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In Solemn Ceremony, Duo Carries Out Sacred Burials at Sea for Those Too Easily Forgotten

Scattering ashes with grace, mortuary employees embrace a ritual to ‘take care of people who don’t have anyone’

Billy Guntle and Jennifer Parks, employees with McDermott-Crockett & Associates Mortuary, scatter ashes at sea with Capt. Jason Burke at the helm of the Newbury Street off the coast of Santa Barbara. “We don’t always get the benefit of the story,” Parks says of those they carefully lay to rest. “And everyone has one.” Click to view larger
Billy Guntle and Jennifer Parks, employees with McDermott-Crockett & Associates Mortuary, scatter ashes at sea with Capt. Jason Burke at the helm of the Newbury Street off the coast of Santa Barbara. “We don’t always get the benefit of the story,” Parks says of those they carefully lay to rest. “And everyone has one.” (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

It was a perfect Santa Barbara day.

Boats bobbed quietly in the shelter of the harbor and tourists on beach cruisers ambled past the waterfront.

No one seemed to notice when Jennifer Parks and Billy Guntle, dressed all in black, stepped onto the dock, carrying between them a blue ice chest, the weight of which caused them to hunch over as they approached their destination.

They greeted their boat’s captain, Jason Burke, who helped them board a 28-foot Catalina sailboat called Newbury Street.

The cooler was set on the deck, the precious cargo now ready for its final destination.

Inside were the ashes of about 20 people, some infants, some elderly, each with a different story, but one that ended in the same way.

Some had no next of kin. Some had family, but no money by which to bury their loved ones.

Other families couldn’t bury their relative for other reasons, perhaps living too far away.

The cold technical term is “indigent,” but that’s not the term that Parks and Guntle use.

For the next hour, as the ashes of each person were scattered, one by one, they would not be alone. Not if Guntle or Parks had anything to do with it.

They would be remembered.

“We take care of people who don’t have anyone,” Parks said, several weeks earlier during an interview with Noozhawk at her office.

Parks is general manager at McDermott-Crockett & Associates Mortuary, which partners with Santa Barbara County to cremate the remains of those who have died, some homeless, some without resources. The mortuary provides the service at a discount to the county as a public benefit.

McDermott-Crockett handles about 50 to 70 of these cremations a year, and every six weeks, Parks and Guntle will board a boat to scatter the ashes in the ocean off the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

With great care, ashes are handed off to be scattered at sea. Sometimes the ritual is accompanied by music or a few words are said, but sometimes silence is more fitting. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
With great care, ashes are handed off to be scattered at sea. Sometimes the ritual is accompanied by music or a few words are said, but sometimes silence is more fitting. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The bodies come from the Coroner’s Office, hospice care, hospitals, long-term care facilities, private homes.

Infants stillborn or who perish after birth in local hospitals are also cremated if their families do not choose burial.

The calls often come in the middle of the night, when an on-call employee will wake up and put on a black suit before retrieving a body.

The county’s public administrator works to track down family, anyone who could give legal consent for the body to be cremated.

Parks became aware of some of these untold stories by working with the City of Santa Barbara’s Restorative Court

The court works to find alternative sentencing for the homeless who end up entangled in the legal system for often minor offenses.

Sometimes, when a person who lives on the street dies, they just disappear, and their community of friends and family has no idea what happened to them.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a mom, but I can’t help but think ‘that's somebody’s kid’,” Parks said during Friday’s voyage. “These people are so much more than just homeless.

“We don’t always get the benefit of the story, and everyone has one.”

On Friday, the Newbury Street sailed past Cabrillo Boulevard, and its red tiles and palm trees.

As the vessel passed the Andree Clark Bird Refuge and the Clark estate, a small group of people could be seen waiting atop the sloping cliff of the cemetery.

