They may be cast in steel, assembled out of driftwood, machined on industrial lathes or hand-carved out of salt, but ultimately all of these urns have two common purposes: to contain and to heal. Rather than be burned, buried or sequestered in a columbarium, the vessels are destined for a more visible final resting place -- a mantel, perhaps, or a family room bookshelf, maybe even a spot in the garden.
The dead, you see, are coming home. Though the majority of Americans are still buried in a casket, more are choosing cremation. Rates have risen from 23.6% in 1997 to a projected 39% in 2010, according to the National Funeral Directors Assn., and the figure is expected to hit 60% around 2025. With this rise in cremation comes the emergence of a related field: urn as decorative art.
Funerary urns come in all forms these days, from small keepsake matching sets for easy division among relatives to large sculpture that can contain the whole family -- three or four people, all together.
"Each piece is like a person," said Maureen Lomasney, who runs the Sonoma County gallery Art Honors Life, specializing in funerary vessels. "It's like you're at a party. Some people have lampshades on their heads, some are talking very seriously, some are just posing, beautiful and elegantly. They can be whimsical, stately, charming. Each has character."
The creative growth in what has long been a tradition-bound field can be traced to several factors. Cremation is considered less taboo by religions than in eras past. The practice also can be less costly than buying a plot and staging a casket burial. Perhaps most important: Ashes are portable. Modern families who move frequently and disperse themselves geographically may find comfort in bringing Dad or Grandma with them rather than making all-too-rare treks to a distant cemetery.
For Lomasney, the movement is really about regaining control over a process that is largely uncontrollable -- that, and getting people to talk about death, which, she dryly said, "is a subject we tend to bury in this country." Making artists part of the discussion makes people more comfortable talking about loss, Lomasney said. "We are mainstreaming the topic of death because we are presenting urns as beautiful objects that help people memorialize their loved ones."
San Diego residents Andy and Melissa Mikulak lost their son Max, 7, in 2008 to neuroblastoma, a malignant tumor that strikes children. When the end came and the Mikulaks found themselves in the funeral home looking through catalogs of urns, they didn't see anything that felt appropriate for Max. The boy liked light sabers and fighter planes, but the catalog?
"It was all very bland -- expected themes and forms," Andy Mikulak said.
They bought something temporary and a few months later connected with Chris Rizzo, an artist in Portland, Ore., who worked in a machine shop that made high-end engine parts for motorcycles. The Mikulaks saw his artwork on Lomasney's website, Funeria.com, and though they had never bought art before, the couple talked with the artist and settled on a design: a machined aluminum container that looks like something from a "Star Wars" X-Wing fighter.
"My original direction to Chris was it should look like something that is powered and goes very fast or fell off of something that goes very fast," Andy Mikulak said. "We sent him pictures of Max's drawings and his stuff, and he interpreted that into the vessel that holds his ashes. It had a positive impact on the grieving process. It was one thing we could do that we had in our control. Looking through the funeral home's catalog of urns you feel like something is being imposed on you, just like the cancer treatment."
For Rizzo, creating the piece made him feel as though he had known Max.
"This was not like a regular art piece, not just an object on a pedestal," Rizzo said. "Even though it's a hard metal object, there is humanity involved, a connection between people, from my labor to the person that physically goes into it."
Rizzo spent more than 80 hours on the project, machining down a solid 4-inch thick bar of aluminum in a process he compared to sculpting. He also worked on a wooden traveling version for the Mikulaks because the Transportation Security Administration wouldn't let the metal model through airport security.
Seattle urn artist Tony Knapp takes his kayak into Elliott Bay to gather driftwood, which he soaks in Sumi ink and adorns with polymer clay or cement. His figures are slightly cartoonish, with a vague Tim Burton undertone -- rough stick figures with removable heads and nooks in their stomachs for keepsakes. He's working on a dog series in which the urn is made of black steel, the lid is a spiked collar, and a bone on the door opens to a recess where pictures may be kept.