First World Problems: “Ash to Flash”


by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

Before going one step further here, I’d like to ask you to keep in mind the Ship of Theseus theory as you read. The Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’s paradox, raises the question of whether an object that has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.

Now consider the following: According to a recent NPR story, cremated human remains can be heated, compressed, and formed into diamonds. Yes, diamonds. (I’d heard about this several years ago, but it still fascinates me.) Timing seems to vary from company to company, with the process taking anywhere from 3 to 12 months, but that’s much sooner than the millions of years it takes nature to create a diamond. Costs range between $5,000 and $22,000. Nature, not to mention De Beers, exacts its costs in any number of ways.

“Commemorating” a loved one by hardening his or her remains into a shiny, pretty stone requires several steps. First, ashes are heated to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving only carbon behind. Heating this carbon for a few weeks creates graphite. According to one website, the next step is to, “place the graphite in a core metal catalyst and add a diamond seed crystal.” (No, I don’t know what those are or what they do, either.) Then the core goes into a diamond press, where it gets more weeks of high heat and enormous pressure to turn the graphite into a crystal. That crystal then gets cut and polished to the buyer’s specifications.

Rinaldo Willy, the CEO of Swiss company Algordanza, which makes the stones, says it takes about a pound of ashes to make a diamond. The good news is the group has created as many as nine diamonds from one person. (What a relief for those beneficiaries!) Another company, LifeGem, notes that ashes from a child or a premature birth often yield “insufficient source material,” so LifeGem adds more carbon to it to make a stone. (Yes, the company quantifies that, with just that much compassion.)

The same technology can utilize carbon from a strand of hair to create a “hair diamond.” That means mourners who choose burial over cremation can wear the same type of stunning commemorative jewelry. No news on what—if anything—can be made from the Resomation process, which basically liquefies a corpse. Someone somewhere is working on it, I’m positive.

I have a few questions here—well, more than that, but I’ll pose just a couple. First: What? You can make what? And this: Remember the Ship of Theseus? I can’t quite buy the idea that separating, heating, combining, compacting, diluting, and then pressuring carbon from cremation remains (which are mostly pulverized bone, since body organs and skin basically vaporize in the process) will deliver a new version of Great Grandma to my naked finger. It may deliver a pretty stone, but it’s not her.

And what about those committed to the environment? I don’t imagine all that heat and compression are generated by wind power. Enter Bios Urn and The Spíritree. Bios Urn, a biodegradable container made from a coconut shell, compacted peat, and cellulose, also contains a tree seed, and the ashes you place inside feed the plant. Quoting here: “So all it takes is a couple sprinkles of Nana and Pop Pop, and that seed will expand and a healthy sapling will be growing in a matter of weeks.”

The Spíritree is a container with an organic bottom shell and an inert cover. The bottom holds cremated remains; the top protects them from dispersion. When planted with The Spíritree, the plant feeds itself from the calcium-rich remains in the biodegradable shell. The growing tree eventually breaks the cover and becomes a living monument to your loved one.

Fine. Lovely. But can’t you simply choose to mix ashes with soil and accomplish the same thing when planting a tree in remembrance?

I give up. At this point, the Bios Urn and Spíritree feel completely logical. But let’s assume I have several thousand dollars in hand. The next time I grieve the loss of a loved one, I’ll donate to one of his or her favorite charities. I’ll raise a toast and share stories that bring a smile. I’ll keep him or her in my heart, and help comfort those left behind.

And I’ll do it all without the new bling.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations’: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to “like” her Facebook page where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway)  and welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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6 Responses to First World Problems: “Ash to Flash”

  1. Donna in Delaware January 24, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    I’m speechless!! I missed that report on NPR! Granted, I haven’t listened in a couple of weeks. That is one of the most disgusting things that I have ever heard. A persons life was, IS sacred, whether here on Earth or not. The body should go back from whence it came, and with dignity, if possible.

    You may get some over-zealous relative who’ll fall for this because they want to keep their dear one near to them, but can’t you keep them in your heart, in your mind? THIS, is where they belong, not on your finger!! Can you imagine passing down this ring to your daughter on her wedding day, or great-granddaughter and saying, “Dear, your grandmother, she so would have loved to have been here for your special day, but now she IS with you, and wishes you a great life and the best for the future on your this day. So here she is, enjoy, and don’t forget to give it to your daughter or son, on their wedding day.”

    The things we do never ceases to amaze me. We are sinking lower and lower in our humanity. It’s sickening!!

  2. Donna in Delaware January 24, 2014 at 9:46 am #

    Heck, set up a foundation. That’s what I would do if I had plenty of money! What better way to honor a loved one by creating something in their name that would HELP humanity?

  3. Alice Green January 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    After my favorite Grandmother died, I didn’t have anything to remember her by. But after her husband, my favorite Grandfather died, I got her favorite ring, an initial ring with two H’s on it, as her maiden name was Helen Haynie. My sister got our mother’s diamond wedding ring, but my little initial ring of my Grandma’s has never left my hand. It means more than any thing that some company could have made out of her remains. This just sounds like another way to cheat people out of they money. Can’t believe the things greedy people come up with.

  4. Renee January 25, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    Thanks for your comments, Donna and Alice! This whole topic is almost too ridiculous. I’ve left out the way they can make pet diamonds, too.
    Having a keepsake is one thing. Those kinds of personal items will never mean more than the memories I hold of people I’ve loved and lost but they’re nice to have. My mom’s sugar
    bowl and coffee creamer sit on my kitchen table. And every morning they remind me of her and her kitchen. and, by the way, I think they came from Target or Kmart. And they’re exquisite and lovely.

  5. brenda walters February 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    since you can spend this much on a funeral, putting more chemicals in the body to embalm it that then leech into the ground, this is not such a weird thing. my sister in law has a vile of ashes in a necklace around her neck from her husband. That seems weird to me. I would rather wear a diamond then ashes.

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