Marc Arnold, owner of Boulder-based Aerial Tribute — a service that releases cremated remains into thermal columns of air above 14,000 feet — offers an option.
“The traditional way of aerial scattering is typically done through the opened window of a power plane, creating an invisible stream behind the aircraft,” Arnold said.
In contrast, the release Aerial Tribute offers is silent and uses the same air currents that keep a sailplane floating. The result is that a portion of the ashes ascend into the upper atmosphere, where they can remain indefinitely.
Soaring in a way that’s unique to gliders, Aerial Tribute’s sailplane flies in small-radius circles high above the Rocky Mountains.
“I’ve developed a technique to release ashes all at once, and that produces a puff,” he said. “That puff comes back into view from the glider due to the small circles I fly in, so I can photograph it. The video footage is very meaningful to families.”
He describes the thermals he uses as naturally occurring columns of rapidly rising air in the stratosphere that cause some of the cremains to blend with dust particles and comingle with jet streams. They can then float indefinitely in the atmosphere.
“The particular glider we use is not trivial — it has unique characteristics,” Arnold said, adding that his Stemme S10-VT sailplane runs about $500,000 new.
“It’s a high-performance glider that soars far and fast and has its own motor so it doesn’t need a tow plane to launch it.”
Since air current conditions need to be just right to create the kinds of updrafts that will carry ashes into higher atmospheres, it’s sometimes necessary to search for them rather than wait for them.
With Arnold’s glider, the motor enables that search — sometimes traveling 100 to 150 miles to get the right conditions.
“We never release cremains over a city,” he added. “We hit high altitudes over the Rockies, if not over the Continental Divide.”
Another reason Arnold uses this model glider is because of its seating arrangement.
“Traditional gliders have a single seat or a front and a back seat,” he said. This one has two seats side by side.”
Since he flies alone to release remains, he’s able to operate his scattering mechanism from the seat next to him.
Customers have options that range from $600 to $1,000. Full documentation on when and where an aerial service takes place is a standard. Other choices include customizing a video to include music the families and friends choose or recitation that is either prerecorded or delivered by Arnold at time of the release.
“We also invite family and friends to write prayers and thoughts on biodegradable rice paper we provide that is released with the ashes,” Arnold said.
Some people seek out Aerial Tribute at different timeframes from the time of cremation. “Some have held onto the ashes with the intention of performing a service at some time, but that time doesn’t happen,” he said. “Pouring them on the ground doesn’t provide enough of a dignified scattering.”
Others are making arrangements because of a recent death, and some people are setting up arrangements for their own services.
Although Arnold performed dozens of aerial services for friends and families, he didn’t offer it commercially until 2008. He estimates startup costs to be about $700,000, which he personally funded, to primarily cover the aircraft and hangar. The company maintains a staff of six.
“We’ve had dozens of clients and have hundreds in the pipeline at this point.”
According to the Cremation Association of North America, about 39 percent of deaths in the United States are handled with cremation — a rate which has more than doubled in the past 30 years. More than half the deaths in Colorado result in cremation, with Boulder County reporting about 80 percent.
“I’m not a death-care professional,” Arnold said, “but it seems that traditional family plot areas don’t seem to fit current demographics. There’s not really a family farm anymore.”
Aerial Tribute is the trade name for Omega Enterprises LLC.
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