Monday, June 24

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Notes from the Pyre: Volunteering with the Crestone End of Life Project: Fire Master Paul Kloppenburg

CEOLP volunteer and fire master Paul Kloppenburg (center right, in hat) directs loved ones of the deceased in lighting the cremation fire. photo credit: David Wright

by Gussie Fauntleroy

Because fire is dramatic, members of the Crestone End of Life Project (CEOLP) fire team tend to be among the most visible volunteers at open-air cremations facilitated by CEOLP. At the same time, the role requires the ability to be as “invisible” as possible, quietly focusing on the fire without bringing attention to oneself.

“It’s a practice of remaining mindful of details while keeping a broad awareness of the overall situation,” says longtime CEOLP fire master Paul Kloppenburg. As a CEOLP co-founder, Kloppenburg has been fire team leader since 1998, when he and a few others fulfilled a community member’s desire for an open-air cremation. After that, a handful of cremations were performed using a portable pyre Kloppenburg built and moved around. In 2007 CEOLP was officially established as a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, fully recognized by state and county regulators and with a permanent pyre site.

“Around the circle at the pyre,
we’re one community.”

– Paul Kloppenburg, CEOLP co-founder

Building and tending the fire is among the most physical, hands-on aspects of CEOLP service. It also involves interaction with loved ones of the deceased, as when the fire team leader in- structs four family members or friends who are given torches to light the fire. “It’s really kind of dancing between the living and the dead. You’re connecting to people in grief, who have a different state of mind,” Kloppenburg says.

Attending a cremation is the first and highly recommended step for anyone interested in becoming a CEOLP volunteer. With the fire team, assisting with site prep the day before a cremation is a good way to learn by doing—carrying and stacking wood, chopping kindling, and preparing the hearth. Site prep takes a couple of hours at most, while the actual fire involves up to three hours on the morning of a cremation, with a lead fire person and two assistants. It’s a team effort based on very specific methods that have been honed over the years. As with any CEOLP role, prospective volunteers can shadow experienced team mem- bers, and a comprehensive imple- mentation manual outlines each role.

Being of service through CEOLP brings us face to face with death as a natural part of the cycle of life. “This is not only for grey haired people. Even if we feel young and vibrant and don’t want to think about death, yet it’s there,” Kloppenburg says. It’s also a form of service that can open us to a closer experience of the sacred—and of community. Whether those we are serving lived in Crestone, the Baca, or elsewhere in Saguache County, Kloppenburg says, “Around the circle at the pyre, we’re one community.” This is the first in a periodic series introducing CEOLP volunteers, the roles they fill and why they volunteer. For more details on specific roles, visit

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