Billy Guntle scatters ashes during a Friday voyage. Every six weeks, Guntle and Jennifer Parks of McDermott-Crockett & Associates Mortuary sail along the Santa Barbara coast to carry out their solemn ritual. The remains come from Santa Barbara County residents who have been cremated but whose families are without resources or are unknown. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Billy Guntle scatters ashes during a Friday voyage. Every six weeks, Guntle and Jennifer Parks of McDermott-Crockett & Associates Mortuary sail along the Santa Barbara coast to carry out their solemn ritual. The remains come from Santa Barbara County residents who have been cremated but whose families are without resources or are unknown. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Family members or friends had been invited by Parks to view the scattering, and as the boat pulled offshore, Parks made a few quick calls to make sure they could see it from their vantage point.

Sometimes during the scattering, they play music, and sometimes the silence seems more fitting. Sometimes they say a few words, sometimes they don’t.

But each trip, Parks and Guntle tread lightly, conscious of the sacred.

As the boat came to a stop, Parks opened the blue cooler.

“We’ll do the babies first,” she solemnly told Guntle, who nodded.

Tiny sealed bags, no bigger than a baseball card, held two or three thimblefuls of gray dust. They only weighed a few ounces.

Each was opened by Guntle before he leaned over the edge of the boat in silence.

The smallest of breezes blew, a breath really, bringing particles up on the wind in one final dance of beauty before gently catching on the water’s surface.

Except for the waves lapping the side of the boat, all was quiet. Flowers — yellow daisies and fuchsia rose petals — floated on the current.

Other bags handed to Guntle were larger, about the size of a freezer bag, and filled with about four pounds of ashes.

One man’s name was said quietly, and then Parks handed his bag to Guntle.

“His life was meaningful,” Parks said later, wiping away a tear.

The man was a Vietnam War veteran, but his family had not had the money to bury him at the closest veteran’s cemetery, in Riverside County.

Parks had called the Veterans Affairs Department to help make arrangements, but the cost had proved too great for the family to pay to have his remains interred there.

Besides, his family said, he was born and raised in Santa Barbara. Riverside was too far.

“This was his home,” Parks said.

Parks read a poem before the ashes were scattered, creating a smoky plume in the water, slowly sinking out of sight in the cobalt current.

If the person has family, Parks will send them a certificate that states their ashes were scattered, even with the GPS coordinates where the boat was at the time.

Parks even takes photos with her cell phone and emails them to family out of state.

Slowly, without fanfare, the watchers on the cliff above disappeared.

Parks has many stories of family who have shared this moment at sea.

She recalled a man, a merchant marine in his 90s, whose wife had died. Wisteria had grown around the window of her room, and the man asked Parks to spread some of the plant’s buds on the water as they scattered his wife’s ashes.

He watched from the cemetery cliff, and when Parks returned to the mortuary, he was waiting for her.

“He said ‘You can’t believe how beautiful that was’,” Parks recalled, adding that it’s a gift to her to be able to be outside, and “to be able to take care of those people.”

Turning back toward the harbor, the light had become softer, and Parks said she often uses the trip back to keep the world at bay.

“It’s a time to decompress,” she said as the sea wind blew her hair.

Last time, she coaxed Guntle to join her at boat’s bow, and the pair lay down side by side, staring into oblivion at the sky above.

Recalling that experience, Parks said she noticed the boat’s beams that hold its sails looked like something familiar.

“It looked like a cross,” she said.

In those moments, just before entering the safety of the harbor, the boat was still at sea, skirting the edge of the depths, between the routine of life and the ritual of delivering souls to the sea.

Those are the best for Parks.

“That’s when it’s quiet and we can just be grateful for this place we live,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

As the boat sails away from the bluffs of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, Jennifer Parks gazes back to where families had watched remains of their relatives scattered at sea. With a measure of fulfillment, Parks reflects on the ritual. “That’s when it’s quiet and we can just be grateful for this place we live,” she says. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
As the boat sails away from the bluffs of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, Jennifer Parks gazes back to where families had watched remains of their relatives scattered at sea. With a measure of fulfillment, Parks reflects on the ritual. “That’s when it’s quiet and we can just be grateful for this place we live,” she says. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

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