Ash Bash

Dying Just Got a Little More Fun

In our era of extreme customization, funeral directors are starting to look more like party planners.

By Peter Holley March 3, 2014 Published in the March 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

A company called LifeGem will literally turn your relative’s ashes into diamonds.

About a decade ago funeral director Jeff Friedman began to notice a new trend in the once, well, moribund world of funeral services.

“It started with golf clubs beside the casket,” he says, referring to some of the pioneering dead he’s known. “Then we moved to no casket at all, just the golf clubs.”

Fast-forward a few years and the golf clubs fad isn’t exactly, you know, dead, but it’s not eliciting any shocked gasps either. That’s because the funeral business, like everything else these days, has become both impersonal and customized at once. (Call it the “Google targeted-ad approach.”)

“If you can think it, either we can make it happen or know somebody who can,” says Friedman, sounding less like a funeral director than a party planner, which in a sense he is. His company, Distinctive Life Cremations & Funerals, located on S. Shepherd in Montrose, has even found a way to get folks to yearn for the urn. Cremation is already, yep, hot—it’s now the preferred choice for 42 percent of Americans—but Friedman’s job is to somehow generate a sense of excitement around what is essentially a pile of dust. 

That’s not hard, it turns out, because cremation arguably makes for more fun memorial services anyway. After all, says Friedman, it’s easier to stage a celebration-of-life service when there’s not a stiffened body in the room putting a damper on things. Furthermore, in Friedman’s telling, death is no longer a taboo subject. People talk about it, sometimes even enthusiastically. By way of example, Friedman mentions one recent client, a pastor who excitedly revealed a plan to officiate his own funeral via video. 

“Today’s families are very hungry for information and they’re seeking it out,” he adds. “We’re actually seeing a lot of young people come in to talk about their parents’ funerals.”

“Like, um, in their spare time?” we ask.

“Yep,” Friedman says. “We’re not the traditional funeral home.” 

And while there’s nothing new in the way of cremation methods, people’s plans for a loved one’s ashes are as unique as the person they come from. Often that means scattering them anywhere local law allows, from pro sporting venues and golf courses to public parks, ponds, deer leases, and oceans. 

For those determined to return the ashes to the natural world, Friedman has two words: biodegradable urns. Distinctive Life offers a floating seashell-shaped number the size of a trash can lid for those interested in spending eternity in a Galveston surf shop display. Not to be outdone, Friedman notes, are pre-seeded urns that will ultimately allow your loved one to shape-shift into a flower patch in the field (or golf course). 

“More and more we’re seeing a lot of requests for scattering at sea, which really appeals to people who love boating and the outdoors,” says Friedman, who has set up a booth at the Houston Boat, Sport & Travel show for the past two years, to the dismay of some boaters and excitement of others. “You can even do a whole body burial at sea, but you need some permits and the Coast Guard has to be there,” he says. “It’s one of those things that’s been in the law books, but nobody ever does it.”

Good to know. 

When it comes to creative goodbyes, Distinctive Life isn’t the only game in town, of course. For anywhere between $1,400 and $20,000, LifeGem, a company based in Illinois with vendors across Houston, will turn your relative’s ashes into diamonds — literally. Using a mysterious process, the company can extract enough carbon from a single cremated human body to create dozens of one-carat diamonds before returning the rest of the ashes to your family. Incidentally, although priced the same, family pets yield a significantly smaller share of gems.

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