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.
"I wouldn't be making urns if they were just a cookie jar with a lid on top, sitting on a mantel," Knapp said. "That's too morbid. If it's a wacky-looking guy holding his own ashes over his head -- now that lightens everything. The baby boomers all want to stand out. Even in the end, we want some whimsical receptacle for ourselves."
Personalization is the philosopher's stone for the funeral industry. Urns come in the shape of motorcycle gas tanks, bowling pins, golf bags and cowboy boots. Online seller Cremation Solutions offers an urn that can be customized with a 3-D image of the deceased (or the celebrity or superhero of your choice) on a head-shaped container with a bare scalp, "ready for a suitable wig."
In October, Lomasney attended the National Funeral Directors Assn. show in Boston, the first time she has risked exposing her one-of-a-kind urns to others who might rip off designs and concepts. She reported a stream of funeral service providers stopping by to meet her.
"I feel like there is an awakening," Lomasney said by phone from Boston. "There's been an emerging awareness that families are looking for something more evocative and thoughtful, more to their tastes than traditional spun metal ginger jars or cloisonné vases."
Artist-created funereal urns and reliquaries may represent more than a boomer interior decorating trend. They may suggest the shifting of a basic cultural marker, one more in keeping with global mores regarding the loss of family and friends.
Death may be an $11-billion industry in America, but only outside of the U.S. does death become part of the everyday décor, easily acknowledged in the home. In Mexico, reminders come in the form of Day of the Dead altars, papier-mâché skulls and ceramic skeletons in the style of celebrated artist José Guadalupe Posada. In Japan, where funerals are among the world's most expensive, home altars called butsudan are daily reminders of those who have passed. Yagiken, an Osaka-based manufacturer of "universal" nonsectarian butsudan, even offers a low-cost version that is Danish-designed, a form of remembrance for those who insist on modern style in their Japanese home.
Here in Southern California, Lomasney and her Funeria website found an early supporter in Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary of Los Angeles. The final resting place for many Jewish entertainment industry figures including Al Jolson and Aaron Spelling, Hillside is the only local outlet for Funeria urns. It also helped sponsor "Ashes to Art: Scattered," a juried biennial design competition held last year at Lomasney's Art Honors Life gallery.
"Maureen has things I wouldn't mind having on my mantelpiece if I had one," said Mark Friedman, chief executive of Hillside. "They are beautiful and comforting -- and maybe that's the same thing -- comforting because they are beautiful."
With this direction in mind, Hillside approached Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester, suggesting that the school offer a class on urn design. Michael Collins, the assistant chairman of product design at Otis, said he was skeptical at first.
"Students are not interested in death since it's not part of their normal life," he said, adding that they "think they are going to live forever."
But after the students visited Hillside and saw the Funeria urns, there was a "transitional consciousness awakening" in the class about how commercial products can be more meaningful, said department chairman Steve McAdam. "This isn't like saying, 'Let's redesign a bicycle.' "
The class was immediately popular -- for its theme and the real-world experience it promised. Students would have prospective clients already lined up, and their designs potentially could go into production quickly. In early November, Paul Goldstein, the director of sales from Hillside, stopped by for the initial critique of the works.
Aaron Audasiova, a senior, had made "Stacked Urn," composed of three circular saucer-shaped vessels, large tapering to small. The design was evocative of the small piles of rocks commonly seen in rural areas of the Middle East and a reminder of the Jews' nomadic heritage. The three parts of the urn could stand alone or be screwed together into one interlocking piece. The largest saucer, on the bottom, was designed to hold soil from Israel, while the middle piece held ashes that gradually sifted to the bottom. The design could be adjusted into a hanging urn, similar to an incense censer.
"I can see this hanging in the corner of a room very easily," said JoanTakayama-Ogawa, the ceramics instructor overseeing the initial stage of construction. Product design teacher Randall Wilson chimed in: The urn could be fabricated out of spun metal, but casting would allow for a deeper level of detail. The lid of the urn could be detached to hold a candle or incense, leading to questions about how much choice to give the client.
"It's good to have some options but too many is confusing, and people are confused enough at this time," Hillside's Goldstein said. "It's hard to be decisive. The main thing is to catch the eye, have somebody say 'I can see that in my house.' "
And that is the bottom line for Hillside: This art is meant to be seen.
"My feeling is that if people are going to bury them, we are not going to be selling them a unique piece of art," CEO Friedman said. "When people first put ashes in an urn, beautiful or not, they are still very raw. If it is on a mantelpiece eight years later, the rawness has gone away and the significance of the piece has changed."