“We shot Dad up into the sky, finally, some two and a half years after he died. These were his wishes: for his ashes to be packed into his favorite firework, the Kamuro — also known as the Boy’s Haircut, or Japanese Willow — a golden cascade of light that hangs there for a moment, shimmering, before winking off into the darkness. I was charged with packing my father’s remains into the fireworks myself,” starts an article by Taylor Plimpton in the July 2011 issue of the Plum Hamptons Magazine.
Taylor is discussing the way his father, American icon George Plimpton, chose to have his ashes spread. George was many things: a sports writer, author, actor, filmmaker and an editor of the Paris Review. He associated with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali, was fictitiously shot by John Wayne in a film and helped subdue Sirhan Sirhan when Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
He was also the honorary Fireworks Commissioner for New York City and a huge fan of the pyrotechnic arts. In 1984 he published the book Fireworks: A History and Celebration, which has become part of the canon of fireworks literature both in America and the world at large.
Although George was not a pyrotechnician by trade, his love for the craft permeated all aspects of his life. He was a close friend of the celebrated Grucci family (known as America’s “first fireworks family“), and as Taylor tells it, he delighted in nightfall when he could see their shows. “I think of my father’s voice, often over a loudspeaker, announcing the fireworks, and his wonderful phrase he’d proclaim with great gusto before the finale: ‘Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen: Here comes the world-famous Grucci finale,'” says Taylor.
Taylor took after his father’s fascination with the night and the wonders it can bring. The younger Plimpton’s latest book Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark is a personal memoir of his self-described “misspent youth” in New York City. As he wrote it, he noticed similarities with his father.
“In a sense, I was following in my father’s footsteps in unexpected ways: he was, after all, not just a writer-he was also a night owl. The truth was we both loved staying up until every ounce of pleasure had been squeezed out of the night; neither of us ever wanted the festivities to end. For my dad, a night’s festivities were often best embodied by a fireworks show. For him, fireworks captured the spirit of celebration, which was the spirit of the night,” Taylor tells me.
Taylor even remembers an incident in which his father put on an impromptu (and unlicensed) fireworks display at their home in Wainscott, NY, on a night when Ted Kennedy came to visit.
George was shocked when what he saw as harmless fun resulted in his arrest. “I think my dad spent an hour or two in jail, and when he returned, he was as pale and shaken as my mom had ever seen him. He just couldn’t understand how something as innocent and fun as fireworks could land one in jail,” recalls Taylor.
When George passed away in 2003, Taylor not only lost a loving father but the world lost a champion of fireworks. To Taylor it seemed fitting that he should find his final farewell in a shell. “I don’t remember when I became aware that my dad wanted to have his ashes scattered in his favorite firework, the Kamuro. It was just something that we’d always known, somehow-that these were his wishes,” says Taylor.
“For certain people like my dad whose great love is fireworks, it makes sense to have them involved in their final departure… Physically, it’s actually a great way for ashes to be scattered, to be projected in all directions at once with great velocity… there’s also something kind of spiritually satisfying, perhaps, about having your remains go up in an explosion of blinding light,” he says.
Others around the world share a similar opinion. I spoke with Craig Hull from Ashes to Ashes, a company in Australia that specializes in offering this service to departed pets and humans.
Originally an aerial performer in the circus, Craig became a pyrotechnician because he wanted to use fireworks to spread the ashes of two of his beloved dogs that passed on. “I went to great lengths to become a pyrotechnician just so I could send their ashes up, and it’s evolved into a business because I wanted to share the opportunity for people to do that,” he says.
The idea resonates with people and the business has been growing steadily. However Craig cautions that while there is a lot of interest it is a very big decision for people to make and should be considered carefully.
Although somber, using fireworks to spread ashes also has a certain uplifting feel, explains Craig. “Rather than looking down at the earth and burying someone or pouring their ashes into the ocean, when you send them up in fireworks, you are looking up into the heavens. When I sent my pets up I felt a sense of celebration and afterwards closure,” he reflects.
“…All our senses are engaged, and so for once, we don’t have to think…. Our minds can kind of shut down, or turn off, and we can let the beauty and light and thunder of it wash over us, and wash us clean…” says Taylor of fireworks.
Taylor and Craig have agreed to speak about this aspect of the profound human connection with fireworks and other stories in Veverka Bros. new documentary, Passfire. Please watch Passfire’s trailer here and consider backing the project on Kickstarter where we offer a lot of amazing rewards including CFR co-branded merchandise. The Clyde Fitch Report is the official blog of the Passfire project.