A finance pro has carved out a side job delivering strangers’ ashes to their final destination—the Alaskan wilderness
Stan Reese takes a fair number of business trips each year. But he's not attending a trade conference or business meeting. Instead, he’s flying all over the country with cremated human ashes in his carryon.
Reese, 59, has carved out a job as something of an ashes administrator, acting as a courier to transport cremated remains to their final resting place. Though he initially focused on journeys to Alaska to scatter ashes, Reese’s company, Eternal Alaska, now incorporates other destinations from Central Park in New York City to the Gulf of Mexico.
Based out of Huntsville, Ala., Reese, who works full-time in the accounting and finance industry, took time out of his day to talk about his unique side gig.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get into this line of work?
It goes back to 2018, when I worked a summer job in Alaska. For all intents and purposes, I was a tour guide and a lot of the people who came through were on their trip of a lifetime. They saved for their trip, retired, and they finally got to Alaska. And I kept hearing a common theme with all of them: When I die, I want my ashes scattered in Alaska.
I knew I wanted to do this, but I knew there was a cost involved. When the stimulus checks started coming, there were boxes for televisions out by the road—people were using their money to buy televisions. But I thought this was a good chance for me. So I actually invested the money I received from that into the business. I used it to pay for the website, the licensing fees, and everything else.
I have a mortuary license in Alaska, even though I don't deal with the actual body. I don't do anything with the cremation or embalming or anything like that. I just get to deal with the ashes
It's never been about the money for me. I'm not going to become a millionaire doing this. But as long as I can make the money to support myself, especially as I get older, it’s worth it.
How does the process work?
Most of the time, it starts with a family member contacting me. The first thing I try to find out is where they are looking to have the ashes scattered. Normally after the family contacts me, it's about a month before the actual ash scattering takes place because of logistics.
I let them be as specific as possible. You give me a park, a road, or whatever, and I'm going to try to make that happen. Of course, the rules and regulations are that I can't scatter ashes on public property unless it's allowed. Luckily Denali National Park and Preserve and other national parks in Alaska, for example, allow you to do that as long as it’s not in populated areas of the park.
You can also scatter ashes in the ocean, it's perfectly legal. But the EPA does require you to be at least three miles off of the nearest land source. And you have to fill out a permit at least 30 days after you do it.
I typically fly from Alabama to wherever the family's at, and I pick up the ashes personally. I've seen companies that tell you: just send the ashes through the mail. I’d hate to put that kind of burden on my kids when I die. Would I want them to be putting my ashes in the mail? Nothing against the U.S. Postal Service, but can you imagine somebody that you love, somebody you've spent your whole life with passing away—and then taking their ashes and putting a stamp on them, and putting them in the U.S. mail? I just can't imagine that.
The ashes never leave my possession after I receive them. They're in my carryon, which is normally a backpack that’s with me the whole time on the flight. The airlines actually request that you have them with you so that they won't get lost. And we know how airlines can lose luggage.
For the trip, I'll fly in, pick up a rental car, and go meet with the family at their home or the director of the funeral home. I like to fly out the same day, so I get back on a flight, and I head straight to Alaska, for example.
It's usually a day with flights from 4 a.m. all the way through to 11 o'clock at night. Once I'm in Alaska, I'll go ahead and stay at a hotel overnight. Then I’ll pick up a rental car the next morning and drive to Talkeetna, Alaska, for example. From there, I get on a charter flight if the weather's good and fly to Denali, where I scatter the ashes. I normally try to schedule a day or two extra, just in case the weather's bad since it can change constantly in Alaska. It's normally a two- or three-day process.
Do you ever encounter travel problems?
When I’m on the flights, if anybody asks what I'm doing, I just tell them I'm going to Alaska or New York or Hawaii or wherever I'm going. I’m trying to do this as peacefully as I possibly can. I’m not going to tell anybody I've got a client's cremated remains in my carryon baggage. I just think that's a personal thing. I think it shouldn't be broadcast with everybody.
TSA is easier to work with than what I expected. The first time I went through TSA with ashes, I was really concerned about what they were going to say. But then it dawned on me that this happens probably more often than I thought. I have a backpack with me, the ashes and my camera gear, so I'm able to take a beautiful portrait of the location to give to the family after the ash scattering.
TSA is actually usually more concerned, honestly, about the camera than the ashes. That was one of my biggest concerns, getting through TSA, but they're actually very, very respectful.
What’s one of the more memorable journeys you’ve undertaken?
My first client was in April 2021. Her husband passed, and he had loved going to Alaska. So she wanted his ashes scattered on the top of Denali, which is the tallest mountain in North America. But I said to her, I don't think I can climb that high. So we continued the conversation, and she agreed it’s not necessary to scatter the ashes at the very top. But she wants them scattered as close to Denali as you can get.
So I started doing research. This was April so I knew that the weather would be clearing up in Alaska. You don't really want to go to Denali in March or early April. I found a bush pilot that I could contract with out of Talkeetna, and he would fly me to Denali and land on a glacier.
So flew to Minneapolis, picked up the ashes, flew straight on to Anchorage, rented a car in Anchorage and drove to Talkeetna—which is not an easy drive. Then I hopped on a little, single-engine, two-seater airplane that bounces a whole lot and landed on a glacier. Then I snow-shoe my way to a quiet place for the service and scattered the ashes. That, of course, sounds a lot simpler than it really was.
