ST. LOUIS — When William Lucas’ mother died nearly two years ago, he found an unusual way to keep her memory close at hand.
The general contractor from Kitty Hawk, N.C., had some of “Momma Luke’s” ashes converted into three synthetic blue diamonds, each about a third of a carat. One is set into his wedding band.
“The analogies are endless — Mom was radiant in life, a real gem,” Lucas, 50. “I can’t express the connectedness I feel with this on my hand.”
The diamonds were the work of LifeGem, a three-year-old company based in suburban Chicago, that said it has crafted close to 1,000 of the diamonds for about 500 families in a business that is steadily growing.
The company markets the diamonds in several countries, saying they offer a “closeness and mobility” you can’t get from the traditional forms of commemoration, a tombstone at a burial site or an urn of ashes.
“I think more people are looking for more personal ways to remember somebody,” says Dean VandenBiesen, LifeGem’s vice president of operations. “Rather than having ongoing mourning for someone’s loss, people are wanting to celebrate a life.”
Lucas read about Lifegem before his mother’s January 2003 death from cancer at age 73. Always frugal, he recalled she initially objected to the cost but acknowledged “once I take my last breath, it matters not.”
He fulfilled her wish to be cremated and have her ashes scattered under the azaleas at an Episcopal church in Charlotte, N.C., but kept enough to have the three diamonds at a total cost of $9,000. Two stones will go to his college-age daughters after their studies are over, he said.
“I’m so pleased that I went ahead and did it,” he said. “I had my doubts and trepidations, but to me these gems are priceless, just like my mother.”
LifeGem uses 8 ounces of a person’s ashes, typically less than a tenth of a person’s total cremated remains, to make a diamond through a process that can take a few months. Carbon extracted from the ashes is subjected to the extremes of heat and pressure, and the resulting stone is cut and faceted like any gem.
Prices vary from about $2,500 for a quarter carat to about $14,000 for a full carat, VandenBiesen said.
He said many families request more than one gem, with his company’s largest order yet coming from a family that wanted 11. While he declined to provide numbers, he said the privately held company was making a profit, with sales exceeding projections. He said an expansion into Japan in October has resulted in a rush of orders.
In the United States, more mourners could turn to the product as cremation is becoming an increasingly popular option. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the percentage of the dead that are cremated was nearly 28 percent in 2002, and is projected to rise to 35 percent in 2010 and 43 percent in 2025.
Often, Lifegem’s orders come through funeral directors. A LifeGem “is a great way to pay tribute to someone’s life,” said Paul Baue, a third-generation director who has four funeral homes and a crematory in the St. Louis area.
Just last month, a 40-something widower who lost his wife to heart disease in May got what he’d ordered through Baue’s funeral service — a 0.35-carat, round yellow diamond made from his late wife’s ashes.
“It was beautiful, really pretty,” Baue said.
The widower declined to be interviewed for this story, but others are less reticent.
Retired factory worker Ruth Lord of Coon Rapids, Minn., is waiting for a diamond crafted from ashes of her 36-year-old son. He died last year and Lord, who still wears some of her son’s clothes around the home to feel he’s near, ordered a quarter-carat diamond for a ring in September. The rest of his ashes were spread in Montana, where he once snowmobiled with friends.
“When you lose someone you really love, you miss them terrible. You want them close to you,” she said.
Lord said the ring will pass on to her granddaughter when she dies.
Other businesses are developing unusual ways to keep cremated remains. A California company, Creative Cremains, offers custom-designed urns designed to resemble or be used as photo frames, musical instruments and even sports equipment.
Georgia-based Eternal Reefs Inc. has catered to people who in life honored the environment, mixing their cremains into concrete and placing them in the water off any of several states, creating new marine habitats for fish and other sea life. Other businesses are offering to send cremated remains into space or place them in fireworks for folks who want to go out with a bang.
The diamonds, however, appealed to Bill Sefton of Scottsdale, Ariz., when he lost a 27-year-old daughter, Valerie, in 2002 to complications from a stem-cell transplant related to her Hodgkin’s disease.
He honored her wishes — no wake, no funeral, no burial. Just cremation, with each specified family and friend to get some of her ashes. He said she told him, “Whatever you do, don’t put me on a mantle or I’ll come back to haunt you.”
Still, Sefton has paid close to $20,000 to convert some of the ashes into seven diamonds — six for family and another for Valerie’s best friend as a wedding present.