Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
Shining a Light on Artistic Memorials
Sometimes Adrienne Crowther will do a little side glance before she slides a secret packet into the hands of an artist during a meeting. “I think, ‘If people ever knew what we are doing in this coffee shop,’” she says with a laugh.
The contents of the envelope contain traces of what’s left of a vibrant life—a vial of ashes that once was a living, breathing human with hopes and fears and aspirations just like everyone else. Now, their body has been transformed to dust, and Crowther works to help families create artistic objects to honor the lives of those lost and comfort those who are left to grieve.
Crowther, who spent eight and a half years working with the Asheville Arts Council, including two years as director, now works in her North Asheville home. Sunlight streams through the windows as a cat jumps in Crowther’s lap demanding attention. Colorful artwork brings the home to life amid ornate objects often associated with a taboo subject—death. Crowther owns Shine On Brightly, a web-based business that provides handcrafted cremation urns, jewelry, memorial books, and photo collages.
She started the company in 2008 with a vision of promoting local artists in a way that fills a new niche. The next three years became a period of what she calls “stop and go,” as she found herself immersed in her own grief process. A year after launching the business, her husband died. Nine months later, his sister, who was her best friend, passed away. A year later, she grieved losing her mom.
“I know our society has been extremely afraid of death and people don’t want to talk about it,” said Crowther. “Really, in my mind, I guess because I’ve had all these big losses, I think ‘Wow, that’s your grand finale,’ why not do something that’s really meaningful and reflective of the spirit of that person. That’s really my passion.”
These personal experiences gave Crowther a deeper understanding of what customers need, and she chooses artists based on those who also have a caring, compassionate spirit and the willingness to do some hand holding as family members go through the experience of choosing the best urn or other item. Some of the pairings have been so successful that lasting bonds have been formed, including vacation invitations.
When customers go to the website at www.shineonbrightly.com they can choose from urns that are ready for shipment from the artist, or place a custom order. Urns range in price from $110 to $5,000, with pendants costing, on average, around $200.
“I have 30 artists [14 are in the Western North Carolina area], so I can offer different product lines and styles,” said Crowther. “I’m kind of like a matchmaker between artists and clients. I have one clay artist in the River Arts District named Kat McIver and she’ll have long conversations with the client. She’s very intuitive about picking up on things that are important about the person who is being memorialized.”
Julia Burr, a metal artist in Black Mountain, also provides custom designed cremation urns through Shine On Brightly, and she says the interaction with those mourning their loved ones has really enriched her life. One woman came to her who had been carrying around her mother-in-law’s ashes for two years. She had never found an urn she felt worthy until she saw Burr’s work.
“I like to get a feel for a person and what might be symbolic of that person,” said Burr.“She told me that no matter where her mother-in-law went, she always had her knitting with her. I asked if she had any of her knitting needles.”
The woman sent her several sets of needles, and Barr chose some wooden ones that appeared to be the most worn. She created a long, metal cylinder and mounted the needles on top. The urn and needles are positioned horizontally. “It wound up looking like a Japanese vessel of some sort,” Burr said.
Another woman who had been caring for her husband’s ashes for a long time also commissioned Burr to create something special. The man was Todd Skinner, who was very famous in the climbing world and died in a rock climbing accident. Through talking with the wife and kids, Burr realized they were the part of his life that kept him grounded even as he took on the challenge of climbing to greater heights. She sculpted an outdoor urn featuring a steel root system that cradles a globe—his ashes were contained in the globe.
Life at the Death Cafe
While death has long been a topic that many people avoid, Crowther says more baby boomers are starting to open up. There’s more interest in DIY funerals where people pick up the ashes from the funeral home and plan their own service, green burials, and other alternatives. She says event planners are starting to work on funeral plans in the same fashion as weddings. There are Elvis funerals and celebrations with party favors, such as a CD that has a playlist of songs loved by the deceased. “I will hear a song on the radio and I tell my kids, ‘Put that on my playlist for my memorial’,” Crowther says with a laugh. “We did this when my husband died. He was a big blues fan. My daughters burned CDs and we handed them out. It was called Hugh’s Tunes.”
Death Cafes are popping up where people discuss their experiences, fears, and hopes. “The guy who started the Before I Die Project, his daughter died and he’s put a lot of thought and energy into the dying process,” explained Crowther. “He started some death cafes that meet at Dobra Tea and they discuss their ideas and feelings and experiences and fears. It’s a forum to discuss death. Others are planning dinners with a death theme—those are popping up around the country.”
How many people are cremated each year?
Data available through the National Funeral Directors Association reveals that cremation was chosen for 45.4% of deaths in 2013. By 2030, that number is expected to climb to 71%. In contrast, the percentage of burials was 48.7% in 2013 and expected to decline to 23.2% by 2030.
Why is cremation an increasingly popular choice?
The cost comparison is one of the most popular reasons for choosing cremation. The average cost of a burial, including embalming, casket, and vault, is more than $7,000. The price of cremation is, on average, less than half that price. Traditional burial also requires more land resources.
How unique are the urns sold through Shine On Brightly?
While the business helps match artists and customers to create custom designs, they also showcase other urns and pendants on the website that can be replicated. “My whole thing is anti-mass produced,” said Adrienne, “So even though some of the artists [that I work with] can make the exact same urn, there’s always a little tiny tweak that’s different and it was made by somebody’s hands and their intention behind it.”
Adrienne points to a pottery vase hand painted with flowers that can be created using the person’s favorite blooms. She then stops to pick up a woven, brightly colored urn. “This one is fabric where you can take clothes of a loved one and recycle into an urn,” she said.
While Shine On Brightly has reached a point where the business is profitable, Crowther says she is invested in it because it’s her true passion and she enjoys helping others when they are often at their most vulnerable. She listens and allows them to process their feelings and emotions as they talk about their loved one and how to remember them in a way that celebrates their life. “I have to remember that what I’m offering isn’t just place your order and get it shipped out. I’m really talking to people and having a lot of personal interaction. It’s really service—much more than e-commerce,” she said.
Before arriving in Asheville in 1998, Crowther focused on her love of music and dance while raising two daughters in Newport, Rhode Island. “I taught piano and choreographed children’s performances and plays. I’ve always been involved in the arts,” she said. Her husband was a tugboat captain and would fly to work, usually in the Gulf of Mexico, work three weeks, and fly back home. They had numerous reasons for wanting to leave the Northeast and heard recommendations from some of his tugboat buddies to check out North Carolina because of the Outer Banks.
“Once we zeroed in on North Carolina everybody who knew us said, ‘You guys belong in Asheville,’” said Crowther. “We took the kids camping here. We all wrote mission statements, the kids, my husband and I, and when I look back it’s describing Asheville to a “t”—progressive community, beautiful nature, artistic—so that’s pretty cool.”
Asheville has also been a place of healing for Crowther. She’s happily remarried, and her daughters—both grown now—are making a good living working in the arts. One recently embarked on a three-year arts conservation program in London. The other daughter does stylistic work for photo shoots, TV shows, and movies. She lives in Brooklyn.
Crowther developed valuable aesthetic skills working with artists when she was at the Asheville Arts Council, but her new business has forced her to become very good at math to tell a potter or other artist how big to make an urn. She says for a person weighing 200 pounds at death, they will need an urn that can hold 200 cubic inches, if the family intends to store all of the ashes. A cup of ashes is 14.4 cubic inches, so she has to do the math. Some choose to divide ashes into smaller urns, sprinkle some, use some for jewelry, and even share among family members.
It’s a daunting task to compete with the big operations who crank out large quantities of cremation urns and then spend a lot of money on SEO and Google Ad Words. Shine On Brightly has grown organically through repeat customers, word of mouth referrals, and by people stumbling upon the website after searching for something a bit different. While a name that has “cremation urns” in the title can drive SEO, she chose a name with heart.
“I wanted something really uplifting and would imply it could shine on forever. I was visiting my sister in Kentucky and I went for a run,” she said.[quote float=”center”] “I heard this Procol Harum song called “Shine On Brightly.” I’d never heard it before, but apparently it’s really famous. I loved that title. I thought, ‘That’s it! I just named my company.’[/quote] Once I established a presence on the web, I was contacted by their fan club. They said, ‘We love your name.’ I get a lot of traffic from their fan club, which is really funny.”
As far as partnering with funeral homes, Crowther says Groce Funeral Home in Asheville has been very supportive of her business, but most funeral homes are owned by large corporations who insist on using their traditional suppliers. However, she says younger funeral home directors, and particularly women, are searching for more artistic alternatives like the products showcased on her website.
While Shine on Brightly has been successful online, Crowther dreams of having a gallery space in the future. “I have a lot of out-of-towners who call and say ‘We’ll be in Asheville this weekend. Do you have a gallery?’ I wish I did,” said Crowther. “Blue Spiral 1 has been really wonderful to me and allowed me to have two juried shows there. We had a panel of local, well-respected art people who juried the pieces. Each show lasted about six weeks. I had a comment box and a lot of people said, ‘Thank you for bringing this to light and making it not as scary.’”
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