Ashes to Ashes
An article Patricia Leigh Brown in The New York Times the other day - pointed out to me by my sister Kathleen, who has a keen eye for Pink Slip fodder - cited a forecast by the Cremation Association of North America - there's apparently a trade group for just about everything - that the cremation rate would grow to over 50% by 2025.
This, of course, makes sense. For one thing, cremation is cheaper and easier. For another, it makes less sense for an increasingly more mobile population to put down its final roots in a place where they have none. I'm definitely going the cremation route although, for old time sake, I may have some of my ashes scattered in the pretty little cemetery outside Worcester that houses (?) one set of great-grandparents, my grandmother, my parents, two uncles, one aunt, great aunts, great uncles, first cousins once removed, second cousins, et al. And why not? It's as good a place as any. (If you're wondering why my grandfather isn't there. Well, he's buried with his parents - and a lot of other collateral family members - in his own hometown of Barre Massachusetts. But my grandmother had no desire to get buried in god-foresaken Barre along with her miserable sister-in-law Lizzie who she never got along with. Nanny wanted to be with her own people, thank you.)
In any case, I will not be around to directly orchestrate the scattering of my ashes anywhere. But my preference would be to have them thrown to the winds, rather than have them put out with the trash (the ultimate recycle) or have anyone hang on to them. (Not that I can imagine that anyone would.)
Which brings me to the real topic of The Times article: the
...emerging funerary art movement that will reach an apotheosis of sorts when the nation’s first art gallery dedicated to cremation urns and other 'personal memorial art' opens Jan. 27 in Graton, just outside Sebastopol in Sonoma County, about 65 miles northwest of San Francisco.
Yes, it seems that the baby boomers, having now buried a parent or two, are turning their attention to that true object of their affection, themselves, and are looking for something a bit more upscale than a cardboard box in which to have placed their keepsake cremains. And they'll be able to find it at Maureen Lomasney's gallery in just a few days time.
Ms. Lomasney, an artist and photographer, was inspired to start Funeria — a name she invented because it sounded Italian — after reading a 1997 newspaper article about rising cremation rates. She combed Internet sites like urnmall.com and urnexpress.com and was horrified by what she saw. As The Cremationist magazine noted last year, urns have traditionally been regarded as “somber functional containers rather than as an opportunity to express the unique taste and character of the individual.”
In terms of artistic chutzpah, Ms. 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 $1,900 (most of the works are in the $800 to $1,200 range and are designed to prescribed dimensions).
Some of the folks mentioned in the article are already using art urns for their parents ashes, and/or have purchased arty containers that they have on display in their homes and which they assume will contain a little reminder of them. (We'll see. It's pretty easy to imagine some middle-aged Gen X-er saying "What was Mom thinking? This is a perfectly beautiful jar, and I love it, but I really don't want to keep her ashes in it. What she doesn't know won't hurt her.")
I understand that a lot of people need and want a place to visit their dead. I'm actually one of them - I make a couple of treks each year out to St. Joseph's in Leicester to plant geraniums and trim the yews. But I like the fact that there's a bit of a remove associated with it. I wouldn't want anyone's ashes actually sitting on the living room mantle, and have to worry about whether the urn would get knocked over and I'd end up with bone fragments on the rug.
Maybe it's the Irish blood, but I'm not particularly squeamish about death. (And hey, it's no accident, that Funeria's owner is named Maureen Lomasney.) Still, I'll take a pass on the arty urns - although some of the things pictured I like. Art for art's sake is just fine.
As baby boomer indulgences go, however, this one is pretty harmless. Frankly, I'm more concerned about how my "don't trust anyone over thirty" generation is going to deal overall with aging and dying. I predict a lot of rancid behavior around organ harvesting and a completely solipsistic "right to life forever" movement. ("Don't trust anyone under ninety.")
The boomers buying art urns strike me as a little egotistical, but they're real grown ups who are dealing with the impending inevitable in a mature and humane way. I may not feel the need to purchase an Urn-a-Matic, but I think it's just fine that they're doing so. And I wish my fellow Maureen the best of luck with her new gallery.
The article also got into a few other uses of ashes, which seem far more peculiar than funerary art. One - which I'd heard of before - is the diamond made from the ashes. I can just see the look on the beloved's face when it dawns on her that the guy who just proposed to her didn't say, "This belonged to my grandmother," but "This was my grandmother."
And the hands-down worst use of cremains: turning them into pencils - 250 pencils, in fact, which is what the average set of ashes translates into.
There is something completely unsettling and creepy about this. Just the thought of unconsciously chewing on your pencil while you try to solve the Friday Sudoku, forgetting for a moment that it's actually your favorite aunt..... Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
This idea has got to join the pantheon of worst products ever.
All in all, ash in ash, I like the burn and scatter method far better than funery art.
I plan on making a list of the places I wouldn't mind getting tossed: that cemetery outside Worcester, where I'll be with family; the warning track at Fenway; the Boston Public Garden (from the swan boats, discreetly); Galway Bay. I'll include travel (and game ticket) allowances in my will, and hope that those near and dear to me will occasionally think of me when they're in one of "my places."