Designing cremation keepsake urns isn’t the obvious next step for a scriptwriter. I suspect I’m the only one who wrote scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude and Northern Exposure and went on to create customized urns for ashes. The only thing these two careers have in common is the desire to bring a smile to someone’s face.
I started thinking about ash holders because each time I’ve lost someone dear to me, I found myself poring through photo albums. Remembering the good times put the focus on life and was comforting. This was true whether it was a parent, sibling, friend or even our family dog that had died. Cremation has become popular with over 70% of Americans expected to be cremated by the year 2030. Because pictures had helped me heal, it occurred to me that putting a photo montage on a cremation urn would make it more upbeat.
Curious if such an item was available, I searched online for unusual urns. There was a choice of materials, praying hands, cowboy boots, fishermen, and one with a Superman logo. Among the many memorial keepsakes were those shaped like a golf club or a car, others that represented one’s work or passions. But I found nothing personalized with an assemblage of picture that would truly tell a life story in photos. The closest was a wood box with a slot for one picture.
Mosaic, which I’d been doing as a hobby, struck me as the ideal medium for turning an ordinary cremation urn into a beautiful artistic piece. The process was like life: the tiny shards I carefully nipped from plates would come together to form a whole. I’d learned to do pique assiette, the French form of mosaic, at a gallery in New York and developed a style of my own. I’d transformed many household objects – tables, vases, picture frames and boxes — into works of art, but I’d never incorporated photos. There was nobody to mentor me so I experimented until I figured out how to do it.
The term – cremation keepsakes – often refers to miniature urns that hold a small amount of ashes and can be worn as jewelry. I’m using the phrase for urns that are displayed in the home and likely to be passed on to future generations. I also design keepsake vases for people who don’t have the remains.
Mine are unlike conventional cremation urns commonly available at funeral homes or online. Each is attractive and unique, a tribute to a particular individual. Tiny beads spell out the name. In one case, they were used to insert a quote associated with the college undergraduate who’d died far too young. I interpret the desires of my clients and create an item to their specifications that can be passed along to future generations, who will know the person as he or she truly was, not simply as the generic, “beloved wife, father.”
Collaborating with my clients, I keep in mind the teachings of the Buddhist teacher, Judy Lief, who made the point that relating to death openly can help us be less fearful of it. My hope is that having input into the creation of an urn for ashes serves that end. It’s not only my urns that are personal; the process is as well. The cremated remains keepsake tells the story of a loved one using pictures that were curated by my client.
Each project has been meaningful and special. I was contacted by a young woman whose baby had been stillborn. “You use photos,” she told me, “when doing cremation urns for adults, but all I have are her tiny footprints.” At my suggestion, she wrote her loving feelings on paper, which I incorporated with the footprints into a softly-colored, small urn for a baby. I worked 24/7 so she would have it by Mother’s Day, which I knew would be a tough day her.
“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” is attributed to the English actor Edmund Kean, who lived from 1787 to 1833. It’s believed he said it on his death bed. When working on sitcoms, I heard him quoted in the Writers’ Room. I felt lucky to have been one of the few women to break into television writing in the 70’s, and I also feel lucky that I’m able to do something useful now.