By JIM SUHR, AP Business Writer
ST. LOUIS - Proving that diamonds indeed are forever, a widower got a gem of a keepsake made from his late wife's ashes this month: a 0.35-carat, round yellow diamond.
The synthetic stone, ordered by a man in his 40s shortly after his wife's death from heart disease in May, is the handiwork of LifeGems.
"It was beautiful, really pretty," funeral director Paul Baue said of the stone ordered by the widower, who requested privacy and declined to be interviewed for this story. "It's a great way to pay tribute to someone's life."
That LifeGem was the first sold in the St. Louis area, according to the suburban Chicago-based company. Three-year-old LifeGems estimates it has crafted nearly 1,000 of the diamonds - what it calls "the most unique memorial product ever invented" - for about 500 families.
"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. The LifeGem is just another way to do that, versus having a weeping, somber occasion."
To LifeGem, the synthetic diamonds offer a choice in a funeral industry that for years, by nature, offered limited choices for consumers - bury a body in a graveyard or have the body cremated, with the ashes stored in an urn or scattered in the wind.
LifeGem needs 8 ounces of human ashes to make a diamond the company prizes for its "closeness and mobility," leaving the rest of the cremains to the family. Depending on size, LifeGem prices vary from about $2,500 for a quarter carat to about $14,000 for a full carat, VandenBiesen said.
"These remains are very precious and special to people, but they don't just have an aesthetic form and look," VandenBiesen said. "People actually really enjoy these, and that's really different from what you'd expect in the funeral profession."
As part of the LifeGems process that takes a few months, carbon extracted from cremains are subjected to the extremes of heat and pressure. The resulting diamond then is cut and faceted like a normal diamond.
Those behind LifeGems believe the market for the diamonds will only blossom. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the percentage of the dead that are cremated - nearly 28 percent in 2002 - is estimated to rise to 35 percent in 2010 and 43 percent in 2025.
Among more than 57,000 deaths in Missouri in 2002, 18.6 percent were cremated, the association said.
Beyond the synthetic diamonds, others in recent years have tried to think outside the box when it comes to options with cremains. Creative Cremains - based in California, long the nation's largest cremation state by volume - offers custom-designed urns, converting mementos - everything from sports equipment to photo frames and musical instruments - into places for loved one's ashes.
"The only limits are imagination and finances," the company's Web site says.
Not to be outdone, 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 will send cremains into space or place them in fireworks for folks who want to go out with a bang.
"I think different generations- the baby boomers and Generation Xers - are more open to making personalization part of their final journey in life," said Baue, vice president of Baue Funeral Homes, with four sites - and a crematory - in St. Charles County.
To him, turning loved ones into shiny ones is among the crown jewels of ways of being remembered.
"As they say, diamonds are forever," he said.