Balloon Burials Just Might Fly
Things are looking up for a Crystal River resident's new funeral service: scattering cremated remains of pets via balloon.
By Mary Ann Koslasky
For Rose Burgin, caretaker of many special friends, it was not the first time she had said goodbye to one of them. But it was the first time she had ever commended one to the heavens.
Through a special service known as the Eternal Ascent Society, the cremated remains of Midnight, a beloved cat, were placed in a specially designed blue balloon.
Burgin stood in from of her Homosassa Springs home and planted a kiss on the balloon. She said a tearful, "Goodbye Midnight. I love you, baby." The balloon was released and ascended to the heavens.
The fog had lifted.
The balloon, silhouetted against the sun-washed white of the clouds, rose higher and higher until the tiny dot became cloaked by the distant mists.
Midnight the cat now had his final freedom - he would not be buried.
For Burgin, it was "giving (Midnight) a highway to heaven. We got him this far, God will have to take him the rest of the way." Burgin holds a strong belief that God created all creatures with a soul.
Burgin was the first client of the Eternal Ascent Society, which is the brainchild of Crystal River resident Joan West.
Her process is relatively simple. West places the cremated remains into a latex balloon and inflates it with helium. The balloon rises to a height of five miles, where it freezes at a temperature of minus 40 degrees. As pressure causes the balloon to expand and undergo what is called "brittle fracture," the balloon breaks into, spaghetti-like strips that scatter as they fall earthward.
The fine, powdery ashes are blown with the winds and, if they return to the earth, they pose no evironmental or health problem. To further ensure the safety of animals and birds, West knots the balloon, not allowing the use of ribbons or strings.
West credits her husband, Clyde, with suggesting the concept.
"We were sitting around at (her husband's brother's house) talking about if we're going to be buried here, or whatever," recalled West. "Well, we have decided we're going to be cremated. So he said to me, "Put me in a balloon and send me up."
Clyde West may have been joking, but he had planted the germ of an idea into her head: Why not offer such a service?
Always concerned about the environment, West researched the impact of such an undertaking.
Would the balloons be detrimental to birds, fish or other animals? Could they be made of a material that was biodegradable? What about the ashes? Could they be prevented from falling outside the balloon before the ascent?
What she found was a 100 percent latex balloon, which is totally biodegradable. It is produced from the liquid sap of the rubber tree, the same material used to make surgical gloves.
"It's biodegradable like an oak leaf," West explained. The sun and water breaks it down over a short period of time.
Statistics released from a 1991 nationwide beach cleanup showed that rubber products, of which balloons were only a small portion, amounted for about 2 percent of the debris collected. The total amount of balloons would have fit in four garbage bags.
After the research proved the safety of her idea, West set about to verify the uniqueness of her venture. She called a patent lawyer in Virginia who had been suggested by her son.
"The man said, 'Say that again'", said West."I told him and he said, 'I have never heard of anything like that.'" "He suggested doing a worldwide patent search."
The lawyer discovered that a patent had never been requested anywhere for this type of service.
With that, West proceeded full-steam ahead. She determined the size of balloon needed for various weights.
She and Clyde also constructed a special plexiglass box to contain the balloon in the rear of their blue and white van.
"If the balloon breaks, the ashes can easily be gathered in the box and put into another balloon," said West. "If it happened outside on the ground we'd have a problem."
Her box and her services now are patented.
West had donated her services to Burgin, who otherwise would not have been able to afford it.
Burgin shares her home with 35 cats and dogs, most of whom were strays, injured or dropped off to fend for themselves. She offers them clean quarters, food and, most importantly, love. She pays for it all from her Social Security and any donations she receives.
Pet Cremation Service in Spring Hill also donated its services for this initial venture. West will continue working with Kevin Foster at the service, unless a client specifically asks for another crematory.
"They are very caring and concerned," said West. Her main concern is maintaining the dignity of the service for the clients.
For Burgin, it was a new answer to an old problem.
"I haven't had a choice, before," said Burgin. "But, I wanted to feel good about what I was doing. I was putting them in the ground before to have something of them and I always felt that they get rained on or somebody was going to dig them up someday."
West has other reasons to be excited about her new venture.
Mother Jones magazine is featuring her business in its March / April edition and it is also being publicized in a British newspaper. Additionally, a veterinary student at the University of Florida in Gainesville has chosen the Eternal Ascent Society as the subject of a paper she's writing.
After the short service Thursday, Burgin invited those in attendance to come in for coffee and homemade baked goods. As they milled around and talked, Burgin's tears dried up and a smile returned to her face.
"I felt this was the most I could do for him," said Burgin. "This is eternal. He'll always be there."
Persons wishing to assist Burgin with donations may write to her at P.O. Box 2804, Homosassa, FL 34447.
For more information on the Eternal Ascent Society, call West at (352) 563-5266.