What Most People Don’t Know or Can’t Fathom About Cremation

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Cremation does not replace the funeral. You can still have a funeral with the body present before the cremation, or a memorial service with an urn there afterwards.

If a cremation is planned–and a wake, formal funeral or identification of the body is still anticipated– you needn’t be saddled with the costs of a casket. Ask your funeral home about a ceremonial rental casket with cardboard cremation liner.

The lowest cremation price in the phone book or from a Google search is too low. Trust me. Funeral homes charging bottom dollar may be cutting corners to increase their total sales volume (or annual calls).

If time allows and the family is interested, the cremation box can be creatively decorated. Ask your funeral director to charge you extra to bring the cardboard cremation box to your house so that you and the grandkids (for example) can write, paint and draw on grandma’s casket. Sounds potentially strange and disastrous, I know, but like brides on their wedding day, these home decorated sacred vessels are surprisingly gorgeous and engage the family in an activity that is wildly uplifting.

3523091094_bd41b02530For an additional sum, a short service with closed casket or cremation box can generally be held at crematories that have a chapel attached to them. The box or casket’s entry into the retort (or cremation chamber) can also be personally witnessed or scheduled for a specific time. Witnessing gives some families peace of mind, and a feeling that the deceased person was accompanied “the whole way.” If you’re not up for this, you could ask a friend to witness the casket’s entry into the retort for you.

An unceremonious or “direct” cremation can mean that the deceased will be cremated in a plastic body bag or hospital gown. Most grieving families never think about this in advance and if they did, they’d probably realize that, of course, they’d like the deceased properly dressed.

You can have your deceased relatives bathed and dressed for a quick viewing or just to know they went to the crematory looking as good as they could look. For this, your funeral bill may only go up only $200-$400.

Ash is mostly pulverized bones, inert minerals left in the retort after burning which are then processed by a noisy mill into a grainy powder.

Cremated remains weigh about four pounds and are returned to the family in a boxy, plastic, temporary container. Please don’t let this box sit too long in a hall closet. This is bad Feng Shui, among other things. Buy an urn. Do something with the remains. Move the old energy of loss out as soon as you are ready.

Cremated remains—by themselves when scattered—are not especially good for plants. There’s a product called Let Your Love Grow that, when mixed in, makes the ashes better for growing things.

Cremation takes up less land and might save some money, but here’s the downside with some crematories: it takes a lot of fossil fuel to heat that retort (or oven) to 1800 degrees F and keep it heated for two to three hours. Ask your crematory about how many cremations are performed in the average day since busy crematories are more fuel efficient (as the retort is not constantly being cooled and reheated). Also ask how up-to-date the equipment is (more modern the better). Then perhaps, if you are not satisfied with the answers you’re getting and your family is open to changing plans quite dramatically, consider the new love of my life (sorry Steve)–green burial. Pine box. Or simple shroud. Drive out of the city and convene in a green cemetery. Let your loved one descend into the soil ASAP. This is the way our teachers, Jews and Muslims, have done it all along. And it’s something I’ll post more about later.

Deaths of Prince and David Bowie Demonstrate Two Approaches to Cremation

A-purple-rose-may-mean-enchantment-or-enthrallment-to-convey-love-at-first-sightLike David Bowie, Prince told his family not to fuss over his funeral. But those closest to Bowie and Prince tackled the same request in different ways. David Bowie was cremated privately by a corporate funeral firm with no one but funeral directors and crematory personnel present. By contrast, a group of Prince’s friends and family members met up with Prince’s body at First Memorial Waterston Chapel in Minneapolis. Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson and “another relative spent several quiet minutes with the ‘Purple Rain’ singer before he was cremated.” I am happy they did this. A lot of people don’t fully realize that many crematories have chapels, where one or two family members can sit in silence or where services for 150 people with music and eulogies can also be conducted.

“Cremation is fine,” writes funeral director Thomas Lynch in his book The Good Funeral. “But if you are going to cremate your dead, go to the edge of the fire, in much the same way as those who were going to bury their dead were encouraged to go to the edge of the open ground.”

Memorial services and concerts with eulogies after the fact are glorious, and of course, the funerals of public personalities have their own special security requirements. But when the family is emotionally up to it, there’s nothing as powerful as accompanying the deceased the whole way.

Shrouds Seize the Limelight

The rule of simplicity, which works so well in life, works great in death also.

Which brings us to the shroud–one of the most significant items rising over the retail horizon of the 12-billion dollar funeral business. Jesus was wrapped in one. Here’s a little snippet of Charlemagne’s shroud (and I think Oscar de la Renta would approve).

