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Dying outside the box

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Families await the launch of a rocket containing the cremated remains of their loved ones. Celestis, an aerospace company, offers four kinds of memorial flights from sub-orbital to deep space. (Photo courtesy of Celestis.com)

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Human cremated remains are mixed with cast concrete to create living memorial reef balls that are designed to replenish damaged reefs. After they are lowered onto the ocean floor they begin to grow coral, becoming small ecosystems. (Photo courtesy of Eternal Reefs)

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Alice Stedronsky's living memorial reef is located two miles off the coast of Sarasota, Fla., in the largest cemetery of its kind in the world. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Everitt Murray)

Alice Stedronsky spent most of her life in Chicago, but she wanted her ashes to be scattered in the ocean near Reddington Shores, Fla., where she’d lived for a time when she was young. But her daughter, Deborah Everitt Murray, had another idea.

After her mother died of emphysema in January of 2005, Murray did an online search for “scattering of ashes” and found an article about a boy whose remains had been turned into a reef. “Immediately,” said Murray, who works as the controller for an excavation company in Chicago, “I knew that this was what I wanted to do for my mom.”

And so, on a sunny day in October 2005, Murray laid her mother to rest (along with the family dog, Holly) in the largest underwater cemetery in the world-—where 160 living memorial reefs, as they’re known, snake along the coast of Sarasota, Fla., in a line two football fields long. It wasn’t Reddington Shores, but it would do. “I’m sure she’s up in heaven saying you did the right thing,” said Murray, who hates to fly but makes a yearly pilgrimage from Chicago to the gravesite anyway. “It’s so nice to go to Florida once a year. I’m already getting excited about it.”

The excitement is apparently contagious. “For some of these families, reef burial is the answer to their prayers,” said Amanda Leesburg, the communications director for Eternal Reefs, the Sarasota-based company that Murray hired. “It’s a great option for people who don’t have the traditional burial plot.”

And it’s an option more Americans now consider than ever before. Cremation has been on the rise since the 1960s, but only in the last decade have innovations transformed the cremation business. Concierge companies like Eternal Reefs are reshaping an arm of the $11 billion funeral-service industry that once belonged to the makers of uninspired urns and mantelpieces—and just in time for a generation whose desire for adventure continues in death, and whose survivors are looking for personalized ways to commemorate, and to keep close by, the departed.

“Whatever is important to you,” said Mark Matthews, the director of the Cremation Association of North America, “people are doing these kinds of things because they fit the life of the person they love.”

For Robert Genest, a retired executive of Frederick’s of Hollywood from San Pedro, Calif., that meant sending his daughter’s ashes to outer space. Allyson Diana Genest was 38 years old in 1999 when a crashing headache sent her to the hospital in Boston, where doctors told her she had terminal melanoma and a few months to live.

Allyson, who worked in finance but “had a flair for space,” told her father she wanted her ashes to orbit the earth like those of Gene Rodenberry, the creator of “Star Trek.” “When your daughter gives you her dying wish,” he said, “you definitely would do anything to carry it out.”

Genest contacted Celestis, the aerospace company in Houston that launched Rodenberry’s remains into space, and signed up his daughter for an orbital flight. But the first launch failed and the rocket landed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. “We kind of joked about it because she always liked to travel,” Genest said.

She went up a second time on a sub-orbital flight with James Doohan, aka “Scotty” from Star Trek, in 2005. “As it turned out, she ended up getting beamed up with Scotty,” Genest said. “There’s nothing she would have liked more.” But her final wish was to orbit the earth, and so Genest will wait for the next orbital flight in two years.

Memory Glass, another newcomer to the ash-memorial industry, is a 5-year-old company based in Santa Barbara that suspends cremated remains in hand-blown glass orbs and pendants. And six hours up the coast is Memorial Glass, in Sonoma, Calif., that can make “anything that can be made with glass,” said Leslie Moody, who founded the company with her husband, Fred Cresswell, in 2007 after a decade of making memorials for friends and relatives.

“We’ve made goblets, whatever people ask,” she said. So far that’s included bowls, heart-shaped keepsakes and even “drinking glasses out of my husband’s mother.”

Today even urns can be as whimsical as a sundial or a bird bath. Last year, Art Honors Life, a gallery in Graton, Calif., tucked among the vineyards of Sonoma’s wine country, became the first in the nation to specialize in artist-crafted cremation vessels. Among the creations are a cigar-humidor urn and a box of pencils made from cremated remains.

“I saw the dramatic rise in cremation and wondered what people were doing with all the ashes,” said Maureen Lomasney, the owner of the gallery. The urns she came across were “very, very ordinary, and, to my way of thinking, really devoid of personality.” Lomasney thought artists could do better. The gallery now sells to funeral homes, distributors and directly to customers. Most of them, she said, are buying for themselves.

Thinking about what do with your body after death “makes you think about how crazy this world is,” said Moody. “Here we are, then someday we’re not, and what do you do then with the leftovers?”

E-mail: mec2154@columbia.edu