Juliet Sykes watched teary-eyed as glass workers began to shape a small white heart.
Glowing orange tanks full of melted glass at 2,300 degrees lined the back wall, while reheating stations with steel tools and buckets of cold water dotted the workshop. Sykes stood upstairs in the gallery, taking it all in.
Before the ball of glass was formed into a solid heart with swirls of color and glitter, an artist rolled it across a tablespoon of ash — the ashes of Sykes’ great grandmother Dorothy “Nanny” Walker, who died in 1998.
“It is just so beautiful,” Sykes said as sparks jumped off a cold steel blade as it touched the burning-hot glass. “I love the sparks — that is Nanny saying, ‘I’m here.’ ”
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Whether it is a glass heart or a diamond ring or being placed in a reef off the coast of Florida, people are finding new ways to memorialize the life of their departed loved ones who chose cremation.
And what better way to do that in a city known for its glasswork than with glass hearts, thought Greg and Christina Dale, of Sammamish.
In the 18 months since starting Artful Ashes in 2012, the Dales have gone from 10 memorials a month to more than 200. By contracting with Glass Eye Studio in Ballard, they have the capacity to make 110 a day, said Christina Dale.
From 2002 to 2012, the cremation rate in the United States increased from 28.2 percent to 43.5 percent, according to the most recent date from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). In Washington, the rate of cremation is third highest in the country at 73 percent.
“It is closure for a lot of people while also giving them something that fits perfectly in their hands,” Christina, 49, said. “It is not a paperweight and we designed it not to be on purpose.”
Lisa Suchsland heard about Artful Ashes through a friend and decided to make a heart in honor of her father, who died two years ago.
She and her mother live in Mount Vernon; her sister lives in England. She said she knew they all would get more joy out of a glass keepsake than having ashes on a mantel.
“There really could not be anything more beautiful and personal to me than to have a heart made with his ashes,” said Suchsland, who has her own business painting portraits of lost pets for grieving owners. “It is nice to have a place to go, a cemetery or a mausoleum, but it is also nice to have something to hold.”
People are realizing they have more options to personalize a memorial tribute, said Barbara Kemmis, CANA executive director.
“Ten years ago you had three choices,” Kemmis said. “Your choices were to scatter remains, buy an urn and keep it in your house, or buy an urn and put it in a cemetery. But what gets more personalized than art?”
The idea for Artful Ashes came out of a close call with Greg Dale’s father. He lives in Miami and went to the hospital for surgery in February 2012. Beforehand he researched end-of-life options, just to be prepared.
“He was like … ‘Did you know you could be buried in a reef or made into a ring or shot into outer space?’ ” Christina Dale said. “Luckily his dad pulled through, but the whole thing just got us thinking.”
Just a few months later, Greg visited a Made in Washington store that carries Glass Eye Studio’s glass heart paperweights. He approached the studio owners with his idea of incorporating a small amount of cremated ashes into the colorful hearts and they liked the idea, so the business was formed.
Susan and Ted Smith, who bought Glass Eye Studio in November, said they were happy to continue the partnership and gave the couple an office at the studio. Glass Eye employees make the memorials, and the Dales buy them from the studio at wholesale prices, much like how the Made in Washington stores purchase the paperweights, Greg said. Artful Ashes then sells both the hearts and globes to customers for $185.
“They are almost like funeral directors,” said Ted Smith. “The product is just a piece of what they do for these people … I am always seeing people leave with a smile even during such a sad time.”
While getting off the ground, both Dales still worked — Greg as a contractor and auto salesman and Christina as an assistant buy planner at Nordstrom. Greg
continued until Artful Ashes began bringing in enough business to allow him to stop. He quit his job in August 2013 after starting to partner with local funeral homes.
Christina followed in November after they had partnered with 25 funeral homes around Washington and revenue had increased 428 percent in those four months.
Nick Savage co-founded one of the first glass-memorial businesses in the country in 2002. Since opening Memory Glass in California, Savage said he has watched the cremation industry grow. And now, in the last five years, he said he has seen an explosion of new ideas for memorial items.
“The baby-boomer generation is coming through,” he said. “They want something unique, original … something artistic … they go and see [work by artist Dale] Chihuly and they want someone memorialized in the same way.”
Memory Glass works through more than 40 funeral homes in Washington and offers many styles with prices starting at $150. However, because the company is based in California, the remains have to be shipped to the facility for the memorials to be made.
It had been more than 15 years since Nanny was cremated, but when Juliet Sykes saw one of Artful Ashes hearts on Facebook, she said she had to have one.
“Not being able to be there the night she passed away … this just made up for it 10- fold,” Sykes told the Dales after her white heart memorial was set in the cooling rack. “I just wish granddad had been cremated, too, so they could be together.”
Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @coralgarnick