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Doug Moe

Doug Moe: Biker's ashes find last rest stop

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WHEN ONE of Jeff Barrette's close friends died and was cremated several years ago, the man's sister approached Barrette and asked for advice on what to do with the cremated ashes.

Barrette, 49, who works as a mechanic for the city of Madison, recalls that they looked at traditional urns and were not impressed.

"You wouldn't put me in them," he said.

Barrette thought about it and realized that his late buddy's true passion in life had been motorcycles. Barrette is a biker, too. He began thinking about how his friend might really appreciate riding into eternity on a Harley.

Rejecting a gas tank as too clumsy and smelly, Barrette decided that a good urn could be made out of a motorcycle's engine cylinder.

He got hold of a Harley engine cylinder and took it out to his friend Rich Saric, who builds miniature locomotive trains for Little America near Marshall. Saric made a very nice urn and when he was done he turned to Barrette and said, "We could probably sell these."

After adding a third partner, Little America proprietor Darrell Klompmaker, they did just that, forming a company called Riders Last Rest.

Their Web site, www.riderslastrest.com, asks the question: "Do you have a loved one who has gone on to the great open road?" The site then recommends "a final resting container that is truly a tribute to the motorcycle lifestyle."

With cremation becoming ever more popular, many people are faced with the decision of what to do with the ashes of the departed. Barrette just returned from a National Funeral Directors Association convention at McCormick Place in Chicago, and said there are an amazing number of "theme" urns and caskets on the market.

A recent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal quoted South Carolina sociology Professor George Dickinson: "I think methods that a few decades ago were thought very bizarre are now very appealing to people."

Barrette concurs: "We hear people say they don't want their grandpa's funeral."

The Courier-Journal said other options include "blasting cremated remains into space, putting them into paintings, lockets and bird baths," and even "turning the deceased into manmade diamonds and artificial reefs."

The article said that an Atlanta company, Eternal Reefs, mixes the cremated ashes with environmentally safe concrete to make reef balls which are dropped into the ocean.

Since the company's founding in 1998, the paper noted, "almost 300 people have become reefs."

It is best when people think ahead. I've always admired the writer Dorothy Parker, who requested that her ashes be kept on the bar of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan along with a small sign saying "Pardon my dust."

The problem comes when the deceased has left no instructions about what to do with the ashes.

This was the case with my parents, who died within months of each other about five years ago. Unlike Barrette and his inspired engine cylinder invention, I have pretty much avoided thinking about it, and as a consequence my parents are sitting side by side in boxes on a high shelf, near some VHS tapes of Frank Sinatra concerts, in the closet of my downstairs office. At least they were Sinatra fans.

Many people choose to have their ashes scattered. I recall that at the 1994 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, a UW band member granted a Badger fan's last request by sprinkling the dead man's ashes on the fabled field.

But scattering ashes isn't completely foolproof. I came across a San Francisco Chronicle story about a pilot who took a funeral party up in his small plane: "After a tearful ceremony, relatives of the cremated man attempted to hurl their loved one's remains out of an airplane over the Pacific Ocean, but the ashes blew back inside." The pilot said later: "We had to vacuum grandpa out of the airplane."

Barrette said his Riders Last Rest company is now about three years old. He showed me one of the engine cylinder urns. They are beautiful and substantial, weighing 25 pounds. Asked how much they cost, he said, "They're not cheap." More details are available on the Web site.

They don't have a lot of money for advertising, Barrette said, but word of the engine urns is getting out. The National Funeral Museum in Houston, Texas, recently requested one, which Barrette provided.

I asked Barrette, who is big, burly, wears a bandana and really looks like a motorcycle guy, what he envisions for himself when he finally goes to that "big open road" in the sky. He grinned: "I hope they crank up the rock music and have a party. Don't mourn. It has been a great ride."

So will his ashes go into a Riders Last Rest urn?

"Me, personally?" Barrette, who is from Mineral Point, thought for a moment. He said he'd like a biker to carry his ashes in one of the engine cylinder urns, find a back highway in that beautiful part of the state, and let the bike rip.

And then?

"Then take off the lid and let me go!"

Heard something Moe should know? Call 252-6446, write PO Box 8060, Madison, WI 53708, or e-mail dmoe@madison.com.

Published: 9:59 AM 10/17/05

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