Nearly 50 percent of Americans who die in 2017 will have opted for a cremation. That’s a far cry from the 3.6 percent of people who chose the service in 1958. In fact, the number of cremations are expected to surpass traditional burials before 2020.
But despite changing trends in environmental concerns, religious evolution and just basic funeral costs — all reasons moving the needle on more cremations — many people wish to remember their loved one in their own special way. One of those ways is creating a glass art or jewelry piece.
“They can be made with the ashes of a loved one or pet,” said Matt Olian, founder of Grateful Glass, a Philadelphia-based glass studio that focuses on preserving that memory through handcrafted glass memorials and keepsakes. “The most popular item would be the pendants. I think the reason is that a lot of people like them resting close to their heart.”
Each Pyrex glass pendant starts at $200, but there are other artistic options at a variety of price points, including rings, cuff bracelets, keychains and a paperweight called The Eternal Orb. Customers initiate the order, and Grateful Glass sends a package to securely retrieve the ashes. Despite the average cremation weighing three to nine pounds of ashes, Olian only needs about a teaspoon of the ashes for each piece.
“It’s visually what looks the nicest. That’s how I approach the pieces,” said Olian. “The glass acts like a natural magnifying glass. When you look at the piece, it looks like there is a lot more in there.”
About a month later, the company will send back the final art piece, along with any unused ashes.
“I’ve done some keepsakes with multiple people and/or pets — husband and wife, an individual and his dog — I’m open to what people want to do,” said Olian. He said he hasn’t done any celebrities (that he knows of), but he recently finished a piece made of ashes of the last surviving 9/11 search-and-rescue dog, who also was involved with Hurricane Katrina relief. “The piece was for the trainer and owner of the dog. It was a petite medallion with the dog’s photo.”
The concept all started about four years ago at a juried art show. Olian, who had been blowing glass and selling art pieces to galleries full-time since 2007, was approached by a customer who asked if he would make her a keepsake using a relative’s ashes.
“It kind of threw me for a curveball,” said Olian, who took the order cautiously but knew it was within his skillset. “The piece turns out to be incredible, and I thought, man, this is a an amazing concept and I don’t think anyone is doing it.”
The Grateful Glass business initially grew by word of mouth and launched its website in 2013. The eCommerce angle is the primary way that Olian sees business come in, but it’s not the only way.
“I work with funeral homes and businesses in almost every state,” said Olian, who added that he participates in different trade shows and explains Grateful Glass to funeral home directors on how the process works.
That said, the eCommerce route is more popular because, “at the time that somebody is making funeral arrangements, they’re not in the mindset to go shopping. They’re dealing with loss and grieving, and few want to be bothered at that time period.”
Typically, two to six months down the line, Olian said, family members decide to seek out what’s available for the ashes.
Cremation services have indeed become more popular over the last 50 years, which Olian believes is almost serendipitous as it relates to his entire business: His studio is a refurbished casket factory.
“This building that I work out of was vacant for a number of years, and my landlord bought it with the intention of repurposing it for art studios,” said Olian. “And when I moved into the building right before I launched Grateful Glass, he told me the history of the building, and I told him my idea. We had a handshake of a deal. It was meant to be.”
And so, as the casket industry has consolidated, many mom-and-pop stores were bought or went under and cremation services have increased, Olian seems to be creating out of something that is no longer, at the right time.
“I think it’s kind of a sign of the times,” said Olian. “As burial is going out of style, here I am making these personal art pieces.”