Lesley and Harry on their wedding day in 1986
As the fireworks exploded 250ft into the sky, glittering specks of gold, blue and purple rained down to ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the small family group below. But the spectacular show in the garden of Lesley O’Neill’s Merseyside home was no ordinary Bonfire Night display. The rockets that were being sent soaring contained the ashes of her late husband, Harry, to celebrate the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary.
Each firework contained 50g of his powdered remains – the ultimate send-off on what would also have been his 52nd birthday after he died from liver failure four months earlier.And while most of us think of ashes as something we keep in an urn, it was a fitting send-off for Harry, who had always dreamed of going into space.
Lesley, 52, a civil servant working at the Work & Pensions service, says, "Harry was obsessed with space since seeing the Moon landings when he was five. He would never miss an opportunity to tune into Star Trek or The Sky At Night.
"In his heart he was an astronaut, but the bad health that plagued him meant it was never to be. What Harry really would have liked was to be taken up in a rocket and sent into outer space. Putting him in a firework was the closest I could get to that."
A sudden illness
Lesley and Harry first met aged 11 when they were in the same class at Knowsley Higher Side school in Merseyside – and she was drawn to his cheeky character right away.
But the couple didn’t start dating until they bumped into each other at a friend’s party when they were 17.
"When I met his mum, she told me all about how he’d always wanted to be an astronaut when he was a boy," says Lesley. "The films he wanted to watch were sci-fi, and he would always go to the pictures when ones like Independence Day came out. From the start he had been obsessed with the vastness of space. He was very curious about the unknown, the whole idea of infinity and not knowing how many planets there were."
Harry with son Michael in 1989
But in 1986, the year they married, both aged 22, Harry became ill.
"A few months after our wedding he suddenly started getting really thirsty," said Lesley. "He would stick his head under the tap and still couldn’t get enough water."
However, it was his rapid weight loss – two stone in as many months – that convinced him he had to see a doctor. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, where the body has difficulties balancing glucose levels and which, over time, can cause organ damage.
At first, Harry coped well with the twice-daily insulin injections and a special diet to balance his sugar levels. He and Lesley led a happy life together, and had three sons, Paul, now 33, Michael, 27 and Thomas, 16.
At a wedding in 2014
But as he grew older, doctors advised Harry, a car manufacturer, against shift work as it interrupted the routine of eating regular meals at regular times, and it became harder for him to keep a job.
Then last year Harry’s health started to go rapidly downhill, as his kidneys began to fail from the constant stress of trying to regulate his blood sugar.
"His body couldn’t get rid of the toxins, and there was a lot of fluid going on his lungs that made him breathless. He was drowning."
But even though he was constantly in and out of hospital, Lesley couldn’t bear to bring up the subject of funeral arrangements with him.
"It would mean I thought there was no hope and I couldn’t do that. So I said nothing," recalls Lesley. "He died after he fainted at home and never regained consciousness."
The great idea
Utterly bereft after his death, Lesley wracked her brain for a fitting tribute to her fun-loving husband. She thought back to the times when they loved nothing better than snuggling up on the sofa to watch their favourite TV comedies, like Only Fools and Horses and Are You being Served?.
Then Lesley remembered one programme that had jokingly featured a person’s ashes being sent up in firework rocket. Jumping up from the sofa, Harry had laughed his head off saying, "That’s brilliant! That’s what I want when the time comes."
It was a throwaway remark, but it got Lesley thinking. She did some research to see if it was even possible to put ashes into fireworks. She came across Heavenly Stars, an Essex-based firework company that also offered firework tributes. When she told their three sons about the idea, they agreed it was the perfect farewell.
Lesley wanted a fitting tribute for her husband
They sent Heavenly Stars 200g of Harry’s ashes, which had been in the safe keeping of the funeral directors until now. These would be divided into four rockets, 50g in each, at a cost of £300 – one for her and each of the boys to light.
The next hardest part was coming up with the right words to write on the side of each firework.
Oldest son Paul opted for: "Dad, hope your birthday goes with a bang." Michael stuck to the theme of Dad’s favourite programme, Star Trek, with "Space – the final frontier". Their youngest, Thomas, chose the motto of Harry’s beloved Everton football club, "Nihil satis nisi optimum", meaning "Nothing but the best is good enough".
Finally, Lesley’s message reflected how hard Harry had found getting on with life during the times he was out of work and between jobs. So she wrote: "Harry, you said you needed a rocket up your a**e, not your a**e in a rocket."
Cracker of a party
When the day of the party came in May this year, about 20 friends and family gathered
at the family’s suburban home in Rainhill. Then at 10pm, they started the display.
"I was pleased it was loud and went off with a bang," said Lesley. "There were lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. My auntie was very excited and shouted, ‘I want this for me! Harry would have loved this.’ Everyone was saying how much Harry would have approved."
Lesley and her three sons wrote fitting tributes on the side of each rocket
To keep something to remember him by, Lesley held some of Harry’s ashes back, which she has buried in the local cemetery, so she has somewhere to visit and lay flowers. Now, as she adjusts to life as a widow, the memories and pictures of his spectacular send-off still give her a lift.
"I get very lonely not having him here and I won’t have a relationship with anyone again like I had with him. You go to so many funerals that are just damp squibs and not a celebration of a person’s life," says Lesley.
"When the fireworks went off I was so pleased. He deserved to have it marked with a celebration. I miss him every day, but those memories of those beautiful fireworks still make my heart soar. Harry was a wonderful husband who deserved to sparkle."
Ashes to flashes
It can be hard to know where to scatter your loved one’s ashes
Anyone who’s ever lost a loved one who has been cremated will know the dilemma on what to do with their ashes.
But rather than bury them or keep them on the mantelpiece, a growing number of families are choosing to send them off into the sky as firework rockets.
Heavenly Stars, in Essex, say they are getting a growing number of enquiries from bereaved families.
● "Most popular are DIY Self-Fired Tributes costing between £250 to £300, although some customers will pay up to £10,000 for a professional demonstration using the fireworks," says managing director Nigel Claydon.
● Typically after cremation an adult’s ashes will weigh 2kg – whereas four Tribute Rockets use just 200g in total, which are mixed in with the gunpowder.
● The rules for these are the same for any firework – as long as you have the permission of the person whose land you are using and it’s not late at night, it’s legal.
Nigel says, "A lot of people still want ashes spread at a favourite place, like a beauty spot, but if they can make it more spectacular through a firework, so much the better.
"So we’ve made fireworks for a water skier that were set off over the lake where he loved skiing, and a soldier on mountains he climbed "
"The most poignant moments are when children come in with their Dad and buy a rocket that their mother’s ashes are put into a sent up to create a star for Mum."
To find out more go to Heavenlystarsfireworks.com