Funerary urns as modern art
Funerary urns like the ones above are taking a turn for the non-traditional. (Funeria)
Death may be an $11-billion industry in America, but only outside of the U.S. does death become part of the everyday décor, easily acknowledged in the home. In Mexico, reminders come in the form of Day of the Dead altars, papier-mâché skulls and ceramic skeletons in the style of celebrated artist José Guadalupe Posada. In Japan, where funerals are among the world's most expensive, home altars called butsudan are daily reminders of those who have passed. Yagiken, an Osaka-based manufacturer of "universal" nonsectarian butsudan, even offers a low-cost version that is Danish-designed, a form of remembrance for those who insist on modern style in their Japanese home.
Here in Southern California, Lomasney and her Funeria website found an early supporter in Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary of Los Angeles. The final resting place for many Jewish entertainment industry figures including Al Jolson and Aaron Spelling, Hillside is the only local outlet for Funeria urns. It also helped sponsor "Ashes to Art: Scattered," a juried biennial design competition held last year at Lomasney's Art Honors Life gallery.
"Maureen has things I wouldn't mind having on my mantelpiece if I had one," said Mark Friedman, chief executive of Hillside. "They are beautiful and comforting -- and maybe that's the same thing -- comforting because they are beautiful."
With this direction in mind, Hillside approached Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester, suggesting that the school offer a class on urn design. Michael Collins, the assistant chairman of product design at Otis, said he was skeptical at first.
"Students are not interested in death since it's not part of their normal life," he said, adding that they "think they are going to live forever."
But after the students visited Hillside and saw the Funeria urns, there was a "transitional consciousness awakening" in the class about how commercial products can be more meaningful, said department chairman Steve McAdam. "This isn't like saying, 'Let's redesign a bicycle.' "
The class was immediately popular -- for its theme and the real-world experience it promised. Students would have prospective clients already lined up, and their designs potentially could go into production quickly. In early November, Paul Goldstein, the director of sales from Hillside, stopped by for the initial critique of the works.
Aaron Audasiova, a senior, had made "Stacked Urn," composed of three circular saucer-shaped vessels, large tapering to small. The design was evocative of the small piles of rocks commonly seen in rural areas of the Middle East and a reminder of the Jews' nomadic heritage. The three parts of the urn could stand alone or be screwed together into one interlocking piece. The largest saucer, on the bottom, was designed to hold soil from Israel, while the middle piece held ashes that gradually sifted to the bottom. The design could be adjusted into a hanging urn, similar to an incense censer.
"I can see this hanging in the corner of a room very easily," said JoanTakayama-Ogawa, the ceramics instructor overseeing the initial stage of construction. Product design teacher Randall Wilson chimed in: The urn could be fabricated out of spun metal, but casting would allow for a deeper level of detail. The lid of the urn could be detached to hold a candle or incense, leading to questions about how much choice to give the client.
"It's good to have some options but too many is confusing, and people are confused enough at this time," Hillside's Goldstein said. "It's hard to be decisive. The main thing is to catch the eye, have somebody say 'I can see that in my house.' "
And that is the bottom line for Hillside: This art is meant to be seen.
"My feeling is that if people are going to bury them, we are not going to be selling them a unique piece of art," CEO Friedman said. "When people first put ashes in an urn, beautiful or not, they are still very raw. If it is on a mantelpiece eight years later, the rawness has gone away and the significance of the piece has changed."