For centuries, mourners have chosen just one way to make a statement about someone’s life: stone. Cold and gray, it lasted a long time, yet stood as a dark-matter sentinel that stamped “the end” on a life.
About a decade ago, the staff at Seattle Stained Glass decided it didn’t have to be that way. Owner Jim Nelsen started thinking about the potential of architectural glass when used at a large size, and the amazing things designers could do with it. In 2005, Seattle Glass Monuments was established.
“He was bringing a new way of looking at memorializing people who passed,” said Erik McWilliams, transitional manager for SGM.
Think: What do cemeteries conjure up for a lot of people? Horror movies.
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“But cemeteries are where we put our loved ones. Maybe it should be a brighter, nicer place,” he says. “Glass really adds luminosity … a quality that you don’t get from granite.”
Customer Jenny Good chose a glass monument for her 12-year-old son’s memorial, “because glass monuments are light infused and unique … like my son. In this world, there is only one being exactly like each of us. … I wanted to find just the right thing to honor his beautiful spirit and express my sentiments,” she wrote in a letter to the company. “While his glass memorial is heavy in weight … the look of it is light-filled, artistic and soulful.”
Monuments crafted at the company’s Ballard shop are not simply sheets of window glass. These are heavy-duty monoliths, made of layers of clear glass sheets stacked and baked in a mold at extremely high temperatures in a specially designed kiln that descends from the ceiling. Colored glass shards can be added at the bottom of the mold, or between layers of the glass, for varied effects.
The company’s standard of 3 inches thick for each monument was arrived at after years of experimentation. “The thicker the piece, the more unstable it is,” McWilliams says. It’s not extreme temperatures that threaten glass monuments, but rather fluctuations. If half of a monument is in shadow and the sun is hitting the top half full-strength, that’s tough on the glass. But sunlight streaming through a piece of architectural glass is what makes it stand out. So pieces are cooled as carefully as they have been heated, in a process called annealing, which ensures they won’t crack during a shift in temperature, such as might happen on a Northwest spring day.
The traditional “headstone”-shaped glass monuments and accents invite touch and closer looks, thanks to the reflective, smooth surfaces and the intriguing color. (The invitation is short-lived, though, when McWilliams warns that tiny glass splinters inhabit nearly every surface in the workshop. He’s quick with a dust cloth.) Fusing the glass at about 1,500 degrees not only has amazing effects on colored pieces, but it creates a cascade of tiny bubbles throughout each monument — “a carbonated effect,” McWilliams calls it — delivering light and lightness in a way that stone cannot.
Seattle attorney Scott Easter is a recent customer. The monument he and production manager John Lozano designed, and that Lozano made, is a thick square of ink-black granite accented with pieces of iridescent blue glass, like little ponds. In the center is a glass piece with a verse inscribed. Each of the glass accents looks deep-blue when you look straight down, standing over the monument. If you move to the side and crouch down and peer eye-level with the glass, you’ll see a different effect entirely.
“I was blown away,” said Easter of the piece, which honors his mother. “I was looking for something less traditional, for a nontraditional setting,” he said. He plans to put the monument on family property at Hood Canal.
“She was a unique person. She would have liked it — it fits her personality.”
Lozano trained as a sculptor, learned bronze casting at a Buddhist community and is a bit of a wizard when it comes to turning a pile of cut or broken glass into something vibrant and memorable.
He likes glass, he says, as it combines science and artistry. The melting point of each color of glass is different, and minerals are what give colored glass its appearance and make it behave different ways when it’s heated. Blue glass is blue because of copper, for example, while pinks and reds contain gold. And there is good and bad glass out there, too. Even clear glass is not really clear; Lozano points to large sheets of translucent glass in crates that will be stacked in the kiln to make monuments. Viewed at an angle, some of the glass appears to have green edges; other sheets have an ice-blue cast.
He offers customers more than 30 colors, and those can be solid or blended, depending on the desired effect. He’s discovered that heating shards of red and purple between sheets of clear glass causes the colored pieces to “bloom” in the mold, or expand into what looks like rose petals tumbling while encased in glass. Another piece, a disc several feet across, is shot with ribbonlike tendrils of pink and pale green, wavy like kelp, surrounded by bubbles. They’ve done a disc 60 inches across; they’ve done a tall piece depicting a fisherman in a river; they’ve created pieces that glow at night thanks to a solar cell in a metal sleeve at the foot.
The company makes about 100 pieces a year, and they range in price from $2,000-$10,000. The bulk of its business is done with Japan, which McWilliams and Lozano attribute to a couple of reasons. One is cultural. Monuments are a key part of burial ceremonies, they said, and customers are willing to pay for large, striking pieces that will honor family members year after year. “Glass ages really well,” McWilliams says. “On a pedestal, it (a glass piece) looks like a jewel,” Lozano says.
Also, Japanese temples and cemeteries have fewer restrictions than U.S. cemeteries do on monuments. Change comes slow in the American funerary industry, McWilliams says: “The industry has its own traditions.”
Those traditions are enough of a stone ceiling, so to speak, that Seattle Glass Monuments now offers pieces that cemeteries will be more willing to accept. Lozano will help clients add a glass accent piece — he shows photos of markers incorporating an etched disc, a cross — to a traditional stone monument. “We find it’s aesthetically more pleasing” than a solid stone marker, McWilliams says, and the glass element still adds a sense of movement and color. In partnership with local purveyors, SGM can assemble the entire thing in-house. For Easter’s piece, Lozano ordered and brought in the black granite that offsets the blue glass.
Parents who want a child’s marker that reflects youth and joy are also drawn to monuments that incorporate glass. Hearts and circles, sports and brighter colors are popular themes, McWilliams says, pointing out photos and pieces in the small “showroom” area of the workshop.
And those are the tough ones to do, Lozano acknowledges. One day he’s firing a piece of glass, but later, when he’s adding the name and the date, it becomes real.
He and McWilliams are keenly aware that behind the glass and metal and stone are real people, those being honored and those left behind.
“We’ll get calls occasionally … that you can tell it just happened. We reassure them they don’t have to do it right this second,” Lozano says. “We try to respect the space that they’re in. It’s not the cheapest of products.”
McWilliams adds, “And it’s forever.”
Melissa Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @DuckMel