A Business Was Born When A Man Told His Family To Just Put His Ashes In A Balloon And Send Him Up.

CRYSTAL RIVER , FL | Thursday, March 03, 2005

Joanie West is full of sweet anecdotes: chattering dolphins appearing at a ceremony for a Navy test pilot who studied them; a stormy sky opening up just long enough to release a 49 year old woman who died of emphysema.

The story that stays the same is that her balloons always fly, carrying with them the cremated remains of a human, pet, or sometimes both.

She and her husband, Clyde, 72, operate a business, the Eternal Ascent Society, that uses high-altitude balloons to scatter remains. It releases biodegradable balloons, 5 feet in diameter, filled with helium and containing the ashes. The balloons float to an altitude of 5 miles, where they freeze and burst, scattering their contents.

They turned their Crystal River balloon gift shop into the patented operation that provides a unique send-off for those who already have chosen cremation for themselves, their loved ones - or their pets. According to the Florida Department of Health, nearly half of the Florida residents who died in 2003 were cremated.

The families who attend "actually hold the balloon and release it," said Joanie West, 66. "They feel like they're sending that person off. They're sending them toward heaven. It brings so many families close." The idea for the service, which costs from $1,000 to $2,000 for humans and about $600 for pets, sprang from a family discussion on death. Clyde West told his brother he didn't care what they did with him, to just put him in a balloon and send him up.

The Wests had put teddy bears and a six-pack of beer in balloons, so why not ashes? They began in 1996 with pets. Their first was a cat named Midnight released in a blue balloon.

"I was a nervous wreck ... but everybody was so supportive and I just knew everything was going to be okay," she said. "That balloon just went straight up." The Wests have had the patent for nine years. They sold their gift balloon shop three years ago so they could run the Eternal Ascent Society full time. They now franchise the business for $20,000. Five franchises have opened - three in Florida, one in Virginia and one in New Hampshire.

The couple works with crematories and funeral homes. Once they pick up the ashes, the fill the balloons, making sure no bone fragments slip through. The balloons are filled with helium in an inflation chamber and transported to the launch site the family has chosen.

Families release the balloon and can see it for about two miles. Families also are provided with a video of the release and a personalized certificate with photos.

Popular launch sites include beaches, lakes, and most locations on the water. The Wests have organized several releases from Pine Island Park in Hernando County and Port Allen in Crystal River. Last week a balloon was released from a dock in Palm Beach.

Merle Walsh of Beverly Hills sent up her husband, Leonard, in a blue balloon - for the retired sergeant's blue New Jersey state police officer's uniform. Before he died of cancer at 71, the Walshes had overheard a woman in their doctor's office talking about using the Eternal Ascent Society's services to send off her mother.

"I can't explain the feeling you get when you release that balloon with his remains in them and as it's going up the smiles just go all over the entire family," Mrs. Walsh said. "He was such a free spirit and he loved gardening and always loved being out in the yard and now he's up in the universe helping the Lord plant rose bushes." In July, Linda Forker of Crystal River sent up her two Dobermans, Mandy and Sonny Boy, together. They were so close in life, she said, she wanted them to be together.

Forker's first Doberman died in 1993 and is buried in her backyard. "It was very difficult on my husband and very difficult on me, and you can't walk through the yard without saying 'There's Rusty,'" she said. "I've talked about selling and he has even said it to me, 'But Rusty's in the back yard.'" Launching her beloved pets in a balloon was uplifting for Forker and her 6-year old granddaughter, Charisma, who attended the launch. Forker said she plans on "taking the big ride" when it's her turn.

In the fall, Charisma, scared of her rainy first day of first grade, saw a rainbow in the sky and said, "It's going to be a beautiful day because there's my puppies." She later reported to Grandma that she had a wonderful first day of school.

Forker said she loves the idea of looking up.

"I can't pass a rainbow without saying, 'Hi, Mandy,'" she said. "If I see the sun going through the clouds I say, 'Hey, how you doing sweetie?' because I feel like they're everywhere."

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Eternal Ascent Society
8395 Yew Pine Court
Crystal River, Florida

Phone: (352) 563-5266

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