But a less costly alternative to this traditional practice has been gaining popularity in recent years: Cremation.
For about a decade, if you had a couple thousand dollars at the minimum then "memorial diamonds" made from the carbon found in ashes were an alternative to a traditional urn. Now, a new company with a lower cost technique and greater attention to design will transform your loved one's ashes into a treasured keepsake.
Grateful Glass was started in 2012 by 31-year-old Matthew Olian. The company offers everything from hand-blown glass pendants, rings, and cuffs to sparkling orbs and urns made with Pyrex glass and, of course, ash.
Olian got started blowing glass as a sophomore in high school after watching a documentary on famous sculptor Dale Chihuly. Soon after, Olian's mother allowed him to set up his own small studio in their garage.
Through college at the University of Vermont and during an apprenticeship in Murano, Italy, he continued to hone his craft, and by 2007, Olian was spending most of his time on the road, traveling from trade show to trade show to show his work.
During one of his shows, a customer asked Olian to make a memorial pendant. Having never heard of the concept, Olian was surprised, but determined. He took on the order and, within a few weeks, he managed to deliver the piece.
"It was one of those moments where I was like 'Wow, this is a really special concept, and I don't think anyone else is doing it and I should run with it,'" Olian recalls.
"It was a pretty special feeling to give this [customer] such happiness through my work," he said.
With a little research, Olian discovered how many people were turning to cremation, and realized he'd found an untapped market for memorial keepsakes. Even once he'd recognized this potential business opportunity, Olian still had no idea how — or even if he could — create a company out of the idea.
It was around this time that Olian's grandmother fell ill and became increasingly sick. She had no idea that her illness would leave behind a special gift that allowed Grateful Glass to, quite literally, rise from the ashes.
Olian needed sample pieces to show his clients, he recalled, and his grandmother told him it was her wish to be cremated.
"By the time I had decided this is what I wanted to do, she had just passed away," said Olian. "So all of the sample pieces are made from her ashes.”
Close to a decade after his journey with glassmaking began, Olian launched Grateful Glass. Word of his new business spread — he quickly connected himself with a large network of funeral homes around the country.
Today, Olian continues to create all of his pieces by hand, with occasional assistance from interns.
First, he receives the ash from his customers, which is mostly bone, and is made up of calcium phosphates and small traces of other minerals. Then, he combines it with molten glass using his own encasement methods unique to each piece he designs. Over the years, he said he's found the perfect combination of temperature and time to produce a piece of glass that showcases cremated remains in the best way possible.
Given the subtle chemical variations in remains, the ashes react differently with the glass each time, Olian said.
"Sometimes the encased ashes look like a myriad of flecks while others create more organic bubble patterns. Sometimes they even produce interesting colors through the piece," said Olian.
Olian also makes keepsakes for people's pets.
In fact, he estimates that between 35% and 40% of his orders are for former dog and cat owners. While he works with pet crematories, Olian says most of his customers who are looking for pet memorials find him by searching online.
"Something you can always keep on you"
Although he wouldn't reveal specific numbers to Business Insider, Olian did tell us that he receives orders for his pieces daily and ships them all over the world. Last year, he said, the business grew by 25% on pieces that range from $150 to $375. He is also commissioned to make unique pieces for several thousand dollars, he said.
Due to the delicate nature and sensitivity of his business, Olian says he does most of his promotion through word-of-mouth and his funeral home network, but he also has a Facebook page filled with comments from happy customers.
But he adds, "Having something tangible can provide a lot of comfort and a lot of closure particularly if it's something on a smaller scale that you can always keep on you."
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