Cremation site?

A funeral pyre sits near an Elephant Head home where a couple hopes to introduce a different way of saying goodbye to loved ones.

An Elephant Head couple have built a funeral pyre on their property so that families can bid farewell to loved ones during an outdoor cremation in a scenic rural setting.

But Tina and Billy Hurley’s pyre, which resembles a block fireplace, faces an uphill battle before the first ceremony ever takes place.

The pyre on their five-acre property at the end of a road is surrounded by benches in a rustic amphitheater facing the Santa Rita Mountains. Tina Hurley said she recently hosted an open house for about 50 neighbors, an event that included a test-burning of an effigy in the pyre.

Some at the open house weren’t sure what to think, she said, while others wept and said they found the event “so beautiful, so moving.”

The proposal to hold cremations outdoors appears to be unprecedented in Arizona, and the Hurleys face challenges with regulators. One said flatly that state law requires cremations to be done indoors. The Hurleys said they have begun contacting regulators but have not applied for permits.

“I know it sounds very edgy, but it is someone’s loved one,” said Hurley, a former federal law enforcement agent. “Not everyone wants to be buried in a casket in a cemetery or (cremated) in an oven. It sounds ‘out there,’ but in reality we’ve created a beautiful venue and house.”

Hurley said she was inspired to create an alternative funeral approach after attending a traditional service for her favorite aunt at a funeral home where she felt compelled to control her emotions.

The family then stayed up for hours around a fire pit sharing memories, which they were able to do because her aunt had paid for them all to stay at a resort. That made Hurley think of her home in Elephant Head, and she envisions her business, Higher Pyre Ustrinum, as allowing families to spend time together other than at a traditional funeral home. She sees local entrepreneurs providing catering services and horse rides.

“I’m hoping to offer people a super-sacred unforgettable experience in Arizona, where we have lovely weather,” Hurley said. “It’s a place to where people can be moved, can grieve, practice their religion. That is actually the mandate if you are Hindu, an open pyre.”

Getting the permits

Hurley, who lives in Tucson during the week, met Friday with officials of the county Health Department and the county Department of Environmental Quality, who referred her to the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.

The director of the state funeral board, Rudy Thomas, told the Green Valley News that outdoor cremations are illegal.

“To cremate human remains you must have a crematory and it has to be housed in a building of its own or a portion of building,” Thomas said Tuesday. He said somebody from his office traveled to Elephant Head to look at the site.

He said a change in state law would be required to allow outdoor cremations, but cautioned that nearly 70 percent of final dispositions in Arizona now are cremations, as opposed to burials, so a powerful lobby exists that might oppose change.

Mark Shaffer, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, deferred to the county.

“Our rules and regulations under Arizona Revised Statues do not directly address the burning of human remains,” he said via email. “Since this is a proposed operation in Pima County we defer to their interpretation of their rule.”  

Beth Gorman, a spokeswoman for the Pima County DEQ, said corpse burning is not allowed under open burning regulations.

The Hurleys have not submitted formal applications, county and state officials said.

Saying goodbye

Hurley said she hopes to rent their 2,132-square-foot house for several days at time, perhaps six or seven times a year, to families that want to spend time together to mourn a loved one. The property is at the end of the road and surrounded by state land on three sides.

Marsha Mendelsohn, who lives in Elephant Head, said that if they comply with the law she will accept their plan, but added, “I don’t like it. I wouldn’t want it next to me. What if you want to have a family get-together and next door they are burning a body? Do you have to schedule your stuff according to their burning?”

Hurley said she would not conduct cremations on windy days. She said the pyre was designed and built by her husband, a firefighter.

The zoning on the property is Rural Homestead, which allows for a crematorium or cemetery as a conditional use. It would require a Type II Conditional Use Permit, which is subject to two public hearings with final approval or denial by the Board of Supervisors.

The Hurleys have not applied for the zoning permit, a county zoning spokesman said.

Colorado operation

Hurley has consulted with the Crestone End of Life Project, a volunteer-run not-for-profit outdoor pyre in southwestern Colorado that has gained broad acceptance over the past several years after initial resistance. It serves only residents.

The project, located outside town limits, has been granted a conditional use permit by Saguage County to conduct a limited number of outdoor cremations, deputy town clerk Leanna Bradbury said. Bradbury said several neighbors were vehemently opposed at first, but over time have come to accept the outdoor cremations.

Philip Franchine | 547-9738