|Ashes to Ashes,
Dust to Diamonds
By Julia Scheeres
Click thumbnails to expand Images from various sources
2:00 a.m. Sep. 19, 2002 PDT
You can do a lot of neat things with dead people after they've been baked at 1,700 degrees for a couple of hours and reduced to a pile of bone fragments.
The rise in innovative ways to use cremated remains -- "cremains" in industry jargon -- has mirrored the increasing popularity of cremation in the United States. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 25 percent of Americans are currently cremated when they die. The group expects that percentage to double by 2050.
"As more cremations take place, people think of more ways to dispose of them in meaningful ways," said Ron Troyer, the spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Edward "Steady Ed" Headrick, who invented the Wham-O Frisbee, certainly came up with a different way. Before he died in August, Headrick told his family that he wanted his ashes molded into flying discs and tossed around.
There are other, more glamorous methods. LifeGem Memorials, a Chicago company, caused quite a stir last month after it announced plans to turn dead people into diamonds.
Company spokesman Mark Bouffard said the business concept was simple: Humans are made of carbon, diamonds are made of carbon. Why not make diamonds out of humans? Using a patented process, they tested the concept on a pig, got dazzling results, and started taking orders for people.
"The average person has enough carbon in them to produce between 50 and 100 diamonds," said Bouffard, adding that the company has gotten "hundreds" of requests for information from people interested in turning themselves, their relatives or their pets into jewels. The company expects to finish its first human diamond in 11 weeks.
LifeGem's least-expensive product is a $3,950 quarter-carat diamond. At the moment, the company is only taking orders for blue diamonds, which are irradiated in a lab to achieve the same hue of the famous cerulean Hope Diamond. And if Grandma gets lost or stolen, don't worry: The company stores extra carbon so she can become a gem again.
If the deceased was an ocean-lover, check out Eternal Reefs, which integrates cremains into artificial coral reefs.
President Don Brawley already owned a company that manufactured "reef balls" -- spheres of cement used to form artificial reefs -- so when his ailing father-in-law announced he wanted to be cremated and mixed into a reef ball after he died, Brawley didn't think twice about it.
"He said he'd rather spend eternity with all that life than in a field with a bunch of dead people," Brawley said.
Since then, Brawley has mixed the cremains of over 100 people into his reef balls, which are placed off the coastline of Florida and South Carolina.
The cheapest option is the $850 community reef, which mixes the cremains of several people into one ball.
And while few space aficionados have the $20 million required to orbit Earth these days, the price drops drastically after death.
"Families can look up into the night sky and know their loved ones are up there somewhere," said Celestis spokesman Christopher Pancheri.
The cremains are poured into lipstick-sized aluminum containers and blasted into space from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base using small rockets. Prices range from $995 to launch 1 gram of cremains into Earth's orbit to $12,500 to send 7 grams of cremains into deep space or to the moon. (This last option was chosen by the family of geologist Eugene Shoemaker, discoverer of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.)
After floating in space for several years, the Celestis satellites orbiting Earth reenter the atmosphere and burn up like shooting stars.
Want the deceased to hang around a little longer? Eternally Yours Memorial Art, a Mississippi company, incorporates cremains into paintings.
Bettye Brokl first used her mother's ashes to make a series of abstract paintings that she gave to family members as Christmas presents. The word got out, and soon other people were asking her to commemorate their relatives as well.
The cremains aren't mixed into the paints; rather, two to three tablespoons are sprinkled over the canvas and affixed with sealant. Customers can order customized themes to match their home décor or request paintings reflecting the deceased's favorite place or object, such as a beach scene or flower.
Brokl has done over 300 paintings, half from the cremains of pets and half from humans. Prices range from $350 to $950.
"My customers want to keep part of their loved ones with them," said Brokl. "The artwork is designed to bring a smile to the family's face and not tears. Their memorial should be as unique as their loved one was."
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