It’s opening day of dove season. A man heads to the field, opens a box of custom shells, loads his shotgun, takes aim and says, “This one’s for you, Dad.”
Those shells – filled with his father’s cremated remains – give “ashes to ashes” new meaning.
Clem Parnell and Thad Holmes are former military men and game wardens who own Holy Smoke LLC. They regularly hear similar testimonies about their company, which reloads ammunition with loved ones’ cremated remains, or cremains, as tribute to outdoorsmen, military, police and firearm fanatics.
The idea was sparked when Parnell’s brother died five years ago, and Holmes asked how the surviving Parnell wished to be buried.
“I said I wanted to be cremated and my ashes placed inside shotgun shells,” remembered Parnell, 64. “The last thing a big gobbler would see is me coming at him at 1,200 feet per second.”
The men laughed off the idea, but later pursued the concept. Three years ago, they found men to help reverently reload shells, Parnell’s wife sketched a logo – ashes swirling toward heaven through angel wings, and Holy Smoke was in business.
“Our goal is to help people celebrate their loved one’s life,” said Holmes, 61. “This is a lot more memorable than a funeral.”
Parnell said Holy Smoke solves the dilemma of dividing ashes among family.
“We in no way replace a funeral home or crematorium,” Parnell said. “The family has been through the mourning sequence, has a bunch of ashes and doesn’t know what to do with them. Then they call us, especially if the guy was a policeman, military person or just liked to shoot and hunt.”
Cremation’s popularity is rising, and it’s almost as common as traditional burials. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 48.6 percent of 2015 burials involved cremations.
Parnell and Holmes stress the importance of their reloaders honoring customers and their families.
“We want them to be people with good hearts, people who would treat cremated remains with emotion and reverence,” Parnell said.
It takes around two weeks to complete and deliver Holy Smoke’s usual order of 250 shotgun shells, 150 rifle cartridges or 120 pistol cartridges.
Parnell and Holmes take pride in their military roots. Holy Smoke offers a 10 percent discount for military and police officers and reloads shells smoking red, white and blue when fired – perfect for 21-gun salutes. They also make cartridge pendant necklaces.
“One lady called us about reloading a house cat,” Parnell said. “Unfortunately, you cremate a 3 or 4 pound cat, and you don’t have ashes left.”
Then there’s one story smoking the competition.
“A gentleman from another state shot his own finger off,” Parnell said. “He contacted me and wanted to know if he had his finger cremated would we put it in a bullet. Just one bullet. I told him we would.”
Ultimately, the almost-customer preserved his finger as a reminder to safeguard his remaining digits.
“He assured me if something happened to him, his remains would be shipped to us,” Parnell said.
Holy Smoke ships shells to almost every state. The company was featured on Simply Southern sponsored by the Alabama Farmers Federation and NPR, and it was mentioned on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show.
Holy Smoke also tops internet lists detailing unusual ways to repurpose cremains.
“Your wife can get your remains put into bullets,” Holmes said. “Now, if someone breaks into your home, you’re gone, but still able to defend your home.”
For Holy Smoke customer Wes Moore, the company helped him grieve a buddy who died of a heart attack on their annual duck-hunting trip.
“Butch always said when he died, he wanted his ashes spread over the duck pond,” said Moore, a Fairhope resident.
So Moore called Holy Smoke, which loaded the cremains into eight boxes of steel shot and two of turkey shells.
The turkey season after Butch’s death, his adopted son felled two turkeys with his father – the first Butch ever shot. Moore then used the steel shot on the next year’s duck hunt.
“This helps with your grief,” Moore said. “It’s not like carrying a picture. It extends that person into an activity you shared.”
Parnell and Holmes say they’re honored to help others remember better days with a loved one.
“It makes us so happy to get that return letter from a family member thanking us for allowing them to spend a day with their deceased family member,” Parnell said. “They take him out and give him one last ride.”
For more information, visit MyHolySmoke.com.