In an upstairs bedroom of Karen Abney's Louisville home, on a wooden dresser beneath baby pictures of her two sons and alongside pictures of her family at the beach, sits a footstool-sized box.
On top of it are a pair of cat-eye children's glasses — the first pair Abney ever wore — a plastic ring with a blue stone — the first thing Abney bought with her own money — and a fortune-cookie slip, "Accept the next proposition that you hear" — from her first date with her husband, Bruce Huninghake.
The lid and all four sides of the box are decorated with different images of Abney's personality — there is "my bad self," "my creative self," "my goofy self," "my true self," "my very self" and, on the inside of the lid, "my dead self."
Yes, the colorful box is Abney's urn. The place where the 46-year-old graphic designer and mother plans to spend eternity.
The box began as cloth panels that Abney had used to illustrate different facets of her personality, attaching such things as alphabet beads, wooden Scrabble words, clothing tags and Girl Scout pins. After attending a memorial service for a friend four years ago, she realized she wanted something more creative than the usual plain casket or urn. So she turned the panels into her final resting place.
"I like the idea of a personalized vessel," she said.
Abney isn't the only one. Adding a personal touch to death is catching on.
At least that's what College of Charleston sociology professor George Dickinson thinks. The South Carolina professor said the trend is driven by baby boomers who don't seem to like to stick with tradition.
"I think methods that a few decades ago were thought very bizarre are now very appealing to people," said Dickinson, who has written both textbooks and anthologies on death and dying.
Methods that include blasting cremated remains into space and putting them in paintings, lockets and birdbaths. Other afterlife options include turning the deceased into manmade diamonds and artificial reefs. The latter has proved popular with environmentalists — the reefs closely mimic natural reef formations — fishermen, members of the Navy, scuba divers and people who live or vacation by the water, said Eternal Reefs spokeswoman Amanda Leesburg.
Headquartered in Atlanta, Eternal Reefs mixes cremains (the ashes remaining after cremation) with environmentally safe concrete to make reef balls, which are then dropped into the ocean off the shores of Florida, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas and Maryland. Since 1998, when the first memorial reefs were cast, almost 300 people have become reefs, said Leesburg.
But thousands more have signed up to undergo the process eventually, she said. Now all they have to do is die.
Becoming a reef ball is only one of the services that Bob Jesch, funeral director of D.O. McComb & Sons Funeral Homes in Fort Wayne, Ind., helps facilitate. He can also create three-dimensional thumbprints of the deceased, called Thumbies, that can be turned into necklaces, charms and key chains.
Or some of the cremains can simply be placed in a locket or, in the case of a recent customer, in a cross that a daughter put in her wedding bouquet so that her father, or at least some of his cremains, could be with her when she walked down the aisle.
And then there is the crowning jewel.
Irene Bodkin wanted to hold onto her mother, Rose Daniels, so she had her cremains made into a diamond.
Bodkin, 55, said that as far as she knows she is the first Indiana resident to have a deceased loved one turned into a diamond by LifeGem, a Chicago-area company that came up with the idea of using carbon from cremains to make diamonds. Bodkin had her mother made into a canary yellow, tear-shaped stone last year.
"I really had a big void, and I thought, wouldn't it be nice to have a stone which when I saw it sparkle it would remind me of the little sparkle she was."
Bodkin had the stone set into a ring, which she wears daily. She likes looking at it so much, and taking part of her mother with her wherever she goes, she has asked her daughter, Elizabeth Bodkin, to do the same with her.
"We were in a jewelry store and she (Elizabeth) asked what I was looking for and I said, `My setting.'"
`Everyone loves my coffin'
But diamonds and sea pearls aren't for everyone. That's why there are birdbaths, wind chimes and sundials — all made with cremains. Or if you want to at least acknowledge tradition, there are ways to turn funerals into "Celebration of Life" services," said Jesch.
More than the words have changed.
"We are finding they (customers) want something other than what grandma and grandpa did," said Jesch.
This may mean bringing a golf cart or Harley-Davidson into the chapel — the company has done both. Or it could mean having a casket that people can write all over with felt-tip pens.
For Louisville pastor and funeral-home manager James Perryman Sr., it has meant reading a eulogy for an electrician who had a bright orange extension cord around his neck and a toolbox on the pulpit.
For Batesville Casket Co., it has meant offering caskets with gardening, music and cooking themes represented by embroidery on the inside and decorations on the outside.
The Indiana-based casket maker, one of the largest in the world, also offers suggestions on how funeral directors can turn funerals into themed events by adding details like saxophones and loudspeakers for music lovers and bearskin rugs and hunting racks for outdoorsmen.
"There is actually something therapeutic about making it look like a themed funeral," said Joe Weigel, public relations director for the company.
Then there's the custom-made casket, something Roy "Bud" Davis of Bert & Bud's Vintage Coffins in Murray, Ky., can supply. He does everything from beer bottle coffins to steamboats.
"I think people just have kind of a need to be set apart from the crowd," Davis said.
Or, they just have some old wood. When her husband, George Q. Thornton, died two years ago, Anna Thornton was left with a pile of white oak lumber. Not knowing what to do with the wood, Thornton, 68, asked Davis to make her a coffin that also could be used as a window seat.
The window seat is in the dining room of her Kirksey, Ky., home.
"It is just lovely," she said. "Everyone loves my coffin."
When she has a large crowd over, Thornton said, she pulls her coffin to the table, allowing two more people to have a seat.
"I just think it's a lovely window seat, and I don't really think of me being dead in it."