Diane Keaton’s new movie, Poms, features a running gag about a cremation company that offers the option to attach the ashes of your dearly departed loved one to fireworks, so you can send her off with a bang. Sure gives new meaning to the Katy Perry song, doesn’t it? Poms flopped at the box office and seems destined for a life as no one’s first-choice in-flight movie, but let’s not let that stop us from getting to the bottom of this. The world must know: Is scattering human remains with fireworks something that happens in real life?
“It definitely is, or was, a real thing,” said Nick Drobnis, who owned Angels Flight, a Southern California–based company that, by its own estimate, staged hundreds of “memorial fireworks” displays before it closed a few years ago. Yes, this happens enough that some services use a shorthand: memorial fireworks.
It’s still pretty rare, though, at least in the U.S. (Rules elsewhere, like in the U.K., are less stringent.) We did manage to track down one active service, however. Clay Adams, a manager at Greenlawn Funeral Home in Springfield, Missouri, said he believes Greenlawn, which has several branches in the area, may be the only place in the country that has such a fireworks package among its current offerings. Greenlawn makes it work through a partnership with the local company AM Pyrotechnics.
“We have a lot of people who think that these [fireworks] can be shipped; they think they’re going to buy them like roman candles,” Adams said. Nope, these are real, so-called commercial-grade fireworks, the kind you might see at a major sporting event and that can only be launched by licensed pyrotechnicians, which AM Pyrotechnics provides.
According to Drobnis, smaller fireworks, the ones that can be purchased in some states at roadside fireworks stands and the like, aren’t large enough to lift human remains, which are normally heavy enough (about 7 pounds is average, he said) that they have to be distributed among several commercial-grade shells. Plus, bigger fireworks make for a better show.
You can’t do fireworks just anywhere, and you can’t scatter ashes just anywhere, so locating a site where you can do both is a challenge. Greenlawn does it on a plot of land that the funeral home owns, adjoining a cemetery but outside city limits, which makes it the perfect place to scatter ashes without breaking regulations.
At Greenlawn, the service starts at about $1,000, and $3,000 gets you a four-to-five-minute display with musical accompaniment. When Drobnis offered the service, his company shot the fireworks from a boat off the Southern California coast, and he charged a starting price of $4,250. Both of these figures are cheaper than the average cost of a funeral.
Adams estimated that Greenlawn does about six fireworks packages per year; it’s niche, but a sought-after niche. “We had a family from South Carolina that flew in—had no ties to this area, this is what Grandpa wanted—they flew in a Saturday, did the fireworks display on Saturday night, they flew back out on a Sunday,” he said. The package is big with veterans, and the families always seem pleased, Adams added. “They imagine it’s going to be nice, but they’re just overwhelmed by how nice it is.” Drobnis agreed: “The firework ending just made people smile.”
Just in case Poms does inspire a wave of people wanting fireworks funerals, any new companies looking to get into the game face an uphill battle. First of all, any business that chooses to offer memorial fireworks is required to navigate a confusing, complicated network of government offices. “Between the state funeral board, EPA, fire marshal, FAA, the harbor patrol, and the Coast Guard, there were just an incredible number of government regulatory agencies that we had to go through,” Drobnis said. But it’s the insurance that’ll get you: “To do fireworks, you have to have a pretty healthy insurance policy,” Drobnis said. “It’s a million-dollar insurance policy. Just the monthly expense of that alone was prohibitive.”
For his part, Drobnis did enough ashes-and-fireworks tributes in his day to decide that it’s not how he wants to go; he wants his ashes scattered among the natural beauty of places like Catalina and Big Sur. But he recommends fireworks highly. “I did do the service for my mother,” he said. “It was beautiful.”