Devout Jews and Muslims have much to teach about simple, earth-friendly burial, and they stick with the simplest and purest of shrouds. Here are some pretty fabulous shrouds currently on the market. It is lovely to be bathed, dried, shrouded then casketed in a biodegradable box. Then of course, some people prefer to be dressed in nice street clothes–a suit, tie, etc., dress and shawl for women–but you can still be wrapped in a family quilt or shroud after that, and then casketed if you prefer. It’s all about simpler, greener, family-focused options today, and my new motto is, “It’s all good.”

Child's shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Child’s shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Urns of Endearment

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Dreams of flight and thoughts of freedom surround nearly every death, so bird imagery on urns for cremated remains makes sense to me. I’ve also been craving more toppers or finials on natural basket urns, and find these feathered friends optimistic and comforting.

Jemima Fisher created her first, simpler fabric urn (without ornament) to hold the cremated remains of her mother who was, like Jemima, a British textile artist and doll maker. Influenced by a fabric bowl her mother had given to her and after a lot of practice, Jemima incorporated her mother’s favorite colors and materials into the whole endeavor, and was pleased with the organic, natural feel. After all that work, the urn was filled with her mom’s cremated remains and buried under a tree.

Would you work a long time to create something beautiful, and then bury it? That’s what I love about this. Some people think that only the simplest wooden cube-shaped urns are suitable for burial, but there’s a strong argument for burying vessels that are not only biodegradeable, but also elegant, rare and precious. “My mother would have loved it, I’m sure,” Jemima says.

Making the first urn “was a cathartic process, but also emotionally draining, and although I wanted to continue creating beautiful biodegradable and ornamental urns for others, it was not the right time to begin,” Jemima writes on her website. So she took a break and has only recently started selling fabric urns to customers.

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Placing removable birds on top of the vessels is a newer concept, and Jemima advises families to retain them as keepsakes after the burial (if there is one). The idea for a bird came from the Mouse Man Furniture based in North Yorkshire, England, where every piece of hand-made furniture had a little mouse carved into it. With the birds came new urn shapes, which I think you’ll agree are wonderful.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Jemima’s urns generally sell for 250-300 British pounds, which comes to $460-$550 dollars including postage. Fabulous urn vendor Adrienne Crowther also stocks and sells fabric urns domestically off the brilliant website Shine on Brightly.

For Couples Who Wish to Spend Eternity Together

Well, we said “‘Til death do us part” until we realized that death doesn’t have to separate two people who long to spend eternity together.

The "Cameo Portrait" urn from the Mathews catalog.

The “Cameo Portrait” urn available at most funeral homes through the Mathews catalog.

Indeed, the funeral industry is able to provide mostly lovely, always fascinating ways to keep love alive. I’ve known elderly lovebirds who’ve retained the cremated remains of the partner who died first, requesting that all ashes get co-mingled when the inevitable eventually occurs. Other families are better pleased by placing Mom’s and Dad’s remains in a large urn sized for couples that has two tidy, separate compartments.

Companion urn for a committed couple, bronze front, zinc body, priced well at $990, Memorials.com.

Companion urn for a committed couple, priced well at $990, Memorials.com.

This can be a powerful statement from couples who’ve worked hard to keep their ardor and commitment alive, and want to stay together forever. (Reminder: nearly all cemeteries accept “companion” cremation urns for burial or niche placement just as they have always buried deceased married couples beside each other. Just let the staff know the urn’s dimensions.)

The ultimate valentine: a "Loving Heart" companion bronze urn with two compartments for cremated remains, $2,374 on Memorials.com.

A “Loving Heart” companion bronze urn with two compartments for cremated remains, weighing 26 pounds and costing $2,374 on Memorials.com.

If you’re holding the cremated remains of your dearly departed parents on a hall closet shelf, you might consider buying something this Valentine’s Day or on their anniversary that could sweetly house them together. Also, a plaque on a park bench is a splendid way to honor them, or an actual bench for two in the cemetery beside their graves would be an incredibly generous gesture.

Of marriage and coupledom, the poet Robert Frost once wrote, “Two such as you with such a master speed, cannot be parted nor be swept away from one another once you are agreed, that life is only life forevermore, together wing to wing and oar to oar.” And apparently, that summed committed romantic relationship up so well for him that he used that last line under his wife’s name on their shared grave stone.

Beautifully-crafted companion urn by Jaime Miller of WoodMillerUrns.com, only $380.

Beautifully-crafted companion urn by Jaime Miller of WoodMillerUrns.com, only $380.

Celestial Orb Raku-stye companion urn is large enough to hold the cremated remains of two people. Costs $469 at the marvelous website Artisurns.com, where other handmade pieces for two can be commissioned.

“Celestial Orb” Raku-stye companion urn is large enough to hold the cremated remains of two people. Costs $469 at the marvelous website Artisurn.com, where other handmade pieces for two can be commissioned.

