What to do with ashes after a cremation is probably one of the most difficult decisions to make following a death. Whether your loss is a person or a pet, what to do with ashes can be an emotive subject.
We got the call from the vet telling us our beloved dog had died in the night, the morning after we had taken her there with disturbing symptoms. She died there of old age. We were naturally distraught. So when, in the next breath, the vet nurse suggested that we have her ashes in a box, we agreed straight away. It cost a lot of money; it cost more to have her cremated alone to ensure we got just her ashes. Twelve years on, we still have a box of ashes that we don’t know what to do with. We won’t bury it in our garden as we are likely to move. We also don’t want to scatter the ashes anywhere. So what is the answer?
Well, it seems there is another choice that is gaining in popularity. People who have suffered a loss are turning to specialty jewellers like Natasha Susman for help. Natasha is a skilled artisan based in the UK. She turns ashes and even hair, into treasured memorial jewellery.
The idea is not new but it has been making a comeback here since the 1990s. Mourning jewellery has been worn for hundreds of years. It is sometimes referred to as Memento Mori, a Latin term meaning ‘be mindful of death’.
I recently visited Natasha’s studio workshop to find out more about her intriguing work. The tiny workshop is tucked away at the back of Curiouser & Curiouser, the amazing jewellery shop Natasha runs with her mother, Ingrid Zeige. The shop has been a part of Brighton’s colorful alternative shopping district, The Lanes, since 1992 when Ingrid opened the shop with partner Paterson Riley. (You can find out more about Curiouser & Curiouser here in a post from a few weeks back.)
To me, the shop is a curious mix of boho, goth, classic and chic all rolled into one. I have never been into a jewellery shop like it. So I was not surprised when I discovered that Natasha was designing bespoke memorial jeweller to order. And after talking to her, I was not surprised that clients are finding Natasha based on her growing reputation.
What to do with ashes after a cremation? Keepsake jewellery is a comforting option for some.
Natasha prefers to call her pieces ‘keepsake jewellery’. She never intended to go into the business of creating fine jewellery incorporating the cremated remains of people or animals that have passed on. It was more a case of keepsake jewellery discovering Natasha than the other way round. In 2009, the beloved pet of a good friend passed away. His dog Cory had been with him for 17 years and he was naturally distraught. He begged Natasha to make him a piece of jewellery incorporating his dog’s ashes and hair. And so she did. It was the start of a new business for Natasha, a graduate of the London Guildhall University.
Another commission quickly followed for more pieces of bespoke keepsake jewellery for several members of a grieving family. However, this time, the tragedy that prompted the commission involved the death of a person. Natasha, quite understandably, will not talk about the circumstances of the commission. It was an untimely death that left a family heartbroken and with a deep need to keep their loved one close. She was honored to be trusted with such a sensitive commission and moved by the comfort that the family got from having the jewellery.
When interviewing Natasha about her work, I got a strong sense of her having been pulled into the world of keepsake jewellery slightly reluctantly. But once there, it seems as if the peace and happiness she has seen her jewellery bring to grieving relatives has made her stay. She comes across as deeply philosophical about death and is passionate about the peace keepsake jewellery can bring into someone’s life.
Having previously seen only pictures of some finished pieces, I was intrigued to actually see and hold one of her creations in real life. Watching Natasha work and listening to her talk about her commissions gave me a great insight into the world of keepsake/memorial jewellery. Natasha spoke of the sensitivity needed when taking on the huge responsibility of creating a memorial from the ashes and/or hair of someone’s cherished relative.
It is clear that this work can never ever be taken lightly. Natasha finds working with the death of a child the hardest. She also worries that people may come to her too soon after a death. She said:
“I am not a trained counsellor. It can be really challenging to make sure I deal with these situations carefully. People often need something to focus on when someone has just died. They are looking for comfort – it’s a journey, it’s a way of carrying on to the next level. People are left wondering, how do I get on with my day now that you have left me? It is always the ones left behind that suffer the most in the long-run.”
Maybe it is the very fact that Natasha does not take this work lightly that makes her the ideal person to be dealing with people who are seeking comfort. The concerns she has, in my opinion, make her more than just a jeweller turning out keepsake pieces to order. I could see during our interview, every aspect of every new commission is important to her and she thinks about everything in depth.
The issue of price is another thought provoking area for Natasha. Her main concern is to keep it fair and accessible. She said:
“I want to be someone who is affordable. If someone has a budget, I try to work around that. Some people don’t have anything – some people are millionaires – it isn’t easy and I want to be fair.”
When people come to Natasha, she knows exactly what to do with ashes in a way that creates something beautiful and comforting.
So what exactly happens to the ashes once someone has made up their mind to have a piece of keepsake jewellery made? Natasha explained that she goes through the ash to find pieces of bone that she can mix with resin. In the case of a ring for example, the resin/ash/bone mix is then put into a reservoir either inside or outside the ring. She told me that the ‘Secrets’ ring is the most popular because the groove is on the inside and no one knows it is there. The ring is then hand-finished to an incredibly high standard.
Natasha uses 925 Sterling Silver – a sought after grade due to the exceptionally high silver content. It is 92.5% silver with the remaining 7.5% being the metal alloy that gives the precious metal durability and allows it to be shaped. She also works in 9 – 18ct gold. The wax carving work done prior to reaching the metal stage is carried out with extreme skill and precision. Natasha honed these skills during her time learning from fellow jeweller Chris Hawkins.
Although Natasha is a Guildhall graduate, she believes the guidance she received from Chris took her skills to another level. Her resulting expertise can be seen in the wax models she carves when creating tiny details such as the mint leaf and Frangipani flower seen here.
These waxes will be used in a process that will create delicate silver charms depicting a mint leaf and a Frangipani flower. Natasha created these as part of a keepsake commission for a person whose pet used to go into the garden and roll in the mint leaves. It is pieces like these that show the diversity of the kinds of things clients ask for when discussing designs for their jewellery. And Natasha does her best to accommodate whatever people want.
Keepsake jewellery will not appeal to everyone I am sure. There are probably some people who will find the concept bizarre. However, we all deal with death in different ways and some people find having keepsake jewellery an enormous comfort. If at least some of the cremated remains have been kept and incorporated into a piece of jewellery to wear close, the rest of the ashes can be scattered. Maybe this helps alleviate the feeling of complete loss if all the ashes are buried or scattered. Perhaps it is a huge comfort to know there is always a tiny part of a loved person or pet still close by.
Natasha can be found here at Forget You Not. She has just returned to work after taking extended maternity leave and is in the process of updating her website. However, you can still contact her there. Natasha works worldwide and is willing to consider commissions from most places around the globe.
If you are ever in the difficult position of wondering what to do with ashes after the death of a beloved person or pet, remember this option. After talking to Natasha for this article, I can honestly say you will not find a more compassionate, fair and thoughtful person to trust with such a sensitive task.
What to do with ashes? The last word goes to Natasha…
“When I was approached by a dear friend of mine, to make a keepsake of his recently deceased dog Cory, I was a little hesitant. First of all I had never worked with hair before and, my only reference to this kind of jewellery was the somewhat morbid Victorian rings with braided hair.
I accepted the challenge but decided I would make the piece more about love than grief. I also wanted to reflect the personality of my friend in the piece, so that when he wore it, the piece would be as much a part of him, as was Cory.
Word got around, and I started getting commissions for people as well as pets. Due to this quiet demand for a precious memento, I decide to form a small company, Forget You Not, dedicated to designing and producing exquisite jewellery that honours the unique artifacts within.
A unique way to remember your loved ones. A keep sake that is both affordable and beautiful. All commissions welcome. We create custom made ‘one of a kind’ pieces tailored to suit your individual desires.”