Friends' Spirits Will Soar
By Martin E. Comas, Sentinel Staff Writer
Before she died in September, the Altamonte Springs woman told her friends that she desperately wanted to live another year.
"I said to her, 'You know, we'll do something special for your birthday then,'" said her close friend Lisa Coons-Andersen. "We'll rent a limo and take you out on the town."
So this morning, they will rent the lino and drive the urn with her ashes around town. Afterward, her remains will be taken aloft in a helium balloon from Coons-Andersen's home in Apopka. When the balloon bursts about 5 miles up, Rhodes' ashes will fly in the wind.
The balloon was the idea of Coons-Andersen, who has kept the urn since Rhodes died Sept. 3 of congestive heart disease and diabetes.
"She was a very free-spirited person," Coons-Andersen said. "So I think she would enjoys this. It will be the ride of her life. I could just see her thinking, 'I'm up here floating with the shuttle astronauts.'"
Although Rhodes never expressed a desire to have her ashes scattered from the air, Coons-Andersen said she thought it appropriate.
"She's sitting on my mantel right now, but I can't keep her there forever," she said. "So this is a good idea."
As cremations become more common - more than tripling in Florida in the past 20 years - people are looking for more creative and inexpensive ways of dealing with the remains of a loved one.
San Diego company Celebrate Life!, for example, performs fireworks services in which cremated remains are packed into a fireworks shell and then light up the sky for family and friends.
Eternal Reefs, Inc., based in Decatur, Ga., will mix cremains into concrete and then mold them into artificial reefs and donate them to government reef projects as an effort to preserve a sea's ecosystem.
Today's balloon launching will be done by Eternal Ascent Society, Inc. of Crystal River. Owner Joan West said her company holds the only patent for the process of scattering ashes by releasing them from a balloon.
West started her comany in 1996.
At the time, she owned a balloon shop and came up with the idea of also providing a service of packing a loved one's cremains into a balloon and releasing them to the winds.
Customers can select a red, green, blue or yellow balloon.
Before it's released, the 5-foot-long balloon is placed inside a clear plexiglass box and filled with helium and the cremains.
After a brief memorial service, the balloon is released. When it reaches 26,000 feet, it explodes.
"It just goes whoof to the wind," West said. "And everything is biodegradable. This is done very thoughtfully."
West has release the balloons at beaches, parks and from boats on lakes, rivers and the Gulf.
"People are so happy. They don't want to be put in the ground. They just want to go up," West said.
For 22 years, Diane Rhodes worked for Delta Air Lines, but she quit her job because of declining health. She eventually took a job at a movie theater in south Orlando.
"She basically retired, but she wanted to keep working and being productive," Coons-Andersen said.
"She really had no money and no relatives."
Her only known family member was a cousin from Gainesville.
Coons-Andersen and about eight other friends paid for the cremation, a memorial servie in September and for today's 1:30 p.m. balloon launching, which cost about $1,000.
They will also read a poem at the service.
So why would a group of friends, who have known Rhodes for only a couple of years through their prayer group, go to all this expense?
"She was really a neat lady," Coons-Andersen said.
"And this is a great way for her to go out."