Over the last fifty years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who are choosing cremation for themselves or their loved ones. In the late 1950s, fewer than four percent of Americans were cremated, but that number has risen to well over than 40 percent. It is estimated that within the next few years in the United States, half of all bodies will be cremated instead of buried.
There are many reasons for the startling increase, including a downturn in adherence to strict religious principles encouraging a formal burial, the huge rise in the price of a traditional funeral, and the emergence of a more mobile society with fewer people having strong ties to a single geographic area for life.
The huge numbers choosing cremation over burial has also sparked interest in a new way to memorialize the departed: cremation jewelry.
What Are Ash Jewelry Keepsakes?
Many who first hear the term assume that cremation jewelry refers to pieces which are safe to place on the body of the deceased when it is cremated. Some who learn the real meaning of the phrase find it somewhat – for want of a better term – creepy. However, once people have a better understanding of cremation jewelry and the meaning behind it, most realize it is actually a touching way to remember loved ones who have been lost.
Cremation jewelry is crafted, at least in part, from the ashes of a cremated body. It is meant to be either worn or displayed as a permanent memorial to someone who has passed away, and can take the form of a locket, ring, bracelet, pendant, necklace or other piece of jewelry. For those who prefer not to use ashes, cremation jewelry can also feature other items which would provide a tangible reminder of the deceased, such as a lock of hair, a small piece of the clothing worn for cremation, dried flowers from the memorial service, or dirt from the sacred ground where the ashes have been scattered or buried.
One reason that some shy away from the use of cremated remains is concern about what jewelry would look like when created from what they commonly visualize as “ashes.” It’s important to realize, though, that cremation ashes are not like those from a fireplace; when a body is cremated, the remains become dust and fragments of bone, which are then pulverized to become a fine white powder.
The growing interest in cremation jewelry has attracted the attention of those who have chosen traditional burials for their family members. Many are now requesting jewelers to craft similar pieces known as memorial jewelry, funeral jewelry or remembrance jewelry, created from a keepsake of the departed or an item related to their burial service.
If this subject piques your interest as well, there’s much more to learn about cremation jewelry and its new place in society.
History of This Type of Jewelry
Commercially-produced cremation jewelry is a new product. However, there’s a long history behind the use of a deceased’s remains to remember them, which goes far beyond the cremation urns with which we’re all familiar.
It is believed that the rite of cremation was developed in the Middle East or Europe about 5000 years ago during the Stone Age, and was prevalent throughout Greek and Roman society well before the common era. That is also when the use of ornate urns to store cremated remains became commonplace. Archaeologists tell us, though, that the desire to preserve “a piece” of a departed loved one predates cremation, with ancient man said to have preserved pieces of hair, skin or fingernails to remember those who had passed on. In later times, even blood or tears were sometimes saved and preserved behind glass as a memorial.
The first real predecessors to cremation jewelry appeared in the 14th century and were known as mourning rings, derivative of the Memento mori which had been around for centuries. Mourning rings were created as a remembrance of a family member who had died, and while they usually were black rings with black stones, some incorporated strands of hair from the deceased. (Historians say that many shied away from adding hair for fear that an unscrupulous jeweler would use hair from the wrong person.) Production of mourning rings increased greatly in the 17th century, and they were commonly worn until the end of the 19th century; during this time, they became popularly known as Victorian mourning rings. The majority still did not include hair or other remains, but instead featured inscriptions or photos of the deceased.
Other types of jewelry utilizing the hair of the deceased were also seen during this period. These were primarily memorial pendants and pins woven by means of the ancient “hair art” process, used for centuries to create clothing, wreaths and other items from human hair. One other tradition followed by some families was to use hair from someone who had passed away to weave a bonnet, which was then presented to the next-of-kin.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the concept of using cremated remains to create actual jewelry surfaced. That’s when several companies began offering to use ashes from a cremation to create an “authentic” diamond. They utilize high-tech labs to compress the ashes with extremely high pressure and in very high temperatures – much the same way that natural diamonds were created deep inside the Earth – to produce what is really an artificial stone. Carbon in the remains is what makes the process possible. The final memorial diamond is usually blue in color, because of trace elements of boron in the deceased’s body.
The number of firms offering this service has increased over the last two decades, but the major drawback for most people’s remains the price: anywhere from $3,000 to $22,000 per stone (and as many as nine stones can be created from ashes left by the average person).
It’s easy to understand why people were anxious to find less-expensive alternatives for the creation of cremation jewelry. In the 21st century a number of companies began to fill that need. Their growth – and the demand for their products – has been extraordinary.
