Columbus Entrepreneur – Memories Encapsulated by Crystal Remembrance

Melissa Kossler Dutton | For Business First

ent-crystal-remembrance-02-304When a relative asked James Lehr Kennedy if he could incorporate the cremated remains of a loved one into a glass sculpture, the longtime hot-glass artist was intrigued. He went to the studio and started thinking about shapes and designs that could hold the material and honor the deceased.

“I played with some ideas,” said Kennedy, who has studied glass blowing and other techniques for years.

He ultimately designed a clear, egg-shaped piece that had a colorful twist in the center. Kennedy was inspired by the egg shape as a symbol of life. The twist symbolizes the double-helix of a strand of DNA, he said.

Friends who knew he had done the glass sculpture asked him to make similar pieces for their loved ones. Word kept spreading about the art pieces and Kennedy, who was in the process of retiring, received more and more requests to make them. People liked the memorials because it gave them an attractive way to display their loved one’s remains, said Kennedy, who sold his business, Twenty First Century Communications, in 2011.

Kennedy decided to launch a new business. He patented his design, hired artists to create the pieces and began establishing relationships with funeral homes. Now he works with funeral directors around the country.

He believes the product will fill a niche as families increasingly choose cremation over burial and are looking for ways to memorialize their loved ones in a portable form in case they relocate to a new city.

“You’re getting a memorial as unique as the individual but it is a piece of art that can be passed down from generation to generation,” he said.

A need for something new

The number of Americans choosing cremation has increased steadily over the past decade. Forty-two percent of bodies in the United States were cremated in 2011. In 2000, the cremation rate was 27 percent. The Cremation Association of North America predicts that by 2025, the rate of cremation will rise to more than 50 percent.

The glass pieces give families something to do with a loved one’s ashes, Kennedy said. Many people are reluctant to scatter the ashes or display them in an urn, he said. They want something special, he said.

Several factors are contributing to the rise in cremations, said Adam Shaw, funeral director with Shaw-Davis Funeral Homes & Cremation Service in Columbus.

Sometimes, families choose cremation to allow them more time to plan a service. Other times families cannot afford the cost of burial, he said.

“We do find more and more that people do not have adequate life insurance and a financial burden is placed on people who were not expecting to be in that position,” he said.

In some cases, families live in different areas of the country and they do not want to bury their loved one far from home. Some families divide the ashes among their members, he said.

A product such as Crystal Remembrance is good is those situations because the company can make several pieces from one body, Shaw said.

It’s not uncommon for the company to make a piece for the surviving spouse, siblings and children, Kennedy said. The artists only need a tiny amount of cremains for each piece.

A growing number of companies have developed keepsakes for families looking to incorporate their loved ones into a memorial, he said. Families can put cremains into jewelry, paintings, wind chimes and other products.

“We’ve seen so many things come on the market,” he said. “Families are not stuck with a traditional square box.”

‘Our core competency is art’

Unlike some companies that deal directly with consumers, Crystal Remembrance sells its products only through funeral homes. It allows the funeral homes to set the price of pieces.

“We don’t want the funeral homes to feel like we are competition for them,” Kennedy said.

The company recognizes that funeral homes have the training and know-how to deal with grieving families, said Julia McDevitt, the company’s chief operating officer.

“Our core competency is art,” she said.

Funeral homes also know what regulations are in place in the various states for dealing with human remains, she said.

Receiving cremains from funeral homes means “we know everything is done properly,” she said.

The company wants its product to become an option that funeral homes feel confident in offering to their customers, Kennedy said. He hopes to be a resource for funeral homes as they grapple with how to change their business models to accommodate the trend toward cremation, which generates far less revenue than a traditional burial. Direct cremations cost $300 to $500 compared with about $12,000 for an in-ground burial.

Creating the sculptures

When Kennedy first launched Crystal Remembrance, the artists he hired made the pieces at Glass Axis, the Grandview Heights nonprofit glass art studio he helped found. He quickly realized he needed to create his own studio. He found space in Grandview and began renovating it and installing the high-temperature ovens necessary for working with glass. He anticipates investing about $1 million in the studio, which is almost complete.

When the studio is done, it will feature gallery space where he can display glass created by local artists. The company also does any engraving that families request on site.

Before the artists make the pieces, they read the deceased’s obituary to inspire their work, Kennedy said.

Customers often write to say how connected they feel to the pieces or how much they enjoy looking at them.

“It’s a gratifying thing,” he said.