Interestingly, in Talkeetna, probably 200 yards from the airport, is a mountain climbers graveyard. It's for the people who climb Denali and pass away. But also within that graveyard, there are memorials for the people who have died on flights to Denali—the pilots, the sightseers, and everyone else. It seems like every year, somebody dies on a flight to Denali. It’s an adventure.
I think that's what brought me to Alaska in the first place—and what keeps me coming back. It's part of the adventure, and I think that's why certain people want their ashes scattered in Alaska. It's because they know they lived. They lived their life enough to experience Alaska, whether they flew to the summit of Denali or whether they just simply took a boat ride on a cruise ship, they lived. Not a lot of people get to see that.
This sounds a bit risky at times. Have you ever been worried about your safety?
Putting yourself in a little, two-seater airplane with a single engine and flying to the highest peak in North America—that was scary. And yeah, it did go through my mind, what if I die? Well, if I die, at least I died doing something I enjoy.
I did one ash scattering that was near the Icy Strait Point outside of Juneau—in the water. My client, her mother had passed away and wanted her ashes scattered in the icy straits of Alaska because she had taken a cruise to Alaska.
The weather was terrible. But the guy captaining the boat knew his way around, and said we could make it. So I put on my rain gear, and we went out. Now I can’t swim, so I made that known when I got on the boat. The captain said don't worry about it. I asked, what do you mean? He says where we're going, if you fall overboard, or if the boat sinks, they're not going to rescue you. It'll be a recovery process. The water is so cold, you'll be dead within less than an hour.
But we did it and it worked out. I didn't even get seasick.
How do you balance your time between your finance gig and running Eternal Alaska?
I don't have the same schedule day-to-day. When I get up in the morning, I'm either working on social media, working on my blog, or doing some of the work with finance and accounting.
With Eternal Alaska, I’ve done on an average of five trips a year so far. I wouldn't want to schedule more than two or three trips a month. I think anything more than that would get to be more of a chore and less respectful for the family.
My accounting supervisors don’t mind. I say I got a trip to Alaska scheduled in four weeks, I need four days off to do this, and they're fine with it. They know what I'm doing.
I do a lot of research on the rules and regulations for scattering ashes in national parks. I even had it on the website for family members who want to scatter the ashes themselves. The Grand Canyon, for instance, does not allow you to scatter ashes anymore.
Timing is also key. Going to Alaska in the winter is not the greatest thing because the weather is a challenge. You're talking four or five feet of snow on the ground and driving on the ice. Normally it’s best to go into Alaska between April and September—maybe October at the latest.
That's why I started adding more locations. When I first opened up Eternal Alaska, people would ask if I would service other areas. At first, I thought, probably not. But the more they asked, I considered it. And it really opened up a huge avenue last year.
While you don’t think you’re going to be a millionaire doing this, but how much are you bringing in a year?
With Eternal Alaska, I gross probably about $30,000 a year, then with costs taken out, the net is probably $12,000 to $15,000. It's just not a huge moneymaker.
I factor in the cost of meals and hotels, which are very expensive in Alaska, as well as rental cars. Charter flights to go from Talkeetna to Denali are about $1,000 while a charter boat is $1,000 too, so it's quite expensive. One trip to Denali cost $8,900 while a service planned for the Alabama Gulf Coast was $3,850. It ranges based on the difficulty and location.
Is it hard to work with grieving families?
I want to give them closure, so I find out as much as I can about the person who passed. I want to feel a connection. I want to know what they felt, and what they liked, and why they chose certain areas. I'll try to get a copy of the obituary because sometimes the obituary does tell a good story.
I also ask questions about what the deceased would have chosen. I'll allow the family, if they want, to give me something to say as I scatter the ashes. Sometimes it's a poem, sometimes it's just a word or two saying they miss the deceased.
No matter where you scatter the ashes, if it's outdoors, you can't put up any kind of monument or anything. So what I do is I mark the area with a GPS pin. I put that on the certificate that I provide to the family so that if they ever want to go back to that area, they always know where it is or if they want to look on a map.
What would you be doing if not this?
When I was 17 and in high school, a questionnaire went around about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said a mortician because I think this line of work is interesting, and I’ve always always been curious about it.
I actually got in trouble that day for saying mortician. The teacher sent me to the principal because he thought I was kidding. I said no, I think I think that'd be kind of a cool thing to do.
Later I played a little bit of football in college, and I wanted to be a football player as a career. That didn't work out, so I got involved in the media and then into accounting and finance.
But it's really kind of weird to look back and see at 17, I got in trouble for saying I wanted to work in this line of work and now I am in.
Working in this field, have you thought about how you want your remains handled when the time comes?
That's one of the reasons why I started this. When I pass—I've got five children—they know I want my ashes scattered on a hiking trail called the Mt. Healy Overlook on the outskirts of Denali National Park. They know exactly where I want them. On a clear day, you can see Denali. On a cloudy day, you can see inside yourself. I know that sounds corny, but it’s where I have felt the most peace in my life.
If they can't do it, hopefully, there'll be somebody after me that can do it for them.
Correction, January 17, 2023: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Reese is an accountant. While he works in accounting and finance, Reese is not an accountant.
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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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