Today’s Memorial Jewelry
It goes without saying that remembering a loved one who has passed away is an intensely personal process. Some prefer memorial items which are visible signs of remembrance, such as tattoos. Others are much more private with their emotions and displays, and choose keepsakes such as a picture hidden in a locket worn under their clothing.
The same dichotomy exists in the wide variety of cremation jewelry which is now available. There are sedate pieces which will carry meaning only for the person wearing them, and other more elaborate types of jewelry which will catch the eye of bystanders and give the wearer an opportunity to share the story of their friend or family member who has passed.
Here’s a look at the most common categories of cremation jewelry on the market.
Cremation Jewelry with Chambers
The simplest way to create memorial jewelry is to purchase what are sometimes called “keepsake pendants” designed for the purpose. These are available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and appearances and are similar to any other sort of pendant – except for the fact that they have small, built-in chambers meant to hold a small amount of a loved one’s ashes. Depending on the size of the piece, it can hold anywhere from a pinch to several teaspoons of the deceased’s remains and then be closed up tightly to ensure the security of the ashes.
It is completely understandable that many would feel squeamish about personally filling a pendant or locket with a family member’s ashes. However, the process is surprisingly simple, since the pieces are filled by means of a specifically-designed small funnel which is included with all orders of chambered cremation jewelry. Even so, a funeral director will usually be willing to perform the filling process for a family at no extra charge.
Most keepsake pendants are sold in gold and silver. They can also be found in other metals or materials such as clay, though, meaning the pieces can cost as much as thousands of dollars, or as little as twenty dollars. Most are an inch or less in size, so they can be tucked under a shirt or blouse or worn naturally. There are literally hundreds of designs available, including many types of crosses (for religious significance), hearts (adding another personal level to the remembrance), and designs featuring natural themes like seashells, flowers or butterflies.
The latest addition to the assortment of cremation jewelry which can be filled with ashes is a lovely line of wooden pendants. Most are a bit larger and stand out more than the metal varieties; all sorts of native and exotic woods are used in these designs, with their differing shades and grains making each of the pieces unique. The wood is then housed in an attractive metal container to which a chain can be attached. These products are often chosen by younger relatives.
An alternative which is built to publicly show remains is known as an ash holder; a pewter top (often colorful) screws onto a small glass bottle containing a tiny bit of ash. These are extremely inexpensive and sold in quantity, so people can easily distribute cremation jewelry to a large number of family members. Cobalt blue is currently the most popular color for these glass ash holders.
Other pre-made cremation pieces, such as rings and bracelets, can also be purchased to be filled with remains. Cremation rings have become more popular of late, often worn as a “replacement wedding band” worn after a spouse has passed away. Of course, special cremation pieces of all types can be commissioned from jewelry designers and their prices are largely dependent on the materials used.
Cremation Glass or Crystal Jewelry
For those who want a one-of-a-kind piece to remember a relative who has passed away, beautiful glass jewelry which has ashes suspended inside, or crystals infused with ashes as they’re grown, can be crafted by artisans for a reasonable fee (crystal is more expensive, but cremation glass is often priced under $200). Most designers offer these pieces as pendants, rings or earrings in many different colors, shapes and patterns; they will, however, need some of the deceased’s ashes in order to blow the glass or create the crystal. The remainder will be returned along with the cremation jewelry. Another option in this category is having an artificial diamond created from a loved one’s ashes, as discussed earlier.
Make-Your-Own Cremation Jewelry
There are several methods you can use to create your own cremation jewelry, which for many is the most meaningful way to remember a family member or friend. You can purchase pre-cast ash beads in a selection of materials and colors, to be worn on a chain, strung on a bracelet, or used in any other type of piece you can imagine. It’s also possible to mix ashes with a material like clay, to be molded and hardened into whatever shape you choose in order to craft jewelry which will honor the deceased.
Cremation Jewelry Displays
Some family members prefer to display their cremation jewelry in a prominent place at home instead of wearing it. Several types of display cases can be purchased to house funeral jewelry; the one most often seen is a dome which resembles that of a grandmother clock, with a hook at the top to hold the jewelry. Larger or more colorful cremation pieces are best shown in a display of this sort.
Alternatives to Cremation Jewelry
Alternative ways to use a loved one’s remains in order to remember them have been explored over the last decade. They include hiring artists who will mix ashes into paint and create an abstract work, or tattoo artists who will mix ashes with ink and etch a design to honor the deceased. Other approaches which also have been tried – which might seem bizarre, but obviously have been meaningful to some – are using remains in an hourglass, suspending them in stained glass windows, and even mixing them with explosive material to shoot off memorial fireworks.
Everyone remembers and honors their late family members and friends in their own way. Fireworks may be going a bit overboard, of course, but cremation jewelry can be a low-key, sedate way to memorialize loved ones and carry a tangible reminder of their lives and importance.