"Seated Couple" bronze companion urn for the depressed mom who married a stand-up guy, $1418 at Memorials.com

“Seated Couple” bronze companion urn apparently (by the looks of things) for the mom who married a stand-up guy, $1418 at Memorials.com

Simple, practical and solid cedar wood urn holds two. From MemorialsForever.com, $355.

Simple, practical and solid cedar wood urn holds two. From MemorialsForever.com, $355.

Two-chamber pendant keeps Ma and Pa entwined and hanging on your neck! In gold vermeil, $130 at IntheLightUrns.com.

Two-chamber pendant can keep a tiny bit of your parents’ cremated remains entwined. Nice, in gold vermeil, $130 at IntheLightUrns.com.

Blue Dolphin urn that holds cremated remains for two, by artist Steven Forbes-deSoule, available for $770 at ShineonBrightly.com

Blue Dolphin urn that holds cremated remains for two, by artist Steven Forbes-deSoule, available for $770 at ShineonBrightly.com

Batesville's Companion Urn Clock keeps any married couple together for all time, $775 at UrnsforCremation.com.

Batesville’s Companion Urn Clock keeps any married couple together for all time, $775 at UrnsforCremation.com.

The Family-Decorated Cremation Box

Photos courtesy of Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings in Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of Olivia Bareham

People struggle with how to personalize cremation. Death occurs. The funeral director arrives. The deceased is lifted, covered, and rolled away. Then a smooth plastic box containing cremated remains is presented two or three days later. Of course a service is possible with the body before cremation, or with an urn afterwards, but did you know that you could pay your funeral director (or a home funeral guide) to bring the cremation casket to your home so that you and your family members could decorate it? Check out Olivia Bareham’s Sacred Crossings website and see what one California death guide is helping families do in and around Los Angeles. The photographs of children at work with their designs and notes are gorgeous. You’d think a family’s amateur efforts might not be consistently excellent, but miraculously, these home decorated boxes are always terrific and families feel like they’re healing themselves by partaking in efforts so artistic and different. Thanks to Olivia, Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, Beth Knox, Lee Webster, and Peggy Quinn–all stalwart members of the The National Home Funeral Alliance for directing me to this remarkable concept. In the past six months, I’ve introduced the idea of decorating the box to several families who’ve written ardent messages of farewell on simple cremation caskets in the chapels of Green-Wood Cemetery’s crematory in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Olivia Bareham

Photo by Olivia Bareham

Contemporary Urns and Keepsakes with Vintage Sensibility

This earthy, medium-sized  urn with tree finial is gracing the shelves of my Brooklyn show room now! We just had to have it.

This earthy, medium-sized urn with tree finial is gracing the shelves of our Brooklyn show room now! We just had to have it.

Michelle Kaisersatt’s stoneware urns caught my eye a couple of years ago on the website Etsy.com. She’s got an old fashioned, earthy Arts & Crafts sensibility I adore. She writes: “Being an antique lover, interior designer, seamstress, and someone who appreciates the influence of history and family, I love bringing all of these elements full circle in my creations.”

Prices range from $238 to $550. She makes small keepsakes as well as larger urns that hold everything.

Bronze Keepsake

Bronze Keepsake


Go to Etsy.com and search for Keyhole Studio. And check out her latest bronze keepsake urns here.

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Forever Uplifted, Solid and Safe

Urn by Chris Parow

Buckley’s Urn by Chris Parow


You can see that the urn above is 1.) different and 2.) flat-out gorgeous. It was made for a beloved pet dog, but to my mind, it could work for almost anybody. Made of walnut and gathered drift wood by artist/woodworker Christopher Parow, it now houses the cremated remains of Buckley, a close friend’s Boxer-mix who quite sadly had a fatal heart attack this past Thanksgiving at the age of three. It was only last summer that Buckley had enthusiastically helped to collect this driftwood on a beach in Maine as Parow and Buckley’s owner Emerson (Em) walked alongside him.
Buckley's urn, as seen from the top

Buckley’s urn, as seen from above


Parow writes, “I spent most of my time trying to make the drift wood actually hug and embrace Buckley’s new home…After several hours of working everything together just right, it was complete. It now represented some of the most precious memories of Em and Buckley’s time together.

“Death is never easy,” Parow goes on to say, “With this piece, I aimed to create a truly positive resting place, a comfy nest, where [Buckley] can have little barky doggy dreams of scouring the beach for drift wood. RIP Buckley.”

Buckley on the beach

Buckley on the beach

You can find more of Parow’s amazing woodwork and wood sculptures on his website Trees and Nails.

My ICCFA ‘Best in Show’

The Tranquility Urn from Kelco Supply Company, $450

The Tranquility Urn from Kelco Supply Company


Remember when Elvis sang, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You?” I fell hard for this beautiful, tall wood and porcelain urn which I spied from across the room this past week in the Kelco Supply Company’s booth at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association‘s annual convention in Las Vegas. It’s on its way to our Brooklyn showroom.