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All That Cremains

Some people get creative with ideas for their cremated remains.

I attended a memorial this week and the topic of cremation came up. It reminded me of a section of my book, Cemetery Stories, in which I visited a funeral convention and learned about some interesting ways to memorialize loved ones. What follows is a summary:

In Mexican tradition, people die three times: when they lose vital functions, when they're buried and when their name is uttered for the last time. Thus, their relatives develop commemorative rituals to prevent them from suffering this final fate. Even in our country, attention to death memorials has boomed in recent years, and those who are unhappy with traditional choices have devised new ones.

It's human nature to preserve the memory of the dearly departed, so we typically use solid reminders such as monuments on graves or urns for cremated remains ('cremains'). Some people even request that their ashes be dispersed in a place that's meaningful to them.

"In years gone by," said a fifth-generation funeral director, "we've seen interest in scattering cremated remains into outer space, out at sea, and onto the moon. We have pre-planned a German-born woman who wants her remains to be dropped in the ocean so that, to quote her, 'I can swim back to Germany.'"

As people get creative, the death management industry is rushing to respond. It's obvious from displays I've seen at funeral trade shows that baby-boomers seek something more vibrant and personal than past traditions allow. A sampling of what some end-of-life entrepreneurs offer includes:

  • Cremains inside works of art, such as those by Jane*Us Inc. Founder Bettye Wilson-Brokl came up with the idea after her mother died. She wanted to keep her mother close, so she mixed her cremated ashes into paint and created a picture. Other relatives wanted one, too, and a business was born. One customer, a musician, asked to be painted after death as the musical notes from his first composition against a background of sheet music.
  • Along those same lines, cremains can be used as a paperweight, wind chime or decorative object d'art. Glass artists create 'Glass Remembrances,' or hand-blown sculptures that contains a portion of the cremains of your loved one. You can set this out in the open, and few people will ever know what it really is.
  • A sportsman asked that his ashes be stuffed into hollowed bullets and shot at wild game.
  • Eternal Reefs mixes cremains into concrete to cast them in the form of a coral reef. Cured for a month, this reef module is then used as a marine habitat in the ocean, replacing those that have been destroyed.
  • LifeGem, a Chicago-based company, extracts carbon from half-cremated cadavers – a process that takes up to sixteen weeks – and turns it into diamonds. This is quite costly, but many people like the idea of wearing their loved ones as expensive jewels. After extraction, the carbon is purified and shipped to a diamond press in Russia to be turned into a synthetic gem.
  • Mummification will run you around $65,000. After you die, you spend about six months in a vat of "secret" preservative, then get a lanolin treatment before being wrapped up in gauze, rubberized, bandaged again, and placed in a bronze "mummiform." The cost is in the packaging.
  • Some companies provide visual eulogies via touchscreen biographies that can be viewed on a kiosk in their cemeteries. They feel that the deceased should be the primary focus of a cemetery visit, not some cold memorial stone. A bare bones package includes twenty minutes of audio and ten photos. A higher price gets you more, including songs and a videotape of the remembrance party. (Leif Technology puts these audio biographies right into the gravestones.)

How much more creative we can get remains to be seen (no pun intended), but let's keep the wishes of our loved ones foremost. They may not want to be worn, mummified or plastinated. During a pre-need session, one man resisted becoming part of a painting for his daughter's living room because he feared ending up one day in a garage sale.

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.
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