Departed go up, up and away in beautiful balloon
Joanie and Clyde West were placing gifts in balloons when they came up with the idea for the Eternal Ascent Society. As the story goes, they had just purchased a device that enabled them to put a Teddy bear into an oversized balloon when they had a discussion with friends about what they would want done with their remains after they died. (Bad news about a friend’s illness had prompted the curious conversation.)
Clyde’s final wishes were, “Just have me cremated, put me in a balloon and send me off,” his wife recalls.
That became the couple’s “aha” moment and in 1995 they launched a business they would later franchise that sends people’s and pets’ ashes skyward in a large, colorful balloon.
“People love the idea,” West says. “It’s closure for them.”
After experimenting with the logistics—“My husband would take a loaf of bread and test how much remains it could hold,” West says—they patented a process that removes sharp bone fragments that could pierce the balloon and inserts the ashes into a 100-percent latex, biodegradable balloon which is then filled with helium.
The balloons arrive at the “release site” ready to launch. They ascend five miles at which point the balloon freezes and disintegrates, West says. “The Balloon Council in D.C. does the testing for us,” West says, adding that in 10 years, they haven’t had one balloon leak or break—a godsend, we imagine, to those in attendance. Franchisees work closely with funeral directors in their territory for business leads and when picking up the remains.
The Wests’ original business plan called for marketing the program to funeral directors, but they found that while the directors liked the idea, they didn’t want to do the releases themselves.
They designed it as a low-cost franchise—just $9,750 for the franchise fee and no royalties or marketing fees. Franchisees do need to purchase a “lettered-up” van or trailer with a four-foot-square inflation chamber. The franchisor sells the balloons and equipment to the franchisees. In addition to the original business in Florida, there are two franchises in operation, one in Las Vegas and one in New Jersey, and two in the pipeline.
The cost for the consumer varies on location, from $995 to $2,500. Red is the most popular balloon color for the release, and families arrange their own ceremonies.
West says they’re in no hurry to expand, although if pressed she admits they hope to have 100 franchises in the next five years.
“We’re not McDonald’s, we’re just a business trying to help people,” West adds.