Thu, Jan 25, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Memento mori: Your own unique urn

A personalized urn through which you can express yourself, in death as in life, is a small but emerging trend that is bringing art into the funeral industry


In terms of artistic audacity, Lomasney may be in a league of her own, representing pieces like the whimsical Urn-a-Matic, a vintage vacuum cleaner that flashes home movies on a built-in screen while playing the 1970s pop song Seasons in the Sun. This kind of high style doesn't come cheap: the Urn-a-Matic costs US$1,900 (most of the works are in the US$800 to US$1,200 range and are designed to prescribed dimensions).

Michael W. Monroe, the director of the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, and the lead juror for the Philadelphia show, said he initially had trouble taking the "art urn" concept seriously. But he came around. "As the world becomes more computerized, people want to connect with the handmade," he said. The urns, he continued, "give you a sense of aesthetic control over your final presentation. They become self-portraits, in a sense."

The famously conservative funeral industry is catching up.

About 15 years ago, the Batesville Casket Company introduced Dolphins in Motion, an irregularly shaped cast-acrylic urn that, because it was not square or vase-shaped or bronze, was considered an industry breakthrough — particularly given its status as the first commercial urn to break US$2,000. Then, in 2003, anticipating the coming wave of boomer deaths, Batesville hired Nambe, a New Mexico manufacturer of midcentury-inspired housewares and other objects, to create art urns out of its signature metal alloy.

Nambe enlisted two A-list industrial designers — Karim Rashid and Eva Zeisel, both based in New York — to design cremation urns as well as smaller "keepsake" urns and jewelry that allow cremated remains to be divided among family members. The sinuous, stylish urns have done so well that the company is adding to the line, said Joe Weigel, the Batesville marketing director.

"If people started to think about alternatives in advance," Rashid said, "maybe companies would be compelled to create more interesting -- and contemporary — options."

Ron Hast, the publisher of Mortuary Management magazine and the Funeral Monitor newsletter, regards urns like Rashid's as "an oddity." Nevertheless, he said, they represent several important industry trends, most notably a demand for simplicity that has turned hearse processions, once a staple, into a rarity.

But he remains skeptical. "They're trying to get hundreds of dollars for a ginger jar," he said.

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