(Bloomberg) — The pandemic upended nearly every business — not least, the death industry.
With the arrival of Covid-19 in America, traditional funerals were suspended to reduce crowds and slow the virus. In response, mourners held services over streaming video or postponed them. That led to more cremations, which as a cheaper alternative to caskets and cemetery plots had been an increasingly common choice before the pandemic.
But more cremations means more ashes and the conundrum of what to do with them.
One entrepreneur, Justin Crowe had been thinking about this since his grandfather passed away in 2014. And when he started asking friends about what they did with ashes, he heard all kinds of horror stories. One talked about the travails of scattering them on a windy day. Another described sweeping up remains strewn with bone bits after they spilled. Others admitted they had for decades stored remains in the basement or garage.
“We don’t accept this type of poor experience in any other part of modern life, so why are we accepting it around what should be one of our most treasured possessions?” Crowe said. “It shocked me that for all of the inspiring stories I heard about people’s lives, there were these really tragic stories about living with cremated remains.”
By 2019, Crowe, 33, founded Parting Stone, which for $695 turns ashes into a collection of smooth stones of varying colors. “Solidified remains let you feel a meaningful connection with your departed. No more uncomfortable ash,” its website reads. The company, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said it has raised $1.9 million. Investors include Lightspeed Venture Partners, which has taken stakes in Honest Co. and Goop.
Parting Stone is part of a growing category in the nearly $16 billion funeral industry. It’s winning converts as religious observance and ties to traditional houses of worship experience a decadeslong decline. Americans seeking new forms of spirituality are looking for alternatives to celebrate the passing of their loved ones.
There’s plenty of demand for dealing with remains. More people are being cremated, with the ratio rising to 56%, compared with about a third 15 years ago, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The cremation rate is forecast to reach 73% in 2030, the association says.
In response, companies are offering services that use ashes to make jewelry, suncatchers and even paperweights. Take Eterneva, which at a starting price of about $3,000 will turn a few tablespoons of ashes (or hair) into a lab-grown diamond. The process takes about seven months in what the company describes as designing a gem “that uniquely tells your loved one’s story.” It has raised almost $10 million, according to PitchBook.
People are seeking new alternatives for their pets, too. Parting Stone, which expects to generate more than $1 million in sales this year, has worked with the remains of cats, dogs, ferrets, hamsters and even fish. Pets now make up about 8% of its sales.
“The pet market is definitely an area that we are moving into rapidly,” said Amy Slater, director of operations at Parting Stone. “If you’re like me, and you have three pets that are your children, you’ll do just about anything for them.”
Parting Stone’s lab reduces the ash to a fine powder and then adds water and binding material to make a claylike substance that’s molded into stone shapes. They’re then baked in a kiln that would be typically used for ceramics.
The funeral industry is largely dependent on the age of the population and disposable income. In the U.S., revenue has dipped in recent years mostly because of the rise in cremations, a cheaper option than a traditional burial that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Despite that, the market is expected to grow modestly as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Revenue will increase about 0.6% a year to reach $16.5 billion in 2026, according to data from researcher IBISWorld.
Elizabeth Lam, whose mother passed away from multiple sclerosis complications in May 2020, chose Parting Stone after a recommendation from her death doula. The 41-year-old couldn’t have a funeral at the time because of Covid restrictions. She still hasn’t had a memorial and says it likely will be next year before the family is ready.
For now, Lam, a teacher in Long Beach, California, is keeping her mother’s remains in a small, wooden display box. Eventually, she plans to leave the white, smooth stones at some of her mom’s favorite travel destinations, including the Great Wall of China and Eiffel Tower. The stones are helping her cope with the passing of her mom, who she couldn’t visit before her death because of Covid restrictions.
“I know it sounds weird, but I feel like I could kind of communicate with her because I couldn’t say goodbye in person,” Lam said of the stones. “I can have some little conversations by myself, but with her at the same time.”