Innovators in the death-care industry have been busy dreaming up new ideas for memorials, converting cremation ashes into drinking glasses, pencil boxes,
even coral reefs.
Alice Stedronsky spent most of her life in Chicago, but she wanted her ashes to be scattered in the ocean near Reddington Shores, Fla., where she’d lived
for a time when she was young. But her daughter, Deborah Everitt Murray, had another idea.
After her mother died of emphysema in January of 2005, Murray did an online search for “scattering of ashes” and found an article about a boy whose
remains had been turned into a reef. “Immediately,” said Murray, who works as the controller for an excavation company in Chicago, “I knew that this was what
I wanted to do for my mom.”
And so, on a sunny day in October 2005, Murray laid her mother to rest (along with the family dog, Holly) in the largest underwater cemetery in the
world-—where 160 living memorial reefs, as they’re known, snake along the coast of Sarasota, Fla., in a line two football fields long. It wasn’t Reddington
Shores, but it would do. “I’m sure she’s up in heaven saying you did the right thing,” said Murray, who hates to fly but makes a yearly pilgrimage from
Chicago to the gravesite anyway. “It’s so nice to go to Florida once a year. I’m already getting excited about it.”
The excitement is apparently contagious. “For some of these families, reef burial is the answer to their prayers,” said Amanda Leesburg,
the communications director for Eternal Reefs, the Sarasota-based company that Murray hired. “It’s a great option for people who don’t have the traditional
And it’s an option more Americans now consider than ever before. Cremation has been on the rise since the 1960s, but only in the last decade have
innovations transformed the cremation business. Concierge companies like Eternal Reefs are reshaping an arm of the $11 billion funeral-service industry that
once belonged to the makers of uninspired urns and mantelpieces—and just in time for a generation whose desire for adventure continues in death, and whose
survivors are looking for personalized ways to commemorate, and to keep close by, the departed.
“Whatever is important to you,” said Mark Matthews, the director of the Cremation Association of North America, “people are doing these kinds of things
because they fit the life of the person they love.”
For Robert Genest, a retired executive of Frederick’s of Hollywood from San Pedro, Calif., that meant sending his daughter’s ashes to outer space. Allyson
Diana Genest was 38 years old in 1999 when a crashing headache sent her to the hospital in Boston, where doctors told her she had terminal melanoma and a few
months to live.
Allyson, who worked in finance but “had a flair for space,” told her father she wanted her ashes to orbit the earth like those of Gene Rodenberry, the
creator of “Star Trek.” “When your daughter gives you her dying wish,” he said, “you definitely would do anything to carry it out.”
Genest contacted Celestis, the aerospace company in Houston that launched Rodenberry’s remains into space, and signed up his daughter for an orbital
flight. But the first launch failed and the rocket landed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. “We kind of joked about it because she always
liked to travel,” Genest said.
She went up a second time on a sub-orbital flight with James Doohan, aka “Scotty” from Star Trek, in 2005. “As it turned out, she ended up getting beamed
up with Scotty,” Genest said. “There’s nothing she would have liked more.” But her final wish was to orbit the earth, and so Genest will wait for the next
orbital flight in two years.
Memory Glass, another newcomer to the ash-memorial industry, is a 5-year-old company based in Santa Barbara that suspends cremated remains in hand-blown
glass orbs and pendants. And six hours up the coast is Memorial Glass, in Sonoma, Calif., that can make “anything that can be made with glass,” said Leslie
Moody, who founded the company with her husband, Fred Cresswell, in 2007 after a decade of making memorials for friends and relatives.
“We’ve made goblets, whatever people ask,” she said. So far that’s included bowls, heart-shaped keepsakes and even “drinking glasses out of my husband’s
Today even urns can be as whimsical as a sundial or a bird bath. Last year, Art Honors Life, a gallery in Graton, Calif., tucked among the vineyards of
Sonoma’s wine country, became the first in the nation to specialize in artist-crafted cremation vessels. Among the creations are a cigar-humidor urn and a
box of pencils made from cremated remains.
“I saw the dramatic rise in cremation and wondered what people were doing with all the ashes,” said Maureen Lomasney, the owner of the gallery. The urns
she came across were “very, very ordinary, and, to my way of thinking, really devoid of personality.” Lomasney thought artists could do better. The gallery
now sells to funeral homes, distributors and directly to customers. Most of them, she said, are buying for themselves.
Thinking about what do with your body after death “makes you think about how crazy this world is,” said Moody. “Here we are, then someday we’re not, and
what do you do then with the leftovers?”