When Minhi England’s husband, Jesse, was terminally ill with peripheral nerve sheath cancer, the couple was forced to have heartbreaking conversations about what Jesse wanted to have happen to his body after he died. Unlike with many couples, their conversation went well beyond whether he wished to be cremated or buried. As glassblowers and the lead artists at Artful Ashes, a Seattle-based company founded in 2012 to make customized memorials of glass and human cremains, the Englands knew that art would imitate life—or, in this case, death.
Jesse passed away in May 2021 at the age of 37. England didn’t ask another glass artist from the Artful Ashes team to create his memorial. She was his partner in love and art and work. This was her task. So she set to work, making good on his instructions to fashion a glass orb with wisps of aqua, blue, and silver dichroic glass to complement a curling white swoosh made from a teaspoon of Jesse’s ashes.
“I was oddly filled with joy, thinking of his big smile, how he so easily connected with strangers,” she remembers of the day she pulled the hot glass from the furnace, layered the colors into a tube shape, and rolled it in Jesse’s ashes. Then she sealed the colored glass and ashes in a layer of molten glass that she twisted and cut into the shape of a globe. “But I was painfully aware of the hole [made by] his absence as I injected his ashes into the glass, the very material that was his life’s work. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so many vastly opposing emotions within a singular moment.”
Artful Ashes memorials are purposefully small—orbs are three inches across and weigh one pound; customers provide only a tablespoon of cremains, and even less is used in the finished product. (Any cremains that are not used are returned or spread in Puget Sound.) That way, the customer retains the majority of the ashes to do with as they wish, while also having a memorial they can keep close by. England says the chemistry of the ashes “literally brings light and life to the glass.” The company creates approximately 800 memorials a month.
Today, England, who has also created glass sculptures to commemorate her late husband, keeps Jesse’s memorial by her bedside and takes it with her when she travels to places they had dreamed of seeing together. “It’s a gentle reminder that he’s not gone—because the love is still so abundant,” she says.
While there is no single tradition that marks how Americans mourn the passing of their loved ones, it’s a general truth that we often cope with the inevitability of death by denying it is going to happen. That can mean we don’t think about the vessels that will contain the earthly remains of our nearest and dearest until we are standing in a funeral home, staring in shock at a wall of mass-produced coffins and urns. It’s a process that doesn’t allow for the beauty and care and originality that can represent a life. Today, that one-size-fits-all ethos is starting to shift as a new breed of “mourning artists” draw on different craft traditions to help people memorialize their loved ones.
Unlike England, who was already working as a mourning artist when her husband died, Brooklyn-based artist and jeweler Margaret Cross started making mourning jewelry in 2008, after her best friend and former lover passed away suddenly when he was only 25. Cross was 24 and had recently graduated from Pratt Institute, where she had majored in printmaking.
At the funeral, Cross felt the need to touch her friend’s coffin but was always pulled away by well-meaning people who wanted to comfort her. Aching for something to physically connect her to her loss, she made herself a ring with a coffin-shaped garnet. “I just needed something tangible when everything was so out of control,” she says. “Something to hold on to, and keep me present, and make me feel connected to my loved one.”
That ring led to others, until word of her work spread via Instagram. Today she makes up to 20 pieces a month for her Love and Loss collection, including rings and pendants that preserve a small amount of ashes behind hand-cut crystal. She uses 100 percent recycled metals and employs traditional goldsmithing methods, which eschew the use of resin, epoxy, and glue. She also makes fine jewelry using ethically sourced stones, in which she incorporates symbols such as skulls, spider webs, and clasped hands. After finding a pamphlet on Victorian hairwork on eBay, Cross also started working with locks of hair, braiding them and placing them in pendants.
Cross’s customers often tell her that her pieces have helped them in their grieving process. “I don’t take credit for that or anything, but it’s so nice to be able to witness that and to feel really appreciated, which I do in this work.”
The desire to keep loved ones nearby is also behind the success of vitrifiedstudio, the Portland, Oregon–based business of studio potter Shelley Martin. When she started her business, Martin focused on tableware, including spice containers and sugar bowls. Soon after, she started getting requests from customers to put names on these improvised urns for their pets.
“I didn’t know anything about urn design,” she remembers of that first mourning vessel. “It was my customers who designed it. . . . I went with it and followed the market.” Ten years later, Martin has sold 20,000 urns, mostly to families who have lost babies.
Martin and her team make two collections of urns. One, which is sold on Etsy, uses porcelain and stoneware, which Martin throws on a wheel. She dip glazes and hand decorates each piece with the person’s or pet’s name, plus an image—a heart, a footprint, angel’s wings, a rainbow. You can sense Martin’s handwork in each item: the glaze lines are not perfectly straight; urn tops are beautifully lopsided; some even have cork stoppers. They are intimate and cozy and small enough to be placed on a shelf or tabletop or in a homemade shrine. (The adult urns she makes are also small in scale and are designed to hold only a portion of a person’s ashes.) Martin has started a second line of slip-cast porcelain urns, made in molds, which are fully customizable with a range of decals and fonts for the text.
Like England and Cross, Martin feels that offering the customer a hand in the design helps with the grieving process. “I always tell my customers that they design it and I help them make it.”
Creating urns that make joyful associations was front of mind for Sarasota, Florida–based ceramist Osa Atoe, who in 2020 responded to the worldwide tragedies of the COVID pandemic by making a series of urns for cremains. “I sell pottery to make a living and do monthly collections,” she says. “But that was not a normal year. So I wanted my work to reflect on all that loss. I think as a society we’re not very good at making space for grief, and I wanted to . . . use creativity and my craft to generate that space.”
Atoe uses red stoneware clay, which she throws on a wheel, to create her vessels. Her surface decorations are highly textural—mostly carvings and stampings—and her color palette sticks mostly to white, aquamarine, and light blues. The results are lively, not at all somber—which is by design.
“My family is Nigerian, and if someone dies and has lived a nice full life, they get a party,” she explains. “It’s not just about grief, it’s about a celebration of their life. [You can] remember someone as a joyful person, a creative person, a beautiful person.”
Atoe’s 2020 collection of 12 urns sold out. But she still makes vessels—including commissions—that can be used as urns. Unlike the rest of her collections, which typically sell out quickly on a first-come, first-served basis, anything that can be used as a mourning vessel is password protected on her website, so when people reach out to her, they can browse and take their time and not, in her words, “have to speed shop.”
Atoe cites Massachusetts-based potter Lucy Fagella as a leader in the artisan urn tradition. Fagella makes not only ceramic urns but also biodegradable paper urns from clay and reused, recycled, and reclaimed papers, which can be buried and degrade naturally. Another well-known artist working in memorials is Paa Joe. Based in Ghana, he makes custom figurative coffins that reflect the lives of the deceased and are sometimes shaped like lions, roosters, and even baguettes.
“I think as a society we’re not very good at making space for grief, and I wanted to . . . use creativity and my craft to generate that space.”
St. Louis–based artisan blacksmith Gabriel Chaille got his start in memorial art with a commissioned request while he was studying blacksmithing at Hereford College of Arts in Hereford, England. A woman who’d been recently widowed asked the school if anyone would be interested in creating a commemorative trophy in her late husband’s honor, which she could then give to the local rugby team. Chaille stepped up and was so moved by the family’s reaction to his work that he decided to focus on memorial projects for his undergraduate thesis.
His next project was a pair of memorial urn holders that he created to hold the ashes of his recently deceased uncle, who had battled schizophrenia. He gave one holder to his parents and the other to an aunt and uncle. Made from forged steel, the holders look more like sculptures than vessels, with twisting pieces meant to evoke the chaos of a life bent by mental illness. But there are also symbols of his uncle’s unique talents and propensity for creative joy, including a repurposed welded bicycle chain to symbolize his uncle’s love of biking—he had kitted out his bike with a car stereo system—and vertical pieces that symbolize piano keys. The sculpture, called In Memoriam, is topped with a white ceramic urn, which Chaille commissioned, resting in the steel like a nest in a tree. The interplay between the strength of the metal and the fragility of the porcelain is intentional.
During his research, Chaille learned that the term funeral parlor derives from a time when it was commonplace to have a room in a house where a body was kept before being buried. “People were much more familiar with death,” he says. “And in a lot of ways, I think that’s been taken away. I think that’s part of the grieving process that doesn’t really exist anymore. [My work helps people] find other ways to reconcile with death . . . coming alongside someone who needs something more than what is available currently in the funerary market.”◆
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