Going Out with a Bang

Fireworks and funerals. Why not?

illustration by brad fitzpatrick

Folks in New Hampshire love blowing stuff up. Lately, any occasion provides an excuse to shoot hundreds of dollars’ worth of fireworks skyward for a neighborhood celebration — and that includes final goodbyes. If you know the right people, you can bypass the common burial at sea for something much flashier. Joel White, a small business owner in the North Country, is known locally as the go-to guy for funereal fireworks displays.

“It’s word of mouth from friends or people I just met along the way. Or somebody has said, ‘Hey, you want a good show, go here,’” says an upbeat White. The pyrotechnic hobbyist is in demand for weddings, parties, festivals and, yes, funerals. And it all began with an innocent conversation with a woman about dispersing cremation remains using fireworks.

“We were talking about her dying and I said, ‘When you die, I can throw all of your ashes up in the sky and they’ll come down and get in everyone’s eyes and make ’em cry.’ So she says, ‘What a great idea.’” Sometime after their seemingly innocuous conversation about death, the woman passed away. Before long, her family reached out to White.

“So, when she did die,” White recalls, “I didn’t know she put it in her will that that’s what she wanted to do. I was surprised because that’s never happened before and now I had to do it.” Suddenly, White had to figure out how to create the memorable send-off the woman requested in her will.

“My test shot was with gravel because the ashes are heavy. I used gravel first to simulate the weight, but you couldn’t see it. When the [deceased’s] ashes blew out, they formed a ball and floated across the sky for a little while. It was really neat how it turned out,” says White. The daytime delivery high above the memorial crowd provoked crying, as White predicted. Others cheered or yelled. It’s what people don’t do at funerals, but love to do at fireworks shows.

He also provides the fireworks equivalent of a 21-gun salute with cemetery send-offs graveside, using a cake of 25 booms.

“So, when the preacher is done, I’ll go over with a remote control. We’ll have the person who’s left, the wife or whoever, and have them push the button that sends a cake of 25 booms off in the sky,” White adds.

White was surprised when I told him there are a few other businesses that send one’s dearly departed out with a bang. He adds that, while most people don’t jump at the idea, no one has ever told him that it is a terrible idea. And while running a business leaves little time to pursue full-time fireworks shows, he’d consider doing more display work after retirement.

And what about White’s last wishes? “I wouldn’t mind doing the same thing, but my wife’s talking about flushing me down the toilet,” he cracks. Not the kind of burial at sea Joel had in mind.

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