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Keeping Memories Distinct

From dolphin figurines and garden ornaments to jewelry, people are finding creative ways to display their loved ones' ashes.

October 21, 2002|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

In life, Scott Springer was a popular figure in his tidy Westlake Village neighborhood. In death, he's a genuine fixture.

Friends greet him every day. His wife, Debbie, chats at him when she's feeling down. His son throws off a cheerful "Hi, Dad" to a tree stump while mowing the frontyard.

"He always wanted to be the center of attention," Debbie says, eyeing the stump affectionately. "And now he is."

For a few hundred dollars, Rock & Water Creations of Fillmore will deposit the dearly departed in stumps, fake boulders or rocks -- even in a sleeping bear or a leaping dolphin. Each hollow monument has a plaque and a discreet pocket to hold the ashes -- or cremains -- of a loved one.

The memorials, of concrete reinforced with glass fiber, can be arrayed around the yard to be admired or meditated on, whether survivors are gardening or grilling hamburgers.

"Our motto is: 'Keeping your memory close to home,' " said Stephen Hartmann, marketing director of the company. "A lot of people find an urn on the mantel creepy. We did research and discovered that people liked the rocks much better. It's a place to go, and it looks good in the yard."

As cremation rates climb nationwide, more people are finding creative ways to display the ashes of their loved ones and commemorate their lives.

Funeral directors say aging baby boomers find traditional urns grim and old-fashioned. They want something befitting their personalities and lifestyles: a bronze-and-gold King Tut mask perhaps, or an enormous, fiberglass toad.

"It's not your mom and dad's funeral practice anymore," said one funeral director. "People want variety."

The trend is largely driven by a national cremation rate that's risen from 9% in 1982 to about 26% as of 2001, according to the Cremation Assn. of North America. The Chicago-based group consists of 1,500 funeral homes, crematories, casket makers and cemeteries.

"People are always asking us about interesting things to do with cremated remains," said its executive director, Jack Springer.

In the last few years, he's seen urns shaped like golf bags, cowboy boots and lifelike busts of the deceased. A New Zealand woman makes them from hollow ostrich eggs, which she fills with ashes, decorates with semiprecious stones and sells for about $1,200.

By 2010, the association said, nearly 40% of all Americans will be cremated. The ancient practice owes its newfound popularity to an increasingly transient population, a loosening of religious strictures, more environmental awareness and simple economics, Springer said.

"People are dying older and dying away from home," he said. "There aren't as many family plots. With cremation, you can take the remains with you when you move."

Batesville Casket Co., one of the nation's largest manufacturers of urns and coffins, has a full-color catalog with more than 100 models of vessels, ranging from mule deer to starfish.

"We did a generational study ... and found the older generation still preferred tradition, while the baby boomers wanted something different and personal," said Joe Weigel, head of communications for the Batesville, Ind., company.

"We found they still wanted to honor the dead," he added. "But they ... want to celebrate the life, not just mourn the death. And there is a growing movement to bring those cremations home."

The company broke with tradition and created an urn with three dolphins on top in 1993. Sales soared, and the dolphin is now a staple in funeral homes across the country. "That's still the most popular urn, and the one that put us on the map," Weigel said. "When we saw the sales, we said, 'Wow!' "

The Clausen Funeral Home in Ojai recently opened an urn showroom that features some wooden urns etched with mountain and sports scenes.

"If a person is a golfer, we have a golfing motif. If they are a fisherman, we have a fishing motif," said Chester Perry, funeral director at Clausen. In addition to urns, he said, "we have a birdbath, a water fountain with an urn beneath, a sundial and a rock."

Teri Craig, whose family has run the Charles Carroll Funeral Home in Ventura for 49 years, offers "cremation jewelry": lockets and pendants that can hold small amounts of ashes. "It's part of hanging on to someone special," she said.

The jewelry got started in 1992 when Lisa Saxer-Buros of Wisconsin wanted a special way to remember her mother, Madelyn. She designed hollow pendants, each holding a half-teaspoon of her mother's ashes, and distributed them to her siblings for Christmas.

Now her Madelyn Co., based in Janesville, Wis., sells 30 styles of cremation jewelry, from hearts and crosses to butterflies.

"I wear my pendant all the time," Saxer-Buros said. "It's comforting to touch and wear, especially in situations where I need my mother close."

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