Two years ago, sculptor Julia Burr created a 9-foot-tall figure from hollow steel tubes. She painted it red and filled it with her best friend's cremated remains.
The sculpture, “The Indelible Mark,” towers over the flower garden in back of her Black Mountain home. She finds it a comforting memorial to her friend Mark, a performance artist with a colorful, outsize personality.
Now, Burr hopes to bring comfort to strangers by creating custom cremation urns and memorial sculptures for customers of a new N.C.-based Web site.
The Web site, www.shine onbrightly.com, is the brainchild of Adrienne Crowther. Crowther formerly headed the Asheville Area Arts Council, where she worked with Burr and other artisans in Western North Carolina.
Crowther, 51, of Asheville, wanted to start an N.C. business aimed at art-loving baby boomers like herself. She came up with what she sees as a growth industry – selling hand-crafted urns and other end-of-life products to baby boomers and their loved ones.
She's hoping to cash in on two trends. Cremations are steadily increasing, both in the Carolinas and across the country. And experts say boomers are revolutionizing the death industry, focusing on celebrating the lives of loved ones with intensely personal memorials.
Crowther has lined up 18 artisans, mostly from the Asheville area. Her Web site will offer urns for human and pet remains as well as commemorative items such as quilts, glass, jewelry and hand-crafted books.
Crowther says most baby boomers she knows are losing their parents and beginning to ponder their own mortality. Increasingly, that means planning cremations.
More than 33 percent of Americans who died in 2006 were cremated, according to state data compiled by the Cremation Association of North America. That's up from 27 percent in 2001.
Cremations in the Carolinas are lower than the national average, but growing rapidly. The data shows N.C. cremations jumped from about 18 percent in 2001 to nearly 24 percent in 2006. In South Carolina, cremations rose from 15 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2006.
Mike Nicodemus, a cremation association board member who runs a Virginia Beach, Va., crematory, says people choose cremation for different reasons. The three biggest cited by industry studies: It gives more flexibility to families, saves money and preserves land.
He says most customers tell him they pick cremation so they can gather family members weeks or even months after the death. With more lead time, family members can plan a more personal memorial service and count on more relatives coming.
Many boomers and others are looking for cost savings as well. The average cost of a traditional funeral is about $6,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission. A simple cremation can cost one-fifth of that. Even with a full service, cremation cuts out burial costs.
A third reason frequently cited in consumer studies is a desire to conserve open land for uses other than cemeteries.
Urns, jewelry and other memorial items are popular with boomers because they are portable and can be personalized, says Ann Bastianelli, an Indiana University professor who researches and writes on death practices.
“Baby boomers have changed every social practice,” says Bastianelli. “They're doing the same thing with death, changing the focus to celebrating life.”
Steve Kuzma, who owns Carolina Funeral Service and Cremation Center in Charlotte, says about 70 percent of his business is cremation-related.
“The Charlotte market has largely become a cremation market,” he says. He's noticed a surge since the late 1990s.
A personal approach
Do these trends augur big sales for Web sites like Shine on Brightly?
Crowther says numerous Web sites sell urns and memorial items, but “they mostly carry the same product. It's not personal, and it looks like it's imported from somewhere.”
An online search shows hundreds of sites for ordering urns, ranging from businesses that advertise less-expensive, mass-produced products to others similar to Crowther's, offering hand-crafted designs.
Kuzma says Shine on Brightly will also compete with funeral businesses like his that sell urns along with caskets. He says about a third of his cremation customers don't buy keepsake urns because they plan to scatter ashes.
Crowther believes her business will stand out because of the variety and quality N.C. artisans will bring to it. Customers can buy available products or work with artisans on custom pieces. Prices range from $90 to $5,000.
The Web business went live April 15 and orders are trickling in, she says. She's working on marketing, refining and positioning the site for search engine advantage.
The N.C. artisans are eager for orders.
During a visit to Burr's studio behind her Black Mountain house, she displayed her first two designs for Shine on Brightly. Both are steel urns, about 18 inches tall, adorned with the kind of whimsical figures she is known for making.
Those designs are priced at $2,400. As of last week, Burr, 52, hadn't received any orders. But she designs other kinds of sculptures that sell in galleries, so she's busy.
She says she's excited about collaborating with customers on one-of-a-kind pieces.
“What an honor, to get involved with someone's life and death,” Burr says. “To try to find their essence.”