Dusty Rose Cremations offers innovative way of being memorialized. 

Ash portrait of Callie Kercher

Ash portrait of Callie Kercher

Dusty Rose Cremations & Memorial Services, a local company run by Mike Hanson, offers "full-service cremations." A full service cremation includes a viewing and casket funeral before the actual cremation and is considerably less expensive than a traditional burial. The market for full-service cremations is crowded, so companies like Dusty Rose often offer small complimentary services to draw customers.

"What the other places are doing now is throwing in catering services as their bonus, with little cheese and cracker trays and all that," says Hanson. His company's innovation has been to offer something less generic — one of Dusty Jonakin's hand-painted portraits with paint made from the deceased's ashes.

Jonakin, Hanson's son-in-law, is a Memphis-based artist whose portraits of famous musicians (painted in the usual way) can be seen on the walls of B.B. King's Blues Club, and who happened into the cremation industry after he painted an ash-based portrait of a friend.

The friend who Jonakin painted passed away young in an automobile accident. Several years before his death, he and Jonakin had come up with the idea of ash portraits together. Says Jonakin, "We were sitting around talking about different things people were doing with cremations. I had recently learned how to make paint to make your own pigments. I said, 'Hey, you could probably make paint out of ashes.'"

The Dusty Rose Cremation & Memorial Services offices are located on the 27th floor of Clark Tower. Their mortuary is located farther east, so their office is quiet and economical: a shelf with examples of urns, pamphlets, and catalogs advertising other, more elaborate urns. (I flipped through a magazine from a competing company advertising a "Small Blooming Bio-Urn" and the blown glass "Eternal Flame" along with "The Classic Book Urn," which will encase your remains in the false shell of a Jane Austin novel.) When I visited, Jonakin's portraits were propped up on a chair, waiting to be shipped to the families that commissioned them.

click to enlarge Donnie Roberts
  • Donnie Roberts

If the portraits seem out there, consider LifeGems.com, a Chicago-based company that uses human ashes to create multi-colored diamonds, available for around $3,000 each. LifeGems, made with a G.E.-engineered super-compression method that speeds up the diamond-making process by thousands of years, are but one option in the ever-expanding field of human ash products. If diamonds aren't your thing, you can have your ashes made into fireworks, bullet casings, tattoo ink, pencils, a 3-D printed face-shaped urn (!), or have them shot into space in a personalized capsule.

Jonakin's ash paintings are simple, based on photographs. They are painted from ash blended with linseed oil, a process that creates a grayish pigment. Jonakin says that, since he has started creating more portraits, he and Hanson have been especially interested to see how the process of the cremation affects the tone of the painting.

"Some bodies," Hanson says, "are cremated in what is called an 'alternative container,' which is really nothing more than a cardboard box. Others are cremated in cremation caskets, which are created in dark wood. [The subject of the most recent portrait] was cremated in a casket, which is why there is this particular color ... brown, sepia tone. Depending on the ashes we get, depending on where they were cremated, it creates a different tone."

Hanson says the portraits have been very well received by the families that commission them. "I think we are on to something," he says. "We are trying to go worldwide."

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