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Melissa H. Apostolidis
Third-generation funeral director Paul Baue has helped the grieving place their finger on the appropriate tribute for the dearly departed. Not only has he helped a widower place her finger on the right option, but he has literally adorned it with jewels. By offering his clients a service provided by LifeGem, they can receive a loved one’s remains in the form of jewelry. According to LifeGem.com, the company’s official Website, a LifeGem is a “certified, high-quality diamond created from the carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique life.” More specifically, a deceased loved one’s cremated remains, also known as “cremains,” are made into a synthetic diamond. It can then be worn as a ring, bracelet, necklace or any other form of jewelry. This seemingly odd practice offers a less traditional way to memorialize a loved one. LifeGem and other practices, such as having one’s ashes launched into outer space, made into a coral reef and placed in the sea, or mixed with other materials to form a sculpture or pottery, are becoming more and more popular. LifeGem's Australian representative John Gilbertson says diamonds are a unique way to commemorate a loved one and create a family heirloom at the same time. LifeGem even offers an option for pets known as PetGem. As it is possible to create a LifeGem from human cremains, it is also possible to create a PetGem from a deceased pet. Doug Ahlgrim, director of Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral Services’ four locations in the Northwest, says that he is training his staff on how to explain new products like LifeGem to customers. He says, “This is sorely needed
for families who choose cremation. An urn is beautiful in its own right, but you certaintly can’t take it wherever you go” (Ahlgrim “Sparkle”).
Class of: 2007
LifeGem: The Company
LifeGem was the creation of two sets of brothers: Mike and Greg Herro, Russell VandenBiesen and his brother Dean. Mike Herro received a Bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance from Augustana College, an MBA in finance from DePaul University, and has been a CPA since 1992; Greg Herro graduated summa cum laude from Illinois State University in 1990, with degrees in both industrial technology and graphic communications. Russell VandenBiesen received a B.S. degree in management from Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee; Dean VandenBiensen has a degree in geology with a minor in professional writing from Eastern Illinois University. After seeing a program about making diamonds from carbon, Dean VandenBiesen came up with the idea of LifeGem. His brother Russell had said he didn’t want his final resting place to be in a cemetery or in an urn. The VandenBiensens joined forces with the Herro brothers, with whom they are friends, to pool money and begin research. They hired scientists from the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom to determine whether it was possible to extract the carbon of a cremated human and make it into a diamond. Figuring out the scientific process took the founders several years and both animal and human cadavers were used in research and
Major(s): Communications and Political Science Hometown: Marlton, NJ Course: WRT 209 Instructor: Henry Jankiewicz
testing. Their research, money, and effort paid off, and in 2002, the LifeGem company was established. Today, Greg Herro is the Chief Executive Officer of LifeGem, Dean VandenBiesen is the Vice-President of Operations, Rusty VandenBiesen is the Chief Operations Officer, and Mike Herro is the Chief Financial Officer.
ing world-wide attention, even if it is not from its own efforts. LifeGem relies on the blossoming market of cremations to fuel its business. In the United States, 27 percent of deaths were followed by cremation in 2001, according to the Cremation Association. By 2025, it predicts almost half of all the deceased will be cremated. With the numbers of cremations rising, LifeGem is looking for more innovative ways to enhance its business. In the future, LifeGem wants to make other gem colors available to its customers because it currently offers only yellow or gold. LifeGem hopes that as it becomes more well-known, more people will take interest in the process. Perhaps with the rise in the number of cremations and the abandonment of traditional burials, the LifeGem business may continue to expand significantly.
“LifeGem and other practices, such as having one’s ashes launched into outer space, made into a coral reef and placed in the sea, or mixed with other materials to form a sculpture or pottery, are becoming popular.”
LifeGem began to quickly expand, with its business booming in the United States. For example, when LifeGem became available to the public in August 2002, five funeral homes nationwide offered the LifeGem option. By November of that same year, the number grew to 100 funeral homes in 22 states. The Chicago-based company has even attracted attention from foreign countries such as Japan and South Korea, and now has operations in Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Hungary. There were 4,800 customer inquirers in LifeGem’s first year of business and by March of 2004, 470,000 people had visited the LifeGem Website. With little publicity effort, apart from their Website, LifeGem has relied solely on the media and word-ofmouth. LifeGem’s newsletter “LifeLine” boasts that LifeGem’s total marketing budget is zero dollars, and there have been zero advertisements. However, the founders of LifeGem have had over 180 radio interviews, coverage in over 800 newspapers, and publicity on major television broadcasts such as NBC’s Today Show, Jay Leno, Regis & Kellie, and The Today Show in Japan and Australia. In addition, New York University students have made a 15-minute romantic fictional comedy called “Lost and Found” about LifeGem, which premiered at New York University’s First Run Film Festival in April 2004. Clearly, LifeGem is gain13
LifeGem: The Process LifeGem is not the first to have used man-made diamonds; synthetic diamonds have been made since the 1950s, when The General Electric Company found industrial uses for them. However, LifeGem is the first to create man-made diamonds from the carbon of human remains. The actual process of creating a LifeGem has recently changed. In the beginning, when the body was cremated, eight ounces of carbon were set aside to make the actual LifeGem. The carbon was then heated, turned into graphite, placed into a diamond press where it was subjected to heat and pressure, and then polished and shaped into a diamond. “Since it is not possible to extract carbon from ashes, the cremation was interrupted to remove organs, from which the carbon is taken,” explains Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. Due to this problem, the founders of LifeGem wanted to discover a way to extract carbon from the actual cremated remains, instead of interrupting the cremation process. It takes about six months, but those at LifeGem found a way to separate the carbon
from the cremains during the purification phase. During that phase, the carbon from the body will coalesce with the natural carbon used in the LifeGem’s growth process. Currently, the cremation process is not interrupted, which allows for a smoother process. Not all of the body is needed to create a LifeGem. A family can still receive the ashes of a loved one as well as the LifeGem. Because such a small amount of carbon is used to make a LifeGem, an entire human body can produce about 100 diamonds. The complete process of making a LifeGem can take a couple of months but the exact time it takes to make the diamond depends on the size and shape. Prices of the diamonds also depend on the size of diamond, but range from about $2,000 to $14,000. The carat sizes range from .25ct to 1.0ct. Any form of cut of the diamond can be made, but the most attractive and popular are round brilliant, radiant or princess (the latter two cuts are rectangular and square in outline, respectively). The LifeGem company says that each diamond is unique, not only because it comes from different loved ones, but because no two LifeGems are physically identical.
it is sort of off-putting.” Dean VandenBiesen says he is disappointed by the few negative reactions he’s received. He says, “They want to put this weird spin on it.” One funeral director even asked him to leave when VandenBiesen started explaining the LifeGem idea.
“Despite LifeGem’s constant statements about personal choice, the LifeGem process, although legal and scientifically possible, is considered somewhat of an odd idea.”
But those who have chosen LifeGem have been pleased with the results. They believe that LifeGem is a perfect way to commemorate their lost loved one. Greg Herro himself was prepared for those who thought LifeGem was strange, saying, “I know there will be a million jokes, but if it provides comfort and connection for the bereaved, it’s a good idea.” The LifeGem diamond itself has raised some eyebrows. Is having a tangible possession just one more indication of a materialistic society or simply something that keeps one connected to a loved one? In a Washington Post article, writer Libby Copeland equates, “converting a loved one into what amounts to a cliche of American materialism.” Perhaps LifeGem is a reflection of a society that places a great importance on material objects. While LifeGem claims that its purpose is simply to memorialize the deceased, perhaps the company is playing on the materialistic tendencies of a culture so caught up in commodities like jewlery and clothes. In the debate surrounding LifeGem, there seems to be a fine line between reverence for the dead and vanity that drives the need for a cosmetic, jeweled appearance. “Americans seem to be as materially driven in death as we are in life,” Copeland states. Since we can't seem to “commemorate without commoditizing,” perhaps LifeGem may be giving us the best of both worlds. On the other hand, people sometimes have a harder time with the death of a loved one when they do not have anything to hold on to or cherish, says Kyle
Feelings towards LifeGem LifeGem stands firm in its belief that the process is a personal choice. It is a viable alternative for those who choose it as an option. “I think more people are looking for more personal ways to remember somebody," says Dean VandenBiesen, LifeGem's vice president of operations. "Rather than having ongoing mourning for someone's loss, people are wanting to celebrate a life. The LifeGem is just another way to do that, versus having a weeping, somber occasion.” Despite LifeGem’s constant statements about personal choice, the LifeGem process, although legal and scientifically possible, is considered somewhat of an odd idea. Charles Pibel, a professor of chemistry at American University in Washington, says, “To take your departed love one and turn them into a keepsake, I think it’s kind of gruesome...the process of doing
Nash, a grief counselor for physicians at the University of Chicago. “There is a strong human need to have something tangible because memories fade and float away,” she says. The LifeGem stone could be that tangible object. Debora Kellom, the operating director of Wade Funeral Home in St. Louis, says of LifeGem, “It’s really something you can have with you all the time, and it’s not the constant reminder that it’s the actual cremated remains inside of it.” Perhaps LifeGem is the answer for those who feel they need something tangible to hold onto forever or is a new way to cope with a loss. Or, as an article in the Herald Sun of Melbourne, Australia put it, “Ashes to ashes, dust to...jewelry? Yep, another one for American commercial ingenuity.” Despite the obvious sarcasm, the statement may not be completely off the mark. LifeGem may just be feeding the ever-hungry, materialistic American marketplace. And because America’s capitalist marketplace is based on the freedom of choice, LifeGem’s rebuttal should be, and has been, that LifeGem is just another choice.
Works Cited Boccella, Kathy. “Diamonds are Forever, and Now You Could Be, Too.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 3 Nov. 2002. 2 Mar. 2005 <http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/4429357.htm?1c>. Copeland, Libby. “A Dead Ringer for The Dearly Departed; Process Turns Deceased Into Jewels.” The Washington Post 30 Dec. 2002. Hahn, Valerie. “Widower Finds Cremains Gem a Fitting Memorial.” St. Louis Post – Dispatch 26 Nov. 2004: A01. LifeGem. 17 Feb. 2005 <http://www.lifegem.com/secondary/history.asp>. “LifeLine Newsletter.” Jan. 2002. LifeGem. 2 Mar. 2005 <http://www.lifegem.com/secondary/lifeline/LifeLine_web_newsletter_e1.pdf>. Mayes, Andrea. “Putting Death at Your Fingertips.” The Australian 25 Oct. 2004: Local 6. Purgavie, Dermot. “Diamonds are Forever.” Sunday Herald Sun 13 Apr. 2003. Samuels, Adrienne. “Ashes to Assets, Dust to Diamonds.” St. Petersburg Times Florida 11 Feb. 2004. Spragens, John. “Dust to Dust, Ashes to Diamonds.” Nashville Scene 6-12 Jan. 2005. Tatum, Christine. “Anyone Can Sparkle In the Afterlife, for a Price.” Chicago Tribune on the Web. 20 Aug 2002. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/technology/chi-0208200194aug20.story>.