrived back in Connecticut the following week, thoughtfully tucked within the guarding paws of the stuffed puppy dog that accompanied his body from the airport to the crematory. This meant the world to his mother, and I made sure that Emily and the kind folks at Be A Tree knew the immense impact they had in helping this family. I also want to reflect upon the gratitude I have for them being so willing to work alongside me in honoring this family’s desired disposition choice.
The Last Ripple
I wrote this article with the sentiment of wanting to convey that a disposition option for the families you serve doesn’t need to be off the table just because it is not yet accessible in your state. Desaray, Eros’s mother, graciously allowed and encouraged her son’s story to be shared in hopes of enabling other families to have aquamation available as an option for them, even if it means transporting their loved ones to another state.
But perhaps together, we in the funeral industry can help accelerate the accessibility of aquamation across the United States, embracing its eco-friendlier carbon footprint alongside the more calming and gentler visuals it may give to the families we dutifully serve as we strive to honor their final wishes.
Amanda Marie Eilis King, CFSP, is a licensed Embalmer and Funeral Director at B.C. Bailey Funeral Home and an Embalming Specialist with Frigid Fluid Company. She is also an educator who specializes in and teaches reconstructive work and cosmetic application. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Written with gratitude to Matthew Bailey, for supporting the creative endeavors I request to take on for the families I serve at B.C. Bailey Funeral Home.