Resting in a Coffee Pot
by Ira J. Woods
February 11th, 2016 marked the passing of Renato Bialetti, the Italian entrepreneur who was instrumental in turning millions of us on to the iconic aluminum stove-top espresso maker. He marketed it so well that, allegedly some 90% of Italian households have one.
Even in the USA, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone’s home where there isn’t one collecting dust in some back corner, including mine. But on hearing of his death, what really caught my attention was that Bialetti was cremated and his remains were put into a large model of his ubiquitous Moka Express coffee maker. The photo released to the press shows an over-sized Moka displayed in a church in Northern Italy, being blessed by a priest.
When it comes to cremation, we are reaching new heights of creativity. You can have your remains stored in a resin based urn resembling the head of President Obama. Shot out onto a field through a potato cannon. Or transported to the moon for a mere twelve thousand, five hundred dollars.
Cremation has become mainstream. When you consider that nearly fifty percent of the population are opting for it, that’s quite an endorsement. Despite religious taboos and Western cultural bias favoring elaborate burials with caskets costing the same as a home in Detroit, cremation is becoming hip. Even one of the masters of hip, David Bowie, who died recently, chose to be incinerated, opting to have his ashes scattered in Bali.
Devo musician Bob Casale had his remains interned in the band’s signature “energy hat,” custom created by a 3-D printer. Don Brawley and Todd Barber created a company called Eternal Reefs, to help protect the coral reefs in the Florida Keys, while providing a spectacular setting in which to house the cremated ashes of a loved one in a cement reef ball. Leave it to the baby boomers to apply innovation to everything, from pioneering childbirth education, midwifery and doulas to the increasingly pressing issue of end of life choices. Life’s bookends to be sure.
As is true with everything the Baby Boomer’s tackle, this is not a “one size fits all” approach. The Digital Age has exploded the quest for personalization: We can put our unique stamp on just about anything, by engraving, monogramming, or custom tailoring. With just a couple of clicks. Want your face on different colored M&M’s? No problem. The same goes for memorial gifts, especially those designed to scatter or hold remains. The new world of cremation memorializing has opened up infinite ways to use creativity in the service of love; literally from the tree in your backyard all the way to the Moon. Think about it: What finer way to memorialize your loved one than to choose a final resting place that symbolizes the most unique aspects of his or her essence. All judgement aside, burial is, by definition, limiting. Coffins only come in so many shapes and sizes; yet even a toenail or a lock of hair can easily squeeze inside a keepsake the size of an M&M.
For me, this is personal. During the last few months of her life, my late spouse, Kris, and I, designed her memorial. It may sound unthinkable and insensitive, perhaps even morbid. Just the opposite. In fact, it helped both of us accept the inevitable. After considering long shot treatments for her secondary liver cancer, we realized there was no cure without totally destroying whatever quality of life might be possible in her remaining months. Being reduced to a barely conscious vegetable just to extend life for another month or two just didn’t make sense to her.
Planning Kris’s memorial brought us closer in unexpected ways. It took something frightening and sad and made it fun. It gave her the chance to create a meaningful memorial for the loved ones she would be leaving behind. It gave her a concrete exercise in which to consider how and what she wanted to communicate. It gave her a small-yet profound- project, a welcomed distraction from the ever-present pain, medication schedule, and necessary, but mundane, end of life preparations. And we were able to do it together.
To plan the memorial, we went to our favorite hiking location; Red Rock Canyon, a breathtaking park just outside of Las Vegas. Our favorite path was rarely taken by other hikers, so we almost always had this Southwestern mountainous expanse to ourselves. We walked until a spot spoke to Kris. It was a bittersweet section of the trail marked by a withering desert tree that looked as if it had been snuffed out by fire. It was a natural work of art: The branches, an eerie black and white, reached out in all directions as if begging for help. It was a lonely tree; at one time powerful, defying the harsh desert until something came along to overwhelm and consume it, reducing it to a skeletal version of itself.
At the same time, all around there was beauty. In the distance, the arid mountains stood like an army of colorful soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder. The desert grasses and flora flowed like a calm ocean splashing on the mountain foothills. Small twitting birds, antelope ground squirrels and hawks went about their morning hunt for food and companionship. Except for the sweet animal sounds, there was silence.
That spot defined our journey and a snapshot of what lay ahead. A land that had never ceased to stun us with it’s richness, a place full of warm, loving memories. And a tree, once part of this thriving desert style cornucopia of nature, gone, yet very present. Even though its life had expired, it continued to provide shelter, a place for some creature to rest high above the ground away from a predator. In its own way a charismatic vision from the past gracing its surroundings. About fifty feet off the trail, there was the perfect setting for the service, complete with a ring of small desert shrubs as if naturally designed for the ceremony.
The day of the memorial couldn’t have been more perfect; the sun shone brightly in an azure sky. One friend, in her late eighties, insisted on climbing the steep hill leading to the destination, as if on a religious pilgrimage. Once all twenty people gathered, I shared my deep feelings for Kris and our mutual love for this location. All attendees took turns scattering her ashes within the naturally designed enclosure while spreading dried rose petals on top. As per Kris’ wish, each person received a gift; a small box with a red rock and a saying written on a sliver of paper. A personal touch from her to each of us.
The contemporary customization of cremation memorials gave Kris and me the opportunity to design a unique ceremony, in the setting of our choice, in a way that personally expressed this heartbreaking transition. I believe it helped make her passing feel perfectly completed and full of peace.
Baby Boomers are now coping with aging and, with that, anticipation of the final chapters of life. In the coming decade they will be passing away in increasingly larger numbers. According to the Cremation Association of North America, already over 45% of Americans are choosing cremation and is projected to go over 50% in the next year or so. Although historical traditions have their beauty, they run the risk of becoming rote and devoid of conveying the feelings that express the sacred connection inherent in loving and losing another human being. Those who die contain the narrative that help shape our lives, our memories, our world view. Why not take each memorial and transform it into an expression that symbolizes what we love best and want to remember? Painful though it may be, there is great value in creating a ceremony-whether it’s a funeral, burial, memorial service or life cremation, with the ones we love, when they are still alive, if time and circumstance allow.
As odd as we might find Bioletti’s remains resting in a large coffee pot, it was his legacy. A remembrance of what made his life’s unique. Don’t we all deserve that?
Ira J. Woods is the President of OneWorld Memorials, an eCommerce company located in St. Paul, MN., that sells cremation urns, pet memorial products and sympathy gifts to the public. Woods lives in the Twin Cities and was inspired to start the company after the loss of his spouse, Kris, to cancer. He is also the Founder of ConsciousDepartures.org, where he blogs on topics of end-of-life caregiving.