DESIGN FOR THE DEPARTED: An interview with Parting Stone's Justin Crowe

By Caris Avendaño Cruz

For a long time, cremation has been considered as a taboo for the religious, a choice not many would take. In the 1980s, the cremation rate was just below 10%, but over the last few years, the US has seen it slowly taking over traditional burial. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, cremations account for 50.2% of funerals in 2016, and the rate continues to rise, expecting to hit around 79% by 2040.
It is a shift of paradigm as well as practicality – more and more Americans are opting for cremation for sound reason. Part of it is the cost; traditional burial requires an average of $5,000, considering the process of embalming, a casket, and a cemetery plot. On top of that, many Americans do not stay in one place. Cremation is seen as a flexible alternative to those who have moved far from their hometowns.

Cremation is also cheaper. Crematory fees range around $350 on average. A ceramic urn can cost $200. Spaces to hold the urn, such as a reserved spot in the crematorium, will cost $2,000, an option that could be ditched should the relatives decide to take the ashes home, or scatter it in the most remarkable way as a form of letting go.

Many choose to keep the cremated remains as they grieve – a personal process that takes weeks for some, for others, years. It is a normal human response, an emotional transformation to acceptance, and having the cremated remains within reach helps one cope in their day to day living with their loss.

This bereavement concept is explored in the theory of Continuing Bonds, a study that questions the linear process of grief and affirms the healthiness of one’s continued attachment to the deceased. Grief is an ongoing process, and there is no same path to getting over it. For many, continuing bonds is a slow path to adjustment and normalcy; this should never be invalidated.

But ashes are fragile things; the thoughts of breaking the urn or spilling the remains triggers fear. Thus, the cremated remains, instead of bringing that much-needed connection, are tucked away in hidden shelves, and the process of continuing bonds are halted.

This is where Parting Stone pitched its purpose: design that allows one to grieve and celebrate the memories of the departed. Justin Crowe of Parting Stone takes us to the world of solidified remains and how a new concept can change the way on how people carry their beloved’s precious memories after grief.

Parting Stone
From ashes to stones: Parting Stone process’ cremated remains into beautiful, smooth rocks

Parting Stone is where design meets sentiment. How did the idea come about?

Justin: Following the death of my grandfather, friends would tell me their own passionate stories of loss and then explain that they were keeping the remains of the people whom they love in their basement, closet or garage – I thought this was tragic. People who choose to take the remains of their loved ones home want to feel close to them, but the unfortunate form that cremation remains are returned in causes feelings of alienation and anxiety. Ashes are messy, unsightly, inconvenient, and can feel meaningless. People living with ashes don’t know what to do with them so they often end up forgotten in our homes for decades. We don’t accept this type of user experience in any other part of modern life – why are we accepting it for one of our most treasured possessions?

We worked with material scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop the technology to offer a new form of remains. After two years of research, we successfully developed solidified remains – the full amount of cremation remains in a solid and clean form. Now, a family can choose to receive a collection of stone-like remains, instead of a box of ash.

Parting Stone packaging
The kit lets the user send their beloved’s ashes to be turned into solid stones

Could you give us a glimpse of the brand, business-wise? How did Parting Stone begin?

Justin: The Parting Stone lab is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our technology has been in development for 3 years. We raised a seed investment round to bring solidified remains to market which lead to our launch in October 2019.

Many people just see cremation as a convenient form of disposition. Parting Stone sees it as a platform for healing, growth, and engagement. Our mission is to empower people in their grief through a tactile remembering experience.

How does the company transform the ashes into stones? Are there elements that you are not in control of that will affect the end result?

Justin: Parting Stone provides a solidification service and the stone-like remains are the result of our process. This means that the number of stones, shapes, textures, and colors all naturally vary from person to person and animal to animal.

The solidification process looks similar to making ceramics. We turn each set of remains into a clay-like material, form the stones, and solidify them in a kiln. The solidified remains are polished, cleaned, and returned home to the family.

The color of each person and pet’s stones is 100% natural. Many people result in white stones, but some are a hue of blue, green, or a beautiful radical variation.

Parting Stone transformation
Due to Parting Stone’s solidifying process, every stone is unique in its make

We’d love to hear more about the team. Who are the people in the background who helped to create these precious mementos?

Justin: We are a group of creatives and innovators inspired by empathy. Our team operates with the highest level of integrity while indulging in imagination and play. We came from a variety of backgrounds to arrive at Parting Stone. Our production team is lead by Kelse Lighthizer and Patrick Kingshill who come from a background in ceramic production, craft, and art; our Director of Operations, Amy Slater, has a background in business development and startups; Our customer service representative, Emily Fox, has a background in philosophy and communication, and I come from a background in marketing and product development with a focus on the death care industry.

Are there any memorable clients whose stories you can share with us?

Justin: Shortly after launching Parting Stone, I was connected with a local woman in Santa Fe who wanted to know more about our technology. I went to her house and presented solidified remains to her, explaining that ashes can feel messy and uncomfortable and that our mission is to empower people in their grief. She held a sample stone made from a dog tightly against her chest during our whole conversation during which she revealed that she had terminal pancreatic cancer. It was then that I realized she was imagining that stone against her body as herself after death. She chose solidified remains for herself and 2 weeks later she died. After she was cremated, we solidified her remains and delivered them to her memorial service where she had planned for 25 of her friends to each take home one of her stones. This was an incredibly profound experience for our whole team and we feel so grateful to have played a role in her journey.

This is such a beautiful and unique idea, but what were the challenges in putting up this business? In crafting the stones?

Justin: Our biggest challenge is communicating that our solidification technology offers an entirely different form of remains following cremation – this is not a memorial product or keepsake. Solidified remains are the first alternative to cremated remains in history.

Where does Parting Stone go from here?

Justin: Our goal is to lead solidified remains to become the preferred option for receiving remains following cremation. If we can achieve this, I believe we will help empower millions of people in their grief and have a profoundly positive impact on the end-of-life experience.

Parting Stone, the stones

We would like to thank Mr. Justin Crowe for benevolently giving us his time and words. Designing for the departed does not equate to less thought, less human warmth. From bones to ashes, and now to stones, Parting Stone’s metamorphosis changes our perception about death and grieving, constantly reminding us that beautiful memories should remain tangible and unspoiled, even by this separation.

 Please find Parting Stone ordering details here.

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