Dearly Departeds Go Out With a Bang


Ashes to ashes. Dust to . . . ducks?

After Jay Knudsen Sr. dies, he'll still be hunting with his buddies Ken and Bob in Manitoba. Some of his ashes will fill two carved duck decoys.

"What if we can capture the good times of a guy who was a duck hunter?" Knudsen said. "Instead of thinking of dead people as you walk past his urn, why not walk past a duck decoy and smile?"

The number of cremations in the United States shot up to 400,000 last year, compared to 5,000 a decade ago. In 20 years, as Americans become more transient and burial plots more expensive, half the dearly departed will choose cremation, according to the Chicago-based Cremation Assn. of North America.

Mourners already have begun seeking creative and happier ways of memorializing their loved ones, including having their ashes put into art objects, shotgun shells and fireworks, added to paintings and sparkling designer glassware.

Knudsen, owner of Canuck's Sportman's Memorials Inc. in Des Moines, puts ashes into duck decoys, basketballs, hourglasses-- anything but traditional urns.

"Personalization is happening in the industry," says Jack Springer, the cremation association's executive director. In recent years, he has heard of urns shaped as golf bags, putting ashes into jewelry and companies shooting cremated remains into space.

Besides the decoys, Knudsen plans to have some of his ashes loaded into rifle shells, which his son, Jay Jr., will use for hunting deer, quail, duck and goose.

When his 17-year-old brother died in a car crash in November 1993, Corey Brown of Des Moines hired Knudsen.

"I asked myself, 'What did I remember Erik doing the most?' " the 29-year-old machinist said. "He always played basketball."

Knudsen cut a small slit in a Michael Jordan-logo basketball, funneled the ashes in, sealed it and set the ball on a walnut base next to a picture of the teenager. The memorial sits in Brown's den.

"Most people look at an urn and it brings sadness," Brown said. "I look at this and know he is with us. It's a peace-of-mind kind of thing."

Knudsen, a construction company owner, started Canuck's in 1991 with the motto: "We can't get you to heaven, but we promise to land you in the happy hunting ground."

An average wooden duck decoy from Canuck's costs about $300. Knudsen said he counts roughly two dozen customers a year.

The average funeral cost is between $8,000 and $10,000, while cremation costs $1,200 to $1,500 in the Des Moines area, said Dave Noftsger, operations manager for the Neptune Cremation Society of Iowa.

In Des Moines, nearly 25% of all deaths are cremations--more than double five years ago, he said.

"As cremation becomes more accepted, I think people are going to be more creative with the remains," Noftsger said.

Last year, a Fairfield woman who died of cancer made headlines after her ashes were blasted into the southern Iowa sky in a brief barrage of fireworks. She said she wanted to go out with a bang.

"The Baby Boomers are starting to reach a point in life where they will start dying, but they have a whole other mind-set about funerals," said Nick Drobnis, president of Celebrate Life!, which scatters ashes by fireworks. "They grew up in the 1960s when everything was different and exciting."

For about $3,300, the San Diego-based company provides music, hors d'oeuvres and a chartered boat for six off the California coast for a fireworks funeral at sea. The remains are shot from another boat in the distance, Drobnis said.

Music selections include "Taps," followed by a 21-gun salute for veterans, or "Wind Beneath My Wings."

"We really wanted my father's departure to be one that we would remember," said Benjamin Sheldon, an engineer from Burbank, who hired Celebrate Life two years ago for a funeral in Marina del Rey. "They had prearranged the loading of the ashes and coordinated the firing of the shells to the music we had brought."

Fifteen miles outside Biloxi, Miss., Bettye Brokl arranges to incorporate the ashes of loved ones into paintings, including landscapes and postmodern works.

Brokl got the idea after her own mother died four years ago.

"I was looking for Christmas gifts for the rest of the family, I knew they wanted some of the ashes themselves," she said.

She did the artwork herself. Today, her Gautier, Miss.-based company, Jane'Us, commissions artists to paint pictures sprinkled with cremains sent by clients.

"It gives them a sense of peace that I cannot explain," Brokl said. "Urns are fine, but they hide the physical being of a person and their spirit."

In a few weeks, Jennifer Keller of Stockton, Calif., will see her husband Dennis' painting. He died in January of melanoma. The two were married nine years and have two small children.

"He was a big Oakland Raiders fan, so I requested the artist use blacks, silvers, grays, purples and greens," she said. "I have a space on the wall of my husband's favorite room already picked out. I think this is a unique and beautiful expression of love."


Cremation Assn. of North America:


Celebrate Life!:

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