San Diego Woosh! There goes Aunt Josephine. Boom! Put up your umbrellas, folks. She's coming down again! Volcanic ash!
Dick Hassenger says there's no ash. The cremated human remains he sends up in giant fireworks so clients can go "out with a bang" become so powdery that if any bits remain, they will drift slowly down onto the sea. No umbrellas needed.
Hassenger is a Lakeside-based pyrotechnician and marketing man who runs Celebrate Life! Inc. The seven-month-old company has perfected a way to load Fourth-of-July-size fireworks with your grandpa's cremated remains -- the average human leaves seven to ten pounds' worth -- and send him up over the night ocean in a three-minute, multicolored, music-matched send-off, a pyrotechnic funeral his loved ones will never forget.
What Hassenger can't understand is why San Diegans aren't lining up for it.
"The response from Los Angeles and Orange County has been phenomenal," he says. "And I talk to people almost every day, from Alaska to Florida, from Seattle to Columbus, Ohio, to upstate New York. The overwhelming response is 'Where have you been?' 'I wish we'd known about you when we had to deal with Dad two years ago.' But the response from San Diego County has been...minimal."
And it hasn't been for lack of trying. He's even designed shows aimed straight at San Diego's many military vets.
"We offer a series of veteran shows. We call the [mid-priced] show [around $4000] 'Duty, Honor, Country.' In it we'll use the appropriate service hymn, say, 'Anchors Aweigh.' We'll choreograph the first part using red, white, and blue fireworks, and it will segue into 'Taps,' during which we'll do a 21-gun salute, for a burial at sea.... You tell me that wouldn't be appealing to the Navy?"
Hassenger says almost 70 percent of enquiries on the East Coast and the West Coast are made by women, while in the Midwest and the South, it's men.
"There's a vast slice of the American population today that is clearly looking at the whole subject of death and of saying good-bye very, very differently. Sure, there's people think we're nuts. Particularly the traditional funeral business. But I don't care what they think. I care what the people who are writing the checks think."
He cites one woman who told him she wants to skip being buried with her husband so she can go up with her best friend in California.
"She called from Rochester County, New York," says Hassenger. "She was born and raised in the Bay Area. Her best friend lives in Laguna Hills. They want to do this together. We do offer what we call 'couples celebrations.' We didn't envisage quite best girlfriends, but no reason why not. Maybe one predeceases the other. So the cremains [cremated remains] are held until the second one is ready, and then we do a celebration where both of them are fired simultaneously into the air, so people can be together one last time. Those become a little more expensive because now you just doubled the weight. And it's against the law to commingle remains.
"We're also working with an absolutely delightful lady in Los Angeles right now, who didn't want a funeral. She wanted a black-tie catered cocktail party, with a live pianist playing the music of Noel Coward and George Gershwin. She's drawing up the guest list. She wants us to do a catered cocktail party on the beach. It's going to be a very large audience...too large to go out to sea. A couple of hundred people. When one of her friends makes the final champagne toast, it'll be followed by a custom [fireworks] celebration choreographed to Gershwin's music. This is her final gift to herself and to her friends."
Hassenger can thank state representative Tom Torlakson for making this legal. Until January 1, 1999. it was illegal in California to scatter human remains anywhere in the state.
"We wanted to lift the ban against scattering ashes on land in California and bring the sea limit in from three miles to 500 yards," says Torlakson, who represents Contra Costa County. "We want to give families more choices and more control, so they can scatter their loved ones in their own backyard, on their ranch, or in a state park, if it's a fond place for that person. Frankly, tens of thousands of families were [already] violating the law because to them it was more important to carry out the wishes of their loved ones than to heed a law which didn't make sense. We were the only state in the United States that did not allow scattering on land."
Torlakson's bill will be sure to boost Hassenger's business. Maybe he'll even hook some San Diegans. After all, now he'll be able to hold explosive funerals anywhere from San Diego Bay to, say, Uncle Jack's favorite hole at the La Jolla Country Club. What true golfer could resist that?
Torlakson says Hassenger's customer base is rising too: he says upwards of 45 percent of people already choose cremation in California, a figure that could rise to 50 percent in just a few years.
The idea isn't new. According to Hassenger, fireworks professionals have been doing this for each other for years.
"The fireworks industry has conventions, annual get-togethers," he says. "There have been occasions in the past where somebody who knew he was dying, and had already chosen cremation, would go to a buddy and say, 'Hey, Bill, when I'm gone, will you take the cremains and load them into a shell for me and shoot them at the next convention?' And that's gone on maybe for the last decade."
Hassenger says a lot of people saw the potential of going commercial. "The problem is hand-making fireworks shells in the United States is extraordinarily expensive to do." He says two of his codirectors sweated through "half a decade's worth" of trial and error research, to find a way to achieve that economically.
"When you're talking about a firework show, you're talking about ballistics, trajectories, things that can be vastly affected when you change the physical shape, when you change the weight. And what they figured out was how to do that, in a manner where the cost was reasonable enough that you had a marketable concept. The company has now applied for patents on that."