The King of Cremation
The Mail On Sunday 17th June 1984
The dying trade is booming, thanks to 'Colonel Cinders', head of America's largest sea burial conglomerate. Douglas Thompson meets the man who has put fun into funerals
Charles Denning laughs in the face of d; E all the way to several banks, but the difficulty, when he invites you to a funeral. is choosing whether to wear a dark or a wet suit.
He jauntily wears a yachting cap, a blue blazer, black string tie, light-coloured slacks and white 2 whiskers as he scatters the cremated remains of jg his customers into the Pacific. He has a cherubic look about him and is something of a mirror < image of Colonel Sanders who made his fortune frying chicken, not people. With his studied appearance and emergence as the major figure in America's six-and-a-half billion dollars a year funeral industry he has become known as 'Colonel Cinders' in the lively dying business. He is the founder and chairman of the board of the Neptune Society, America's largest sea burial conglomerate.
We are weathering the choppy waters outside of San Pedro, the harbour of Los Angeles. 'This, the Pacific, is the biggest cemetery in the world,' says Denning, putting down his bourbon and soda and reaching for a prayer book. His associate, Alice Weiss, in knee-high boots and a brown suit with a slit up the skirt, a brimmed hat and a smile, carries a basket of flowers.
The Neptune Society's cut-price, no-frills, $345 burial at sea ceremony is about to begin - it takes a few minutes more than normal.
'Where's the ashes?' asks Denning. 'I swear they're here somewhere,' says Alice Weiss. From underneath a bunk next to the drinks cabinet she produces a chipped, brown urn and marches back to the guard-rail with triumph.
Denning reads portions of the 23rd Psalm and sections of the Mariner's Prayer and the dearly departed's remains exit over the side followed by a rainbow of flowers.
This has been an 'informal', as no relatives are present. But the name of the person who has just left us is kept secret anyway, to protect the family's privacy. 'One customer asked for a bottle of Jack Daniels to be poured over his "cremains". The crew cried all the way back to port,' laughs Denning.
Alice Weiss, who boasts of being the only licensed female ship's captain and cemetery saleswoman in the world, gives the wise-cracking death merchant a look and talks about 'informals'. Four times last week she had sailed the three miles out to sea with 'informals'. Business was good.
We try to keep each ceremony as private and meaningful as possible. Obviously, we will do more than one at a time. It saves fuel, energy conservation, you understand. But we to do more than 20 "informals" at a time explains Alice. Seeing a surprised look she quickly adds: 'But we say the 23rd Psalm over each of them and mention all their names.'
Charles Denning started making his name as 'Colonel Cinders' ten years ago when he found that his family were taken advantage of following his grandmother's death.
'I did some market research and found there was a demand for low-cost funerals, supermarket-type service."
Denning claims that the average cost of a funeral in America is near on S4.000, which explains why his S345 funeral is in such demand. He has 13 offices in California, six in Florida and four catering for the New York area and the Bahamas. They are on 24-hour call offering a package deal that has a body transported, death certificate signed and cremation or burial services performed.
Customers - around 12,000 a year - can enter the hereafter by burial in a simple wooden box or by 'direct cremation'.
The man whose society is turning over more than five million dollars a year argues: 'People should spend their money on the luxuries of life, not the luxuries of death. It's a message that's getting across. American consumers are fed up with the high cost of dying. They don't want funerals looking like MGM productions.'
Twenty years ago Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death tore into the practices and profits of the US funera! industry. She saw cremation as the answer overselling and overpricing. Now, it is not quite so simple. A multimillion dollar lawsuit at present in the California courts claims that the remains which are scattered or buried may not belong to the people they are supposed to.
'We were named in the case and received all the bad publicity from it." says Denning. 'But neither I nor the society has been served with any papers yet. I don't know if we will but there is simply no case to answer '
As he says, 'Some people might want to go out like Al Capone in an ostentatious gold coffin. But that's their choice. Until we started there was no choice.
'We want people to know about the alternative. Burial at sea is simple but we will scatter ashes in the mountains and desert if that's what people want. It just costs a little more for transporting the remains.'
On the California coast, at San Luis Obispo, Denning has a ranch, Isla del Cielo (Island in the Sky) where he raises Texas longhorns and Russian wolfhounds. 'I've been around long enough and have plenty of business interests.'
However, he is hesitant about revealing his age, exactly how long he has been around. A psychiatrist might say that in his line of work it is understandable that he prefers not to give too much thought to age and ageing.
What is surprising about 'Colonel Cinders', the sea burial entrepreneur, is the farewell whisper from Alice Weiss:
'Charles won't tell you this, but he is going to be buried in the ground. In a box.'
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