By Hannah Rosner

Originally written for Soda Lime Times,  2019

The preservation of a loved one has fascinated people since the beginning of history. Funerary rites and preservation were a huge part of Egyptian religion.  Parts of saints (holy relics) were commonly displayed in churches in the Middle Ages.  In Victorian times just after the development of the camera, weird family portraits with their departed family members were  pretty common, and people would place locks of their loved ones hair in rings or mourning brooches.  As a result, making jewelry from ashes isn’t as bizarre an idea as you might think.

About ten years ago, a colleague of about making glass jewelry pieces with pet ashes (cremains) in them for a new business she was launching.  I designed a large hole bead with a little cubic zircon and ashes, and two pendants for her to try out.  I tend to refer to them as memory glass pieces.

At the time, she was working in Computer Engineering and thinking of making a chance to what she hoped was a more art-related field.  Using a pretty substantial loan and most of her savings, she set up a business plan that involved a website, catalogue, samples to go to funeral homes and a huge amount of travel to conferences.  When I called her about this article, she told me that what surprised her the most in setting up her business was the expense of the liability insurance; handling ashes is a huge responsibility and also a sensitive one

So, you want to try your hand at making some, but you are wondering how to approach people about it?  There are a few considerations.

  1.  Take Religion into Account

You may want to start by bearing religion in mind.  Some religions do not allow cremation at all, so there isn’t even the option of a discussion.  Others allow cremation, but don’t allow separation of the ashes.  What this means for them is that an urn is the only option.  The urn can be buried, but ashes cannot be scattered and small amounts certainly cannot be made into jewelry pieces.  The variations and views are endless.  Even within religions, views can vary from person to person.  It makes things difficult, right?  How do you even bring up the topic when it can actually offend?

  1.  Be sensitive to how difficult a time the grieving family is having.

Even if the death was expected, people might deal with their grief in unexpected ways.  Be careful of their feelings.  Much of what I did was through my rep, but from time to time in the past decade friends contacted me, or they recommended my work to other friends.  I have almost never contacted anyone directly except in two instances and both of those times friends hinted (really blatantly) that would like me to make something for them.

I called a local funeral home for further advice.  The owner (Bob) took some time to talk with me. Funeral homes have been trained in grief counseling so they can help you with the sensitivity towards the families.  In addition, Bob felt that approaching families directly was somewhat usurious if you don’t know them already.

  1. Be responsible to the family

Bob suggested that if you are interested in adding the making of memory glass pieces to your regular portfolio, drop by full color brochures and/or catalogues to your local funeral directors along with specific time frames in which you can complete orders.  Samples are also appreciated.

Funeral homes take all liability, but they expect a certain amount of professionalism and responsibility from you when they turn over the ashes.  You must be able to give a complete description of size, color and time frame in which the item can be completed.  When a family arrives at a funeral home, they are usually shown a parlor with all available products on display.  From that point on, Bob likes to be hands off.  He will give more information only if a family seems interested.  He told me that many families already have some ideas of what they would like to see done with the ashes if they have chosen already to separate them.

  1. Thinking of trying online sales?  Be mindful of shipping

Finally, I looked up ashes jewelry on Etsy and found a huge selection.  Etsy does not allow items made with human remains, so glass items made with ashes on Etsy are for pet memorials only.  Many of the shops do not mention liability in their listings which scares me, but shipping also becomes a consideration.  You’ll need the families to send a small amount of ashes to you.  Generally companies send out a small “collection packet” with a vial for the ashes, an envelope (priority mail or express only so you have tracking information at all times) and instructions.  You can build the cost of this packet and shipping back to you within the original price point.  Some companies charge a nominal fee when they send out these packets, which is refunded with the actual order.  Within Etsy, however, you would be receiving the full made to order price at the onset of your work so this would be unnecessary.

Always remember , you are working for a family who is grieving.  It is probably one of the hardest times in their lives.  Since some people can’t actually read a three dimensional image when they see a photograph, I worry about what they think they are getting during this particularly difficult time.  In addition, even if you give sizes in both millimeters and inches, what they imagine this item’s size to be may be completely different from what you are offering.  Photographing with a coin alleviates this a bit.

I’ve never felt comfortable putting pieces up, but if you are really interested in reading a bunch of legalese regarding liability, sensitivity issues and responsibility of the maker and the customer when it comes to cremains art,  get a cup of coffee, then do a search on any web browser for “cremation jewelry.”  Try to pick a company website that seems professional and large – there are three main ones – and then sit back.  You might be looking at up to 5 separate sections and you’ll learn a ton.

Here’s a final idea for web sales though.  Much of the memorial jewelry on Etsy doesn’t actually mix the ashes with the glass (or resin).  A lot is hollow and can be customized with a name.  It is up to the family, then to handle the ashes and add them to these little mini urns.  This gets rid of any liability issue, but it does mean that you’ll need to provide a really good cork or other top and instructions on how to fill them.

For those of you who are reading this and thinking of a loved one…  I’m so sorry for your loss.  Please keep your good memories close, whatever form those memories take.