When it comes to what to do with your loved one’s ashes (or, as we were required to say when I worked for a funeral home, cremated remains or “cremains”) there are a lot of choices. You can bury them, put them in a niche or columbarium, keep them in an urn on your shelf, scatter them in a meaningful location, turn them into a diamond, mix them with concrete and help form a reef, and many, many more. What I find interesting about Chronicle Cremation Designs is how they can turn ashes into objects you use everyday. While they do offer urns and jewelry, their mugs and bowls and vases aren’t meant to be kept on a shelf or worn as precious adornment. You drink from the mugs, put fruit in the bowls. You have your loved one right there as you live your life, as a part of your life. It can be a tender way to memorialize, a way to remember that the person you loved is still with you, every day, even if in a different way.
Many cemeteries have columbaria, rooms or buildings with niches where cremation urns may be placed. Often these niches have glass fronts, and in addition to urns people place objects that represent the identity and life of the deceased. The above image is photographer Dan Bannino’s idea of what Alice Cooper’s niche might look like. As you can see, there are things that we would expect … the busts with his iconic eye makeup … and things we might not, such as the golf club and gloves that reveal a hobby that seems antithetical to our idea of a shock rocker.
What would fill your niche? It’s a hard thing to think of, because how could a life fit inside such a tiny space? Maybe mine would have yarn and knitting needles, a skull, a pen and ink, a TARDIS, pictures of my kids, copies of my books. Maybe a crucifix, a Red Sox cap, a Yale pennant. A guitar. A work by Dali. It’s a difficult task, which is reassuring, since it means that our lives cannot be merely boiled down to what fits in a hole in the wall.
[If you would like to see other photographs in this series by Dan Bannino, you can find them here.]
I’ve always been fascinated by memorial art. One purpose of art is to encapsulate and express human experience and emotion. What is more common to the human experience than death and loss? And who can look at the beauty of a memorial like the one above and not feel the grief? I’ve viewed the memorials in many famous cemeteries around the world. During my brief stint as a family service counsellor for a funeral home, my office was in Chicago’s historic Rosehill Cemetery, and I spent a fair amount of time exploring.
There’s been a fairly recent trend amongst cemeteries that the only memorials allowed are the metal plates placed flush with the ground. They’re easier for the cemeteries to maintain: just run a mower right over the plates rather than take the care and time to cut the grass around a headstone. I refuse to go along with it. When I die, I want to be buried in a cemetery that allows headstones, obelisks, mausoleums, statuary.
I don’t expect that my family will be able to afford more than a simple headstone, mind. But a cemetery is a business. They make their money by selling plots. And if people refuse to support cemeteries that are phasing out art in the name of convenience, then cemeteries will have a financial incentive to continue to support memorials that might take time to maintain, but are ultimately timeless.