The Show-Me state is set to be the first in the country to fully legalize funeral ceremonies previously reserved for Vikings, some Native American tribes and Jedi knights.
A measure, passed by both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly, would allow licensed funeral directors to organize outdoor cremations either at licensed crematoriums or private sites that receive permits. Lawmakers dubbed it the “Jedi Disposal Act,” a reference to two “Star Wars” scenes.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, proposed the measure. If it is signed by Gov. Mike Parson, it will go into effect in August. Holsman said he’s “optimistic” about its prospects because no person or group testified against the bill, which passed nearly unanimously.
A governor’s spokesman said the office was still reviewing the bill.
“This has been around since the dawn of man. This is the way that our ancestors took care of their remains,” Holsman said in an interview Thursday. “The Native Americans did it in trees. The Vikings did it in boats. Outdoor cremation has been around many cultures, forever,” “Keep in mind our ancestors — the Native Americans, the settlers — they didn’t have to get permits.”
Holsman said his legislation “could end up spurring a cottage industry in the state of Missouri” for people around the country who want to be laid to rest “in the old way.”
The only place in the country that currently performs legal outdoor cremations for the public is in the small Colorado town of Crestone, about four hours south of Denver. The Crestone End of Life Project (CEOLP), a not-for-profit, receives state permits to organize ceremonies for people who live or own land in surrounding Saguache County.
CEOLP said it has organized about 65 outdoor cremations over the last 12 years.
“It’s part of the fabric of our community,” said Stephanie Gaines, the founding director. “The cremation is the frosting on the cake. For us it’s about community support in a transitional time from end of life, terminal end of life, through supporting the family and the individual after death.”
CEOLP works with families in the leadup to the ceremonies, which sometimes attract as many as 300 people in a town with a population of only 143. It hosts “Death Cafes” for people to get together and discuss the often taboo subject. This approach, she said, has led to an openness in the community about death and grieving.
“It’s so healing to the people. It’s very, very powerful,” she said.
Holsman, 43, said his path to advocating for outdoor cremations started with a personal interest.
“I happen to come from a northern Germanic tribe, with Viking ancestry, and when I started looking into the process for outdoor cremation, I found out there is no process because it isn’t legal to do,” he said.
“I don’t know that I necessarily want to be on water,” he said, referencing the tradition of his Viking ancestors. But when his day comes, he does want an open-air cremation: “just like the Native Americans.”
The bill faced initial resistance from funeral directors, concerned it would allow people to host impromptu bonfires of deceased loved ones in their backyards, said Don Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association.
But they came around when health and safety mandates were added. Otto said he expects the state board to enact more detailed rules to figure out exactly how licenses would be applied for and granted.
“We’ve never done anything like this before, so it’s a new thing,” he said. “In any new statute a lot of details of the implementation will have to be worked out on the rules level.”
Holsman said support for the legislation during the session was rallied by one unlikely source.
“It didn’t hurt that in the middle of the discussion episode 4 of Game of Thrones opened with a huge outdoor cremation of all the soldiers who had died,” he said. “We were joking: If it’s good enough for Westeros, it’s good enough for Missouri.”