In 2001 Maureen Lomasney started her enterprise in sunny California about something unusual: the aesthetics of death. With her Ashes To Art exhibitions and her Funeria gallery she presents artist made urns to host a dead person’s remains ‘to reflect a beloved person’s individuality after he has gone,’ as she puts it. But let her explain for PingMag herself, why designer urns and cremation as such are a new trend, no doubt.
Written by Verena
Nothing can be too odd – it only reveals the deceased’s wild sense of humor to the relatives: urn as a metallic rocket. ‘UNTITLED’ #4 from Christoper M. Rizzo for Funeria.
In 1997 I read a newspaper article about the significant rise in cremation rates, so I wondered what people were doing with all the ashes. When I looked online in what people could put the ashes I was pretty appalled of what I saw: ordinary metal boxes that didn’t reflect any individuality. It seemed to be a lost opportunity for someone to honor a life. Also I found it a huge opportunity for artists to reclaim their role as documenters of our culture.
And what was your own personal approach then?
Perhaps I thought that dealing with the subject of death in an artful way would help people see the beauty around them and the beauty in their lives and their relationships. Perhaps to seek out some calm reflection so that I wouldn’t be so fearful of it myself. I didn’t know what to expect other than organizing an art show. With the first ‘Ashes to Art’ exhibition however, I ended up relating very much to it and bought two pieces right away!
How was the visitors’ reaction at your first ‘Ashes to Art’ exhibition?
They knew it was about cremation urns, but no one had actually seen them before. So they didn’t know what to expect and were quite surprised – and delighted. It turned out that a number of people had literally ashes in a cardboard box at home and had been waiting to find just the right vessel.
But who would actually use one strange looking vessel for his beloved like the ‘Cigar’ urn, for example (see below)?
One with a sense of humor, obviously… These cigar boxes for the ‘Cigar Aficionado’ also function as humidors. At the first exhibition someone actually bought one. Actually I do know him: his children are rather appalled of the thought of their father’s ashes being stored in that huge Cigar and they would be therefore required to keep it in some place. It is definitely not their taste. But at the same time it is a reflection of their father’s strange and really quite charming sense of humor. They will certainly never forget what kind of man he was…
‘Alexandra’ by Jessica Van Neste, made of enamel, sterling and fine silver, argentium and 18k gold…
… something for your glass cabinet to sit next to the family silver. From ‘Ashes to Art’.
And what about the ‘Prayer Wheel’ urns by Christopher Moench (please see below) – could they be somehow connected to the Tibetan rituals of the prayer wheels?
People really love those because they offer an opportunity to use them as a ritual kind of vessel. You could put in a piece of paper with your wishes written on it. You could also put the love letters of the beloved person in it, or for example dad’s watch or the parents’ wedding rings… Sometimes the children want a place to put these objects in. I myself have a dried rose from my father’s grave.
Right, but where does this ritual come from at all? I mean, in Western history you used to bury the dead far away from the village. But since recently people let the dead be part of their life, having their close relatives’ ashes on a shelf in the living room. And now these urns turn to be artful designed objects. What happened – did our notion of death change?
Of course, in other cultures there are long standing traditions to honor the dead on an annual basis. But this is something very new in Western culture, or at least in the US. We are very object-oriented people and we also like things that reflect our personal taste. And to have an art object that stands in for us when we are no longer here to speak for ourselves is a very appealing concept to a lot of people. Now with the current renaissance of good design it is very natural that it would extend to these kinds of objects as well. I think with those artful vessels people can think about this subject in a different way – to take away some of the fear that is attached. It is an ambition, not a guarantee, that you won’t be afraid about death anymore. At last it incorporates some kind of specialness in the objects that we use in order to help celebrate a life.
‘Cigar Aficionado Collection: personalized, custom made, cigar humidors (and urns)’ by Michael Creed for Funeria…
… It consist of two halves you can take apart. And it goes well with the handmade cigar box!
But cremation is still not that common…
Though this is still unusual, it is an emerging kind of trend for people. Cremation in our Western or at least North American society has only in the last 20 years been growing quite rapidly, most quickly in the last 6 years. In 1980 only 7 percent of the American population was choosing cremation – currently that figure is 31 percent.
Fully biodegradable: ‘Cinerary Vessel’ by Doug Haslam, black walnut with gold leaf, for Funeria
That is it how it looks like from the inside… also fully biodegradable!
Resembling ancient Egyptian sarcophagi: ‘Aries’ by Kelly Cozart for Funeria…
… and the sacred animal of Egyptian god Toth: ‘Ibis’ by Kelly Cozart for Funeria
‘Prayer Wheel’ by Christopher Moench for Funeria
How, do you think, did it get so popular?
I think that is because our society has become very mobile: children are moving away from their birthplace. As well as their parents are retiring to other locations, perhaps to warmer climate. So we are no longer living close to our family burial sites. Also the cost is really a factor, too, as the average burial is in the States now around 7 500 to 8 000 US-Dollars.
Sallie Ketcham’s ‘Wild Flower’
That is, the urn becomes a metaphor for society’s mobility…
Exactly. Also, fewer people are attending traditional church. Among that group there is a very large portion of the baby boomer population that is still interested in some kind of ritual that puts them in touch with an appreciation for the earth. As there are a lot of people who are increasingly very environmentally minded…
Meaning, the biodegradable aspect seems to be upcoming for the environmental conscious… like your handmade tree vessel for the ‘nature-loving individualist’, for example?
Yes, most wood urns are biodegradable and thus very attractive to the people. There is also a movement in the States similar to the UK about natural burials. Although not widespread yet, it nevertheless is a growing trend, indeed: people being buried simply in the earth without being placed in a fancy casket. That does feel much more natural than the formal environment of a cemetery.
‘Asiatic Flowers’ by Laura Bruzzese for Funeria, Pt. I.
Pt. II: also from Laura Bruzzese for Funeria.
I never thought of the subject this way before, like about our transience and how we deal with it on a daily basis (well, usually we’d just avoid thinking of it, right). Thanks Maureen with your Funeria gallery, for showing us another perspective with these unique and beautiful pieces!