Photos: See how artisanal urns are helping us personalize death in new -- and beautiful -- ways

The dead are coming home.

Long the realm of cemeteries and mausoleums, death is playing a more prominent role in American households because of the use and display of artisan-designed funerary urns.

The vessels — which some artists call "treasure boxes," "threshold objects" or "ceremonial items" — are crafted from clay, bronze, wood and other materials. Their elevation to artwork is testament to the "personalization of death," says Robin Simonton, executive director of Raleigh, N.C.'s Historic Oakwood Cemetery, who adds, "One in five Americans currently have cremated remains in their homes."

Of course, many of the funerary urns sold in the U.S. are not exactly the stuff of gallery exhibitions. The market is increasingly awash in mass-produced products sold by outlets such as Urns Direct 2U, Urnporium, Costco and Wal-Mart. (Searching for a finishing touch for your man cave motif? You might consider a camouflage urn, such as those Urns Direct 2U sells for about $110, or show the deceased's love for a favorite team with one of Wal-Mart's official Major League Baseball urns, starting at $480.)

The five artists here take a different approach to the task of storing remains, creating urns that are objects of beauty.

Robert Kibler of Echo Park designs glazed ceramic urns that detail life stories. Interior walls of the vessels can be inscribed with handwritten personal messages. Fired, full-color ceramic photographs slide into slots in upper chambers. Small mementos, such as rings, can be placed in top sections. Larger urns may contain the ashes of two people, separated by perforated screens, allowing the remains to mingle over time. Kibler, professor of art emeritus at Glendale Community College, calls his made-to-order creations "letters in a bottle, thrown into the sea of time." Many of his custom-tailored urns are eventually buried. ($1,500 to $3,500, at www.robertkibler.me)

Chicago artist David Orth forges urns from bronze, a warm metal with an "ancient, melancholy feel to it," he says. His collection features a dozen shapes, each handcrafted from sheets of solid bronze, impressed with lines, hatches and small dents to give the surface a "complexity and sense of memory." Options include a variety of patina finishes, stamped inscriptions and symbols that can be affixed to the urns. ($1,250 to $2,400 at www.differentcremationurn.com)

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FOR THE RECORD

Nov. 1, 10:26 a.m.: An earlier version of this article gave the name of artist David Orth's website as www.differentcrematorium.com. It is www.differentcremationurn.com.

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Julie Antone Moore of Apex, N.C., creates fabric urns from scraps, some dating to the 1950s, collected from local quilters. Clothing, buttons and jewelry can be incorporated into the urns, which start with a frame of coiled upholstery cording. An organic cotton drawstring bag holds the ashes inside the vessel. Moore says people are drawn to her urns because of the familiar texture. "It's personal," she says. It can be a remnant of "clothing that you live in," incorporating a feeling of familiarity. ($220 to $320 at www.earthtoearthburial.com)

Raleigh, N.C., artist Jason Van Duyn lathes urns from fallen Southern hardwoods, reclaimed from local homesteads, farms and churchyards. Some of the woods are heavily spalted (full of contrasting lines and streaks from fungal decay). Van Duyn says his creations reveal "the whole tree" and a record of its growth because the urns are crafted from solid wood blocks and burls, rather than from milled slices. ($300 to $5,200 at www.vanduynwoodwork.com)

Tucson artist Randy O'Brien creates ceramic "Lichen Urns" with three-dimensional surfaces that resemble moss, lichen, mineral formations and mud flats. The composition of his "crawl glaze" (the glaze literally crawls during firing) includes a large percentage of volcanic ash and metallic oxides. A third firing shrinks the glaze more than the clay, creating the cracked, mud-flat-like surface. ($700 at www.randyobrien.net and www.funeria